Coronavirus, conservation and the wild places we should be travelling to

Following our report on bear conservation in Italy, we check back in with Paul Lister, founder of The European Nature Trust, to gauge the impact of coronavirus on European landscapes — and what lies ahead for travel and conservation.

Published 26 Jun 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
Cows in the Scottish Highlands.

In the heart of the Scottish Highlands, Alladale Wilderness Reserve, purchased by Paul Lister in 2003, was CEO Paul Lister's first project — and remains a main focus. Some 900,000 trees have been replanted; the squirel has been reintroduced to the area; and plans are afoot to breed wildcats and, in time, bring back wolves. Paul says, "People think of northern Scotland as wild, but it’s a shadow of its former self — I’m trying to bring back that wilderness."

Photograph by Alladale Wilderness Reserve

Spring in Italy’s Abruzzo National Park sees bear cubs take their first tentative steps into the world, while mothers dig for roots, and 500lb males patrol their territory, scent marking as they go. No more than 60 Marsican brown bears remain in Italy. Last year, National Geographic Traveller writer Simon Usbourne travelled to Abruzzo to learn about the conservation work that’s helping to bring this beautiful animal back from the edge of extinction. Paul Lister established The European Nature Trust (TENT) in 2000 to help rewild landscapes depleted by humans; protecting the bears is a crucial part of these efforts. Abruzzo National Park is the focus of one of the many conservation and wildlife projects he supports, as is Alladale Wilderness Reserve, in the Scottish Highlands, which Paul purchased for ecotourism and rewilding purposes in 2003. But how have these areas fared during the global pandemic? We catch up with Paul.

Paul Lister established The European Nature Trust (TENT) in 2000 to help rewild landscapes depleted by humans.

Photograph by Paul Lister

Lockdown in Italy has been so tight that wildlife has really been allowed to flourish. Luckily, in Europe we don’t suffer the same issues surrounding poaching as they do in Africa, and brown bears are so fiercely protected you’d end up in prison if you poached one for its fur. I’m sure the bears are loving the lack of human interference; even ecologists have only just been allowed back out into the field; they’re so happy to be back out there as it’s a great time to do wildlife counts. Bears are just coming out with new cubs, so by mid-summer we’ll be able to see how successful the breeding season was.

I’ve been isolating in Scotland with my highland cattle and wild cats. We have a breeding centre up here, so hopefully any minute now we’ll have little kittens, and within two years we’ll be releasing them in the Cairngorms. Alladale estate in the Highlands was TENT’s first project and it’s still my main focus. We’ve planted 900,000 trees and brought back the squirrel, which the locals love, but my main vision is wolves. We’re the only country in Europe without an apex predator, so if humans were suddenly wiped out the country would be overrun with sad, skinny deer. People think of northern Scotland as wild, but it’s a shadow of its former self — I’m trying to bring back that wilderness.

Coronavirus is going to change everything. Economically it will, of course, with the wheels of industry having been ground to a halt. But in travel, too, I think after lockdown people will want to go somewhere with space. People often say, ‘Aren’t you afraid of overwhelming these wild places?’ But there’s simply not the infrastructure for overtourism to be a threat in places like these. I think people will go away for longer, too. The days of flying to Vienna for the weekend for £19 are over, or at least I really hope they are. Instead, we should take two weeks and really immerse ourselves in a country.

Marsican Brown Bear, a critically endangered species in Abruzzo National Park, Italy.

Photograph by Shutterstock

Romania has 50% of all of the old forest in Europe — it’s cloaked in trees right up to its peaks. TENT does a lot of conservation work there so I know it well, and it’s places like this, that we should be travelling to and supporting. Alternatively, why not visit Rome and couple it with a drive north to Abruzzo, or dodge busy Spanish beach resorts and head north to the Cantabrian Mountains. I could spend weeks zigzagging across the top of northern Spain. It’s almost subtropical and constantly green — it’s absolutely stunning.

I hope sustainable travel will grow. TENT started doing trips to its projects in Spain, Italy, Scotland and Romania in 2019, and we’ve partnered with some amazing operators on the ground like Steppes, where you automatically donate £500 to the charity you’re going to be spending time with. That’s aimed at a higher market, but another great company is Nature Trek. Its wildlife trips cover lots of Europe, and it’s really dedicated to conservation. At Alladale, I’m also hoping for an onslaught of visitors this summer. We only have a few lodges, and we can still do socially distanced safaris out into the reserve with the ranger in a separate car. All the money is then ploughed back into conservation.

Unless we learn something from coronavirus, it’s not looking good for humanity. If we don’t notice the window of opportunity the pandemic has opened, then we’re damned. Humans are the source of most of the issues occurring in the natural world, and I just hope this has made us stop, think and reflect. If it has, I’m hopeful for our future.

To learn more about the importance of conservation and rewilding, read our March 2020 report on Italy’s Marsican brown bears.  

Visit The European Nature Trust's website to find out more, or book a trip to Alladale which opens on 3 July.

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