Rome has a problem with wild boar; wolves mingle with surburban Germans; mountain lions frequent LA.
Are cities the new nature reserves? This isn’t as tenuous a question as it sounds. Some animals may be safer among urban populations, which are more sentimental about animals and more squeamish about killing them; they may also be safer because busy urbanites overlook the spectacular nature under their noses: Planet Earth II’s depiction of urban nature included memorable views of leopards quietly stalking past oblivious people in Mumbai. The mountain lions that live happily in the suburbs of Los Angeles are known as “ghost cats”.
We consider spectacular animals and big predators in cities to be interlopers but Guillaume Chapron, a large-carnivore researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, reminds us that, ultimately, it is we who are often the land-grabbers. “It’s not always the predator that comes to the cities, it’s the cities that come to them. We encroach on what was habitat for wildlife, so we are invading the bear’s habitat and building a city where the animals live.”
Urban ecology may be a burgeoning new discipline, but wild animals have always lived in cities. Birds and mammals ranged through the cities of ancient Egypt. These days, post-industrial landscapes are particularly hospitable to wildlife. The wolves that returned to Germany at the turn of the century first made their homes in former military zones still emptied of people, or in open-cast mining sites. Finnish hunters complain that resurgent wolves enjoy space and peace in the border zone with Russia. The demilitarised zone between North and South Korea is similarly rich in wildlife.
“Why are animals entering cities? It’s because they benefit,” says Chapron. “They can get food, or enjoy a higher survival rate.” In some cities in North America, deer enter to be safe from predators such as wolves in the landscape beyond it. Animals, says Chapron, are adept at interpreting urban landscapes; human movements – like rush hour – are very predictable. Animals such as London’s foxes can share the same space as humans but live on a rather different temporal plane.