An online survey conducted in Germany and Poland shows that large parts of the participants support the return of large carnivores and herbivores, such as wolves and elk, to the Oder Delta region, according to a study published in People and Nature. Presented with different rewilding scenarios, the majority of survey participants showed a preference for land management that leads to the comeback of nature to the most natural state possible. Locals, on the other hand, showed some reservations.
In recent years, the concept of rewilding has captured the attention of conservationists, who see it as a promising and cost-effective tool to combat biodiversity loss and restore ecosystems. The Oder Delta area, which spans the northern border between Germany and Poland, is particularly suitable for the natural comeback of wildlife. It comprises diverse natural habitats, like riparian forests, standing- and flowing waters, open and semi-open inland dunes, and heathlands, and is surrounded by diverse landscapes of forests, rivers, and wetlands.
To measure public sentiment towards rewilding in the Oder Delta, a team of researchers led by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) carried out an online, choice experiment survey. Given the geographic position of the area across both Germany and Poland, the survey offered a unique opportunity to investigate differences in attitudes between the two countries. Approximately 1,000 respondents from each country were presented with different scenarios describing the ecological status of the Oder Delta in 2050 as a result of various management interventions. The scenarios included, for example, the conditions of rivers and forests and the presence of large animals such as elk, lynx, or wolves. Beyond the "status quo" option, an intensification of land use in the region, respondents were presented with two alternative scenarios with varying biodiversity benefits.
Importantly, only the status quo option came at no additional cost. The two alternative options were associated with tax payments to fund the necessary interventions, meaning that respondents were faced with a trade-off: an increase in nature benefits went hand in hand with an increase in taxes. "This allowed us to calculate the respondents' willingness to pay for different management interventions in the Oder Delta region," says lead author Rowan Dunn-Capper from iDiv and MLU. "This helps us understand broader preferences for rewilding."
Strong preferences for rewilding
The study revealed a significant appetite for rewilding initiatives at the national scale, particularly for the presence of large animals, such as wolves, lynx, elk, and bison in the Oder Delta. Willingness to pay for scenarios in which large animal species were present was almost three times larger than for restoring the most natural landscape elements. "To find such preference was surprising given the often-negative portrayal of large animal species, notably the wolf, in the popular media," says Dunn-Capper. "It suggests the public may be more welcoming of wildlife return than first thought." This preference was also true for forests and agriculture: respondents in Germany as well as in Poland had a strong preference for the most natural rewilding levels with minimum human intervention on the ecosystem. Additionally, the fact that results for Germany and Poland were broadly comparable indicates that preferences for rewilding hold across political and cultural contexts.
Locals are less enthusiastic about rewilding
Survey participants living near the Oder Delta (within 100km)did not show the same appetite for rewilding initiatives. Local respondents showed a preference for large herbivores, such as elk and bison, but were less enthusiastic about the presence of large carnivores, like wolves. Similarly, local respondents showed contrasting preferences for certain rewilding interventions in rivers and agricultural landscapes compared to the national sample. For example, a significant share of local respondents were not willing to pay for scenarios in which flooding regimes were fully restored in the Oder Delta. "This underscores the intricacies of conservation planning and highlights the importance of local input to foster biodiversity democracy, this is the management of natural resources as a democratic process," says senior author Professor Henrique Pereira, head of Biodiversity Conservation at MLU and iDiv. "Generally, our findings support rewilding as a novel ecosystem restoration approach that has public acceptance to become mainstream across Europe."
Materials provided by German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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