Hybridization between wild and domesticated animals poses a complex wildlife conservation challenge. A prominent example is hybridization between wolves (Canis lupus) and dogs (Canis (lupus) familiaris), which has been documented to occur in many parts of Europe. Because of the many dimensions and complexities involved, special care tends to be required in order to avoid a confusion of tongues regarding the issue, whether in the biological discipline or in the realm of wildlife law and policy.
By Arie Trouwborst
Bern Convention Standing Committee Recommendation
A significant step towards reducing such confusion was taken early December 2014, when government representatives from all over Europe agreed on a unified approach to address the problem of hybridization between wolves and dogs. At its annual meeting in Strasbourg, from 2-5 December 2014, the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats adopted ‘Recommendation No. 173 (2014) on hybridization between wild gray wolves (Canis lupus) and domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)’
<http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/cultureheritage/nature/Bern/Institutions/Documents/2014/Misc_2014_34eCP_EN_final_adopted%20(2).pdf>. The Recommendation deals with two distinct but interrelated issues.
Issue 1: Addressing hybridization between wolves and dogs
In order to prevent wolves from hybridizing with dogs, the Recommendation calls for effective measures to minimize numbers of free-ranging dogs, and to prohibit or at least restrict the keeping of wolves and wolf-dog hybrids as pets. In addition, national authorities are to take action to detect free-ranging wolf-dog hybrids, and to ensure that such hybrids are removed from the wild wolf population. However, removal should only take place ‘after government officials and/or the bodies entrusted by government for this purpose and/or researchers have confirmed them as hybrids using genetic and/or morphological features.’
Issue 2: Closing potential loopholes in the protection of wolves
It can be difficult to distinguish wolf-dog hybrids from wolves. Thus, if hybrids were to lack legal protection from the public, it is easy to see how this could lead to increased killing of wolves. Furthermore, if killing a wolf-dog hybrid would not consitute an offence, this could hamper the enforcement of the legal protection of wolves. In particular, to get alleged wolf poachers convicted, public prosecutors would need to prove that the animals killed were actual wolves and not hybrids –a complicated, time-consuming and costly affair. Against this background, the Standing Committee agreed that removal of suspected hybrids should ‘only be carried out by bodies entrusted by the competent authorities with such a responsibility,’ while requesting national authorities to ‘adopt the necessary measures to prevent wolves from being intentionally or mistakenly killed as wolf-dog hybrids.’
Whereas at first sight this agreed approach might seem to involve something of a contradiction, from both a conservation and a legal point of view it makes perfect sense to protect wolf-dog hybrids from the public at large, while at the same time ensuring their careful government-controlled removal. Besides, this approach is consistent with the best practices regarding wolf-dog hybridization outlined in the 2008 Guidelines on Population Level Management Plans for Large Carnivores <http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/carnivores/pdf/guidelines_for_population_level_management.pdf>. The seeming paradox involved does, at any rate, warrant the application of extra care when communicating the issue.
From Recommendation to implementation
The Bern Convention is a pan-European wildlife conservation treaty to which virtually all European states as well as the EU are contracting parties. The Standing Committee, in which all parties are represented, is tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Convention and providing guidance regarding its application to particular conservation issues. Recommendations are not themselves legally binding, but do inform the application of the Convention’s binding provisions. Incidentally, the guidance adopted by the Standing Committee is also of significance for the application of the EU Habitats Directive, as the latter constitutes the primary instrument for the implementation of the Bern Convention within the EU. As always, in order to be effective, Recommendation No. 173 must be translated into national law and policy and ultimately applied on the ground. In any event, the Bern Convention Standing Committee is to be saluted for providing an authoritative reference point regarding the issues arising from (wolf-dog) hybridization, and an antidote to the Babylonian confusion on the topic.
Wild-domestic hybridