Europe tackles biodiversity loss

After hundreds of years of industrialization, Europe is addressing the damage to its rich ecosystem

A large iceberg in eastern Greenland, where ice has been melting for more than 20 years.

A large iceberg in eastern Greenland, where ice has been melting for more than 20 years. /Felipe Dana/AP Photo

A large iceberg in eastern Greenland, where ice has been melting for more than 20 years. /Felipe Dana/AP Photo

As the first continent to undergo mass industrialization, Europe was also the first to suffer significant damage to the various habitats and ecosystems that support biodiversity.

But now, many projects across Europe are trying to address the recent damage to its fragile natural worlds.

To help save threatened species from beavers to bees and flora to fauna, groups across the continent have taken up the fight on various battlegrounds – from rivers to national parks.

One complication is that not everyone agrees on what methods are best – although it is clear no single solution can solve the complex challenges.

This leads to difficult questions with localized answers. Rewilding works in many places, but is it always the right choice? Should we capture genetic information in case of extinctions, or would this make us less motivated to save species in peril?

It's far from simple, and far from easy. But people across Europe are trying to find answers.

Save the bees

By Natalie Carney in Bavaria, Germany

Honey bees sit on a honeycomb in Bavaria, Germany.

Honey bees sit on a honeycomb in Bavaria, Germany. /Heribert Proepper/AP Photo

Honey bees sit on a honeycomb in Bavaria, Germany. /Heribert Proepper/AP Photo

Bees are an essential part of the world's biodiversity – and Germany's southern state of Bavaria is spearheading legislation that recognizes this.

Without pollination by bees, a third of our crops – such as fruit trees, berries and vegetables – would be at risk of disappearing, threatening much of the world's natural food supply.

That's why improving the natural habitat of bees is essential, says Martin Lell, a volunteer at Munich's ecological education center, where he attends to the 10 or so beehives there once a week.

"I think that people have noticed that the landscape has gotten poorer in the last few decades," he says, pulling out slates of honeycombs from a beehive with dozens of bees humming round him.

Lell is also a member of three different environmental organizations that initiated a very successful "Save The Bees" campaign in Bavaria.

"The aim was to improve the Bavarian nature conservation law to include more nature protection, especially species protection, so that there is a greater variety of all species."

Scientists have been warning for years that the loss of meadows, climate change and pesticides have all hurt insect populations – so much so that, according to a global 2019 insect study, more than 40 percent of insect species are in decline and a third are endangered, due in large part to a loss of habitat.

Torsten Ellmann is president of Germany's Bee Keepers Association, the largest in Europe – and he argues that "very intensive agriculture" is disrupting our ecosystems.

"We need open land for the development of the habitats of wild bees, so that the diversity of bees – and by that I mean both wild bees and honey bees – serves to ensure that we have a diversity of plants, and thus we have a great diversity in our cultural landscape."

This concern over the deterioration of Bavaria's biodiversity led 1.75 million people, or 18 percent of the eligible population, to sign a petition to protect it.

The petition called for 20 percent of agricultural land in Bavaria to meet organic standards by 2025, and 30 percent by 2030; for 10 percent of green spaces to be turned into wildflower meadows; and for land and streams to be more rigorously protected from pesticides and fertilisers.

It also called for improved environmental education.

With support from 85 percent of Bavaria's Members of Parliament, the state premier Markus Soeder, wrote the petition straight into law "word for word."

Lell says this wasn't just a win for environmental activists, but also for Bavaria's conventional farmers who felt excluded from government environmental policies.

"They were very skeptical at first and were against it, because the referendum supports organic agriculture and the non-organic farmers feared they might lose subsidies," he says. "But in retrospect it turned out that these fears were exaggerated. The government has accommodated these farmers and new subsidies were added."

While it's still too early to judge the improvements in the bee population due to the work being done to improve their surroundings, Lell can at least assert that in Bavaria, "the percentage of organic farming has gone up. In 2018 it was 11 percent and now it is 12.5 percent today."

Permanently safeguarding and developing the diversity of flora and fauna species for the bees helps prevent further loss of biodiversity and is creating a buzz in many other states across Germany.

Without bees, much of the produce in our food supply chain would disappear.

Without bees, much of the produce in our food supply chain would disappear. /CGTN Europe

Without bees, much of the produce in our food supply chain would disappear. /CGTN Europe

Campaigners took to the streets to protect bees.

Campaigners took to the streets to protect bees. /CGTN Europe

Campaigners took to the streets to protect bees. /CGTN Europe

Keeping species on ice

By Toni Waterman in Brussels, Belgium

The BioBank is a deep freezer chest, kept at -80 degrees Celsius, where the Antwerp Zoo keeps animal DNA samples for research.

