What do you think about the beaver?

October 25, 2012

Humans have influenced beaver’s ecological history for centuries. Empires were built on beaver fur trade. Different trends in fashion almost got the species extinct at one time, and unconsciously saved it later when preference moved from fur to silk. More recently, the green revolution consciously safeguarded the species, by promulgating protection laws.

Rewilding Europe in partnership with WWF Romania is developing a broad wetland restoration initiative in the Danube Delta. Parts of it are programmes for species reintroduction – including the beaver – and for sustainable local business development.

In this context, my proposal was to conduct a pre-reintroduction social survey, which had to explore communities’ attitudes towards the proposed reintroduction of the beaver in the Danube Delta, Sfantu Gheorghe village area.

It soon became apparent that it also made sense to extend this study, to look at how the attitudes in communities that have been already seen the beaver reintroduction during 1990s compare to the ones from Sfantu Gheorge village. So, I started from Transylvania, in Covasna County, along the Olt River where the beaver was reintroduced almost 14 years ago.

The question was whether the people from Transylvania who saw or heard about the beavers in the area, were more inclined to change their perception towards the species than the community from the Danube Delta?

I visited more than 20 villages in Covasna County, where I applied a specifically designed questionnaire; I even had the chance to see beaver traces and the animal itself. After that, I spent another month in one of the most remote villages in the Danube Delta, in Sfantu Gheorghe, applying the same questionnaire and organizing a focus group, but also exploring the amazing landscape, not without noticing signs of habitat degradation.

It quickly became noticeable that there was a high level of awareness of beaver species existence, with almost 80% of the respondents from the two areas saying that they had heard about it.

Even though a higher level of damages, caused by wild animals in general, was reported in Covasna, the respondents recognized the beaver’s ecological role and supported the idea of money spent on reintroduction, in comparison with Danube Delta respondents. Surprisingly, exposure to damages caused by wild animals increased the level of tolerance towards them. However, beavers caused none of these damages.

But if you look at this content out of the context the story is not complete. In the Danube Delta, I reasoned that people associate beaver’s presence with financial gains, but the conflicting issues here is that people were reluctant of allocating the funds for such a reintroduction. And this could be a reflection of personal choices when it comes to prioritizing the money for more urgent needs than conservation projects.

But apart from this context, what were exactly the factors that influenced these attitudes?

Even though the statistical models had a high level of uncertainty, three factors proved more relevant in the end. For both areas, the level of education and the level of knowledge about beaver conservation status and legislation were significant – the higher the levels, the more positive the attitudes towards the reintroduction was. Interestingly, applying only for Covasna County the distance from the house to the river bank was an important factor, which meant that the closer the house was to the water bank, the more negative the attitudes were regarding the beaver presence.

In both areas of the country I also saw the legacy of the communist regime and the status quo: deserted areas behind constructed dams, wetlands transformed into agricultural land, signs of corruption and poaching, lack of trust in public institutions and lack of information, all with the underlying lack of financial means.

Still, there is plenty of space for innovation in conservation management adapted to the local specifics, for dialogue and cooperation between communities and other stakeholders which, in the end, can be a source of change for the better, for both communities and environment.

I also had the privilege to work with live information through the collection of data, to access the local knowledge, and honored to be received so well in the communities and to receive valuable advice from them. Hopefully the findings will be of some help to the Rewilding team when adapting their management from the lessons learnt from both regions in Romania.

So, cooperation should be the word that describes best what should ideally happen in the next stages of the Rewilding initiative in the Danube Delta, where the local communities could connect with the local governance and with the conservation teams in all the stages of the project, and where all the involved parties could democratically bring valuable inputs to the development of an idea.

Participating in such a project and combing local knowledge and cultural heritage with scientific and socio-economic expertise could vastly enrich people’s livelihoods as well as the biodiversity of a unique place in the world, the Danube Delta.

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