Superpredator: Can humans and wolves coexist?

The return of the wolf is a rewilding triumph, but a challenge to reconcile with human activities.
The return of the wolf is a rewilding triumph, but a challenge to reconcile with human activities. ? P. Massit

Wolves were once the stuff of myths. But decades of conservation efforts have gradually brought them back to life, with the predator reclaiming lost territory across Europe. Their return, though, has sparked tensions within rural communities and questions over how man and wolf can peacefully coexist. The Down to Earth team takes a closer look.


Wolves have made an unexpected comeback in Europe. Nearly 17,000 individuals are now roaming across the continent, a 2,000 percent increase in 50 years. France is home to nearly 140 packs. Contrary to popular belief, the animal was not introduced by conservationists. They crossed back into the French Alps from Italy in the 1990s and have since spread to neighbouring regions. There have even been sightings in Normandy and Brittany.??

'Neither angels nor devils'

The Vercors Regional Park, located in the foothills of the Alps, is one of many places known for wolf-spotting. Roger Mathieu, a member of nature conservation non-profit France Nature Environnement, coordinates a group of more than 20 naturalists who monitor wolf packs in the area.?

"Wolves are neither angels nor devils," he says. "If we let them be, there's no doubt that in 50 or even 30 years' time, wolves will recolonise the land they used to occupy a century ago."

Roger is quick to point out that locals have nothing to fear. Cases of serious wolf attacks involving people are extremely rare.

Many like Roger have welcomed wolves with open arms, as a sign of a healthy environment. Others are less enthusiastic, including sheep breeders, who have suffered significant losses. In 2021, at least 12,000 livestock animals were killed in wolf attacks, almost four times as many as in 2008.

The plight of farmers

Elisabeth Moreau, a sheep and goat farmer in the Vercors, has seen it first-hand.

"We don't take care of our animals for them to be killed by wolves," she says.?

Elisabeth has since had to adapt. The protection dogs she adopted are now her work colleagues.?

"If it wasn't for the dogs, we wouldn't have a job. In just one week they're capable of killing all 2,000 livestock animals," she claims. "And I'm not even exaggerating."

Unlike many others in her situation, Elisabeth isn't completely against the wolves' presence, as "they have a right to be here, just like us". It's the government's handling of the situation that has been a source of discontent. In the event of a wolf attack, breeders receive compensation ranging from €25 to €150.?

"They make it sound like it's all under control, but it's not just about the money," she says.?

A difficult equilibrium

The French Biodiversity Agency, a state body, has been tasked with ensuring the peaceful coexistence of man and wolf. But it's a tricky balance to strike. Nicolas Jean, an engineer in charge of France's "wolf strategy", explains that the French state has put in place a series of measures, providing assistance to breeders with guard dogs and netting around herds. If wolf attacks persist, the French government does allow wolf culls, under very strict conditions.??

"Learning how to live alongside wild animals requires balance, dialogue. Some measures might be more unpopular than others, but there needs to be a spirit of coexistence between nature and human activities," he concludes.

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