The BioBank is a deep freezer chest, kept at -80 degrees Celsius, where the Antwerp Zoo keeps animal DNA samples for research. /CGTN

The BioBank is a deep freezer chest, kept at -80 degrees Celsius, where the Antwerp Zoo keeps animal DNA samples for research. /CGTN

A lioness and cubs at the Antwerp Zoo in Belgium. The zoo is trying to deepen the gene pool through genetic analysis.

A lioness and cubs at the Antwerp Zoo in Belgium. The zoo is trying to deepen the gene pool through genetic analysis. /CGTN

A lioness and cubs at the Antwerp Zoo in Belgium. The zoo is trying to deepen the gene pool through genetic analysis. /CGTN

A silverback gorilla and family eating apples at the Antwerp Zoo.

A silverback gorilla and family eating apples at the Antwerp Zoo. /CGTN

A silverback gorilla and family eating apples at the Antwerp Zoo. /CGTN

The Antwerp Zoo is small. Located smack-dab in the middle of downtown, there's just not a lot of room for expansion. Yet in the past year, it has managed to collect thousands more animals – or at least a tiny part of them.  

Those specimens aren't on display for everyone to see, but are kept in a deep freeze in the zoo's BioBank in an underground lab – below the lion exhibit, to be exact.  

It is one of four BioBanks spread across Europe – in Berlin, Copenhagen and Edinburgh – collecting animal DNA samples for research and breeding programs.  

The Antwerp Zoo BioBank alone has already collected 4,000 samples from living and deceased animals – everything from blood to gills to feathers.   

The initiative is spearheaded by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria and is a massive effort to better understand and boost genetic diversity within captured animal populations.  

Philppe Helsen, who heads up the Antwerp Zoo's BioBank, says breeding programs have traditionally assumed two things: that mates belonged to the same species and that all of them were unrelated, or equally related.  

"Doing some genetic analysis already on some of the breeding programs, we know that we have brother-sister relationships in the founders of those populations, and that has a huge impact on how you preserve diversity," he says.  

Helsen says some breeding programs may only be capturing 10 or 20 percent of the total genetic diversity that once existed within breeding programs, putting those animals at an evolutionary disadvantage.   

"The more diverse you are, the better you will cope with extremes within the environment," he explains. "You have the tools to react to a new trigger that you are facing and thinking about how things evolve right now – climate change, for example. This is why you need genetic diversity."  

Understanding the lineage

By collecting samples from zoos across Europe and analyzing the DNA, the BioBank project hopes to better understand an animal's lineage, ensuring close relatives aren't mating and that couples are in fact from the same species. 

This could help minimize inherited genetic mutations while also enhancing disease resistance and could eventually deepen the gene pool.   

The ultimate goal, says Helsen, is to preserve genetically healthy "back-up" populations so if those animals still in the wild are on the brink of extinction, captive programs have a viable and genetically diverse population to help rebuild the species.  

"You might be able to reconstruct what used to be out there. But it's not an easy thing to do, and I think there are better ways to conserve biodiversity," he said.  

The beavers are back

By Elizabeth Mearns & Simon Morris in Romania

Pointing into the forest, Deli Saavedra signals to his colleague Serban Ion, who shares his compact fiberglass rowing boat. Expertly, the second man thrusts both oars straight and hard into the water to bring their craft to a halt. They are deep in the flooded forest and the trees that tower above them are blocking out the morning sun.

"This is the sort of thing we have been looking for," he says, cocking his head towards a large pile of wood on the bank. You could be forgiven for thinking it was an abandoned bonfire, but human activity in this wilderness ceased an hour or so downstream.

Both men work for Rewilding Europe and they are searching for evidence of beavers in the region. Saavedra is the area coordinator for Romania, while Ion leads the team in the Danube Delta.

They are excited by rumors that the Eurasian beaver, which became extinct in this area more than 200 years ago, has returned to the delta. More exciting, still, is the fact the beavers have not been reintroduced by humans but moved here of their own accord, thanks to the efforts of their organization.

Rewilding is a term that was coined by conservation scientists in the U.S. in the 1990s, who argued large predators are instrumental to ecosystems and that these animals require connectivity with many other species and vast areas of protected wilderness.

The concept has become accepted across the world, with scientists and activists aligning their thinking that all species have intrinsic value and the planet should not be viewed as purely a human resource. Moreover, governments and organizations across the world are putting the theory into practice.

Rewilding Europe has chosen the delta as a showcase for its work. Despite the delta's location between three countries with very different governments and various communities, Saavedra believes they can create a complete ecosystem that can be resistant to climate change.

Saavedra also passionately backs the long-term nature of rewilding to drive recovery for the people who live in this very remote part of Europe. "These areas are already empty... they can be used for a new economy and if we don't do rewilding, there are other people thinking about other uses for this empty land – mining, fracking, whatever – so we have to avoid this."

