September 5, 2023

What are Europe’s most endangered predators?

When you think of endangered predators, you might conjure images of tigers, lions, Grizzly bears, and Great White sharks — animals that tend to live in warmer or more far-flung corners of the Earth. But did you know that Europe also has several predators facing an uncertain future? 

22.7% of all assessed species in Europe are now threatened with extinction. Over the last 100 years, Europe has lost many large mammals, including the Pyrenean ibex, Sicilian wolf, free-ranging tarpan and Caspian tiger. Since 2015, 36 more species have been declared extinct on the continent. 

Why do predators matter for biodiversity?

A predator catching its prey

Unfortunately, Europe has a long list of endangered animals — including those at the top of the food chain. Many predators are keystone species, meaning they have a really big impact on their ecosystem, so their loss is heavily felt. This is because predators perform a number of important jobs to support healthy biodiversity: 

  • Predators prevent prey from overwhelming an environment. This stops unchecked population growth which can lead to more competition for food, soil degradation and habitat destruction.
  • Predators often target old, sick or weak prey which improves the gene pool and helps strengthen the resilience of that species. This is called ‘selective predation.’
  • Predators spread nutrients and minerals with their waste, helping contribute to richer soil and stronger plant life. 
  • Predators can also help an area control any invasive species that might have made their way into an ecosystem.
  • Predators also shape how species evolve over thousands of years. They might develop better camouflage, defensive mechanisms, or alert systems to avoid being caught.

Europe’s most endangered predators

Arctic fox

Arctic fox

Found in northern Europe and other arctic regions, it’s estimated there are only 300 adult arctic foxes alive in Sweden, Norway and Finland today. At the beginning of the 20th century, these adorable foxes were hunted almost to extinction for their beautiful snow-white pelts. Since they use the same dens every year to raise their cubs, the foxes were easy to hunt. In 1928 Sweden declared the Arctic fox a protected species but the population failed to revive on its own. Now, thanks to conservation efforts, the number is slowly increasing. But they have another problem: climate change.

Global warming is a big threat to the foxes' cold habitat and has drastically reduced their food supply, which has led to dramatically declining numbers. Another threat to the Arctic fox is competition from the larger, northward-spreading red fox who have moved into the Arctic foxes territory, competing with them for food and resources. Red foxes tend to be bigger and more aggressive than their white-furred counterparts.

Eurasian Lynx 

Eurasian lynx

The Eurasian lynx is Europe’s largest wild cat, known for its distinctive spotted fur, incredible senses and shy nature. They were once widespread throughout Europe, commanding territories up to four times the size of Barcelona, but habitat destruction and fur hunting meant the wild cat has been completely extinct in Germany and other parts of Europe for 150 years. Lynx are a keystone species, so their activity greatly shapes their ecosystem. They keep wolves away from forested areas, can control roe deer populations and their faeces provides food for butterflies and other insects.

Rewilding efforts are starting to bring the lynx back, and there are now only approximately 8000 - 9000 in the wild. Their close cousin — the smaller Iberian lynx — are also endangered. These lynx are endemic to Spain and their population has also been devastated by habitat loss and illegal hunting.

See what we are doing to help protect Germany's lynx population:

Polar bear

Europe’s polar bears can be found in Russia and on the Svalbard Archipelago, just north of mainland Norway. The population there has been stable for some time. The bears in Svalbard are managing to adapt to a changing environment. Their behavior around hunting, den creation and swimming has changed to accommodate three to four months’ less sea ice than 30 years ago. Despite this incredible adaptation, global polar bear numbers are projected to decline by 30% by 2050. 

polar bear in the ice

Polar bears are commonly used as an example of how global warming is impacting the Arctic circle. Global warming has had an enormous impact on their habitats. There is concern that the world’s polar bear population could be almost extinct by 2100 due to greenhouse gas emissions continuing to melt the sea ice they call home. 

Red-footed falcon

Each year the red-footed Falcon travels the length of the African continent up to next and breed in eastern Europe — or at least that’s what they’ve done for hundreds of years. This bird of prey is threatened by the loss and degradation of its natural nest sites. Red-footed falcons (like all falcons) like to use the old nests of other birds. They are also known to nest inside cliffs or in holes in trees — known as ‘rooks’ — often in close proximity to each other. 

red-footed falcon

It’s estimated that the red-footed falcon population has declined 30+% in 10 years. Widespread use of pesticides have affected the falcon’s food supply (insects, small rodents, etc) and their rooks are threatened by agriculture, logging and other habitat disturbances. This has forced the falcon’s to breed in more urbanized areas and to become heavily dependent on artificial nest boxes for their survival.

Mediterranean monk seal

The endangered Mediterranean monk seal was once found all around Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, and Croatia — but today there are only an estimated 700 left in the wild. These earless seals are in danger of extinction, and are one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. 

Their massive decline has been directly linked to human encroachment on their habitat. The construction of hotels, roads, houses, etc along the Mediterranean coast has taken away many of the safe havens the seals use to breed, including beaches and caves. High-intensity tourism has also damaged the remaining population in the area. Scuba diving and increased boat activity has allowed humans to reach even the most remote areas, disturbing the seal’s behavior. 

Fishing-related deaths from net entanglement is considered one of the main reasons for the monk seal’s inability to recover. The Mediterranean monk seal’s cousin, the Caribbean monk seal, was driven to extinction in the 20th century by similar factors.

European mink

European mink in the water

The European mink was once found all over the continent, but now only a few thousand remain in Spain, France, and the Danube delta. There are now 90% less European mink than there were 150 years ago. The decline was first documented in Germany, where they then became extinct in the 18th century. There are a lot of theories as to why this species has almost completely disappeared.

European mink make their home along rivers and streams, preying on amphibians, voles, crayfish, and small fish. Through river dredging and land improvement, these wetland habitats have been lost in the name of urbanization. At the start of the 20th century, minks were hunted extensively in Russia and other parts of Europe to the point that a temporary ban was imposed to let the population recover. 

In the 1920s and 30s, American mink were introduced to the continent. This species of mink is less reliant on wetland habitats, and is up to 40% bigger than the European variety. Competition between the species and the spread of disease have also contributed to their decline. 

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A bison wearing sunglasses

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