Experiencing Wilderness through wildlife watching

It is not easy to understand the importance of protecting Wilderness if you do not have any first-hand Wilderness experience. The current way of life mostly prevents us from getting such experiences. However, we can still find and experience wild nature and Wilderness, or at least elements of it, in Europe. Wildlife watching is a popular way to get such a Wilderness experience.

The controversy of experiencing Wilderness

To experience Wilderness in Central Europe, or anywhere else in the world, some things have to be taken into consideration. Having more people out in the Wilderness means more support to the cause of protecting it, but simultaneously causes a bigger threat to the Wilderness itself. Wilderness generally only survived in Europe due to its remoteness and inaccessibility. With more cars and more roads these areas get more accessible. Wilderness advocates fear that this will bring new and serious threats. However, if less and less people have a real Wilderness experience, understand and experience the power of Wilderness, less support can be gained to protect Wilderness in the future.

To help deal with this dilemma, at least partially, one solution is to implement a Wilderness ethic in order to avoid any unnecessary human influences to the Wilderness.

Observing Wildlife

Observing wildlife is one of the most attractive ways to experience Wilderness. Many people see wildlife as a synonym for Wilderness. A result of this is that many people emotionally connect to nature through wildlife watching. However, people are often not aware how harmful such an activity can be for wildlife. Spanish researchers, members of the Cantabarian Brown Bear research group, reviewed the consequences of brown bear viewing tourism in a 2016 paper.

It is usually harmless to watch animals like deer peacefully grazing from a distance. This allows you to connect with wildlife while not disturbing their natural behaviour. Watching carnivores, on the other hand, is much more demanding but because of this likely more attractive as well. The natural way of life of carnivores, such as wolf or lynx, generally makes them unsuitable subjects for observation as they tend to be shy and avoid humans. They are mostly active and searching for food in the dark or in the twilight. So when humans attempt to observe carnivores in the wild, they may cause the animal to flee and thus stopping it from conducting its natural behaviour.

Where the presence of humans alters an animals natural behaviour, problems arise. Particularly, when a disturbance occurs frequently from a stream of humans trying to catch a glimpse of the wild animals. Therefore, it is very important to carefully consider the direct and indirect effects of observing wildlife, especially carnivores. However, as observing wildlife, particularly bears, is seen as an attractive and profitable activity, many tour operators continue to offer it to paying clients.

Bear watching

Unfortunately, many tour operators focus more on the people, and their safety, than on the well-being of the bear. A standard scenario might look like this: a wild bear hides out in the woods. The operator installs some kind of bait, mostly vegetarian products but unfortunately also often carcasses (which is illegal in many countries), on a small meadow near the forest. These places are often accessible by motorised vehicles to make the experience more convenient for visitors. The bait will attract the bear, who will then likely walk over to it where the visitors can observe it.

The negative impacts on the bear’s behaviour from observing bears like this were detected quite early. People quickly realised that it was a dangerous activity for both: the people and the bear. Bears quickly get used to the presence of humans and their food, and can develop dangerous behaviour. The bear will connect humans and their structures with food and will consequently start looking for food near people, meaning on campgrounds, cars, garbage bins or next to touristic infrastructure.

The negative impacts of feeding bears

Brown bears, like golden jackals, are omnivores, therefore, human garbage can be an attractive source of food. Feeding bears in order to be able to observe them habituates the animals for unnatural food sources. This can lead to a loss of respect for humans. To enable bears to live and feed in a natural way and to avoid conflicts with them, it is essential to not feed them. Furthermore, we have to store food or scented objects properly when travelling in bear territory.

It has been proven that when a bear loses fear of humans and starts to search for human food he will likely, very soon, be a dead bear. Such a change in the natural bear behaviour increases the chance of the animal becoming a threat to people and becoming a so-called ‘problem bear’. Unfortunately, such problem bears mostly end up killed.

Wilderness Ethics

Feeding wild animals to observe them is in no way compatible with a Wilderness ethic. When visiting Wilderness we have to keep in mind that we are only visitors in the home of wildlife. Therefore, we should behave in a way as we like to be treated if somebody is visiting our home. We have to respect the natural behaviour of wildlife and have to do our best to not interfere with their way of life. This means: taking all our garbage out, not disturbing or feeding wildlife, storing our belongings, particularly food and scented objects, safely, staying on the trails and follow the rules of the place we visit. In fitting with our European Outdoor Ethics, no disturbance should occur to wildlife. This means that while you observe them you should not disturb them from conducting there natural behaviours.

Sustainable and ethical Wilderness experiences

The travel company Adventoura Slovakia tries to prove that there is also another way to do it. Bear watching is not their main activity. The company bases their portfolio on ethically experiencing and educating about nature and Wilderness. The company informs their visitors that it is not guaranteed to see a bear during the tour. However, they are likely to spot deer, chamois, birds, elk and many other wild animals. This uncertainty is also used to explain the concept of Wilderness – an unpredictable and uncontrolled piece of land. The company does not use baits to attract bears but prefers to educate the visitors about the bear’s habitat and the history of the land. The whole tour is by foot without any motorised vehicles.

This kind of experience is becoming more popular with tourists, as awareness about sustainable and ethical experiences in the wild is raised. It provides a way to experience Wilderness without causing a negative effect on the area and its inhabitants.

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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