Rewilding is not without its problems, however, some projects such as the return of Jackals have alarmed locals. But Saavedra argues: "In a normal ecosystem, you have a species above the jackal and that species is the wolf. Nobody likes the wolf, but the wolf will be controlling the jackals."

Nature's engineers

Beavers were abundant across Europe until the 19th century, when they were hunted to extinction in Romania and near-extinction across the rest of the continent.

Their absence was a blow to the ecosystem as other animals thrive as a result of their damming. In 1998, beavers were successfully reintroduced along the Olt River in Romania and from there, they slowly made their way to other rivers in the country's Covasna county.

In 2014, the animals were confirmed to have reached the Danube Delta. The number of beavers is believed to be rising as conservationists dismantle dams and flood forests in the area. This creates the perfect conditions for more beavers to arrive and settle in the delta. There are no official figures for beaver numbers since 2014, so the Rewilding Europe team must uncover evidence for themselves.

Saavedra and Ion set out on a journey to a remote part of the delta to hunt for clues about the beavers' return and to find out how successful they have been on their return to the area.

The Beavers are Back is an extract from CGTN Europe's 2019 special The Danube: Life of a river

Water buffalo can carry and distribute more than 200 plant species in their fur and in their digestive system.

Water buffalo can carry and distribute more than 200 plant species in their fur and in their digestive system. /Rewilding Europe

Water buffalo can carry and distribute more than 200 plant species in their fur and in their digestive system. /Rewilding Europe

Through their grazing, Tauros in the delta are creating a biodiversity-rich mosaic landscape that benefits other species.

Through their grazing, Tauros in the delta are creating a biodiversity-rich mosaic landscape that benefits other species. /Rewilding Europe

Through their grazing, Tauros in the delta are creating a biodiversity-rich mosaic landscape that benefits other species. /Rewilding Europe

The beaver is nicknamed the “ecosystem engineer” because of its ingenuity in building a habitat that extends and protects wetlands.

The beaver is nicknamed the “ecosystem engineer” because of its ingenuity in building a habitat that extends and protects wetlands. /CFP

The beaver is nicknamed the “ecosystem engineer” because of its ingenuity in building a habitat that extends and protects wetlands. /CFP

The limitations of national parks

By Ruan Jiawen in Mecklenburg Western Pomerania

Germany's 16 national parks cover 0.6 percent of its landmass, providing a haven for thousands of species of flora and fauna.

Moritz National Park, in the country's northeast is the largest, stretching over 320 square kilometers. That area includes UNESCO World Natural Heritage beech woods, protected since the 18th century, bog forests and more than 100 large lakes.

However, the man responsible for protecting the area is keen to point out that no matter how big, parks are not the answer to the world's biodiversity crisis.

"Like climate change, protecting biodiversity is such a major international challenge," Ulrich Messner told CMG. "No individual countries or national parks can resolve it. The world must work together."

Messner is looking to global leaders, meeting virtually in the Chinese city of Kunming to introduce concrete measures to reverse years of damage to nature, caused by humans. "We are all to blame," he observes.

Moritz is home to a fascinating array of animals, from majestic eagles to humble beetles. They are able to flourish because of a policy of non-interference. The environment is not managed – trees are left to fall and rot, creating a haven for insects and fungus. The principle of the park is to allow visitors to come close to nature, without having any impact on it.

To rewild or not to rewild?

By John Bevir in Devon, UK

Devon's heath landscape has been shaped over hundreds of years.

Devon's heath landscape has been shaped over hundreds of years. /CGTN Europe

Devon's heath landscape has been shaped over hundreds of years. /CGTN Europe

British conservationists in Devon are taking a bold approach when it comes to protecting the natural world from climate change.

Faced with increased flooding, they're going to knock down embankments built hundreds of years ago by the River Otter, which flows south into the English Channel. The ultimate aim of the scheme is to allow farmland to return to natural wetland habitats.

The Lower Otter Restoration Project is being led by Sam Bridgewater, the head of wildlife and conservation for the Clinton Devon Estates.

"If there's infinite amounts of public money, I guess you can keep on shoring it up and keep on making the embankment bigger and bigger," he tells CGTN. "But is that really what we should be doing? Should we be working against nature, or working with it? I think what we want to do is work with nature. Accept the inevitable. Accept climate change. Accept that we need to adapt, and it's how we can do that and get multiple benefits."

But there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to protecting the natural world. Just a few miles upstream are the East Devon Pebbled Heaths. Heathland was once a common sight across northern Europe, but in the UK alone, the amount of heathland has fallen by around 80 percent in the past 200 years.

Picturesque as it is, it's not natural.

Different decisions

Thousands of years ago, woods were cleared for settlements… and hundreds of years ago, you wouldn't have seen dog walkers, but commoners using the land and resources for fuel, food and grazing livestock.

In a modern age of replanting and re-wilding, there's been a conscious decision here in southwest England to pursue a different path.

"Naturally, this site would have more trees," says Kim Strawbridge, site manager for the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust. "But we as society have made that choice that actually lowland heath is so rare and so special and supports such a unique suite of species that it's worth making that extra effort to protect it and maintain it as it is. So for us here, it's more about putting the right thing in the right place to maximise the benefit for society across the whole landscape, rather than picking one specific issue such as tree-planting and thinking it's the right solution absolutely everywhere."

The Pebblebed Heaths supports around 3,000 species of all shapes and sizes – and it's just been named a National Nature Reserve to protect it for future generations.

As efforts to slow climate change continue, scientists in this corner of England are doing all they can to help protect the natural world from the changes already happening.

Preserving the landscape is not necessarily about rewilding native trees.

Preserving the landscape is not necessarily about rewilding native trees. /CGTN Europe

Preserving the landscape is not necessarily about rewilding native trees. /CGTN Europe

The landscape has adapted to hundreds of years of human inhabitation introducing complex biodiverse systems.

The landscape has adapted to hundreds of years of human inhabitation introducing complex biodiverse systems. /CGTN Europe

The landscape has adapted to hundreds of years of human inhabitation introducing complex biodiverse systems. /CGTN Europe

The hunters who save animals

By Toni Waterman in Flanders, Belgium

Hunter Eric Cloet walks through a field behind his home where he has sown a special mix of herbs, flowers and grains to help replenish the decimated partridge population.

Hunter Eric Cloet walks through a field behind his home where he has sown a special mix of herbs, flowers and grains to help replenish the decimated partridge population. /CGTN

Hunter Eric Cloet walks through a field behind his home where he has sown a special mix of herbs, flowers and grains to help replenish the decimated partridge population. /CGTN

Biologist Yasmine Verzelen (L) and Sander Devisscher (R) from the Research Institute for Nature and Forests look for partridges as part of a project to boost their population.

Biologist Yasmine Verzelen (L) and Sander Devisscher (R) from the Research Institute for Nature and Forests look for partridges as part of a project to boost their population. /CGTN

Biologist Yasmine Verzelen (L) and Sander Devisscher (R) from the Research Institute for Nature and Forests look for partridges as part of a project to boost their population. /CGTN

There's a long, high squeak as Eric Cloet unlocks the door to his gun cabinet. Inside sits a shotgun. He grabs it, puts on a dark green vest and camouflage hat, and heads to the door.

When the season is right, the Flanders native enjoys nothing more than going for a good hunt with his dogs Kyra and Bertje. He mostly searches for small game – pheasants, ducks, hares – but in recent years he has become increasingly interested in not only hunting animals but also in protecting them. 

"I like to see birds. I like to see other wild animals when I am sitting near my house," says Cloet, as he walks through a sprawling field in his backyard.   

In that field, he has been sowing a mix rich in herbs, flowers, and grain – essential for the survival of low-lying birds, as it provides food in the winter and nesting corners in the spring. 

The face of animal conservation is not often that of a hunter. But Cloet is one of about 50 hunters stretched across six European countries who have banded together to help repopulate one specific species: the partridge. 

Once ubiquitous across Europe, the gray partridge population has plummeted 94 percent since 1980 as intensified and large-scale farming wiped out habitats and hiding spots. A spike in the use of pesticides also reduced insect food for partridge chicks.  

"The landscape has really degraded," says Yasmine Verzelen, a biologist at the Research Institute for Nature and Forests. "And that has definitely led to the biodiversity crisis that we are in right now." 

Verzelen says the partridge is a sort of bellwether for the entire ecosystem: where it thrives, there tends to be high biodiversity. 

"The partridge is a meal for a lot of different predators," she explains. "Their eggs are meals for different predators. So this has definitely had an impact on other species as well." 

Verzelen and her team have partnered with hunters like Cloet and farmers in a bid to boost the partridge numbers by providing food and shelter opportunities.  

Twice a year, Verzelen and a team of researchers canvas the area, carefully searching for the often well-concealed bird. They use a speaker which plays back a partridge chirp, to get the birds' attention. When it hears the noise, the partridge will peak its head up.  

Verzelen said that in the five years since the project launched there have been noticeable differences, not only in partridge numbers but also in other biodiversity indicators.  

"We've seen increases in insect biomass, in the breeding bird territories, in overwintering birds," she says. "There's one of our areas here in Belgium that has seen at least triple the number of partridges as there were before."

Cloet has noticed changes, too. The herbs and grains that he has been sowing not only attract more birds but fatten up other animals as well, making hunting more sustainable.   

"The hares here now have a lot more fat on their body, so they can more easily survive in a hard winter," he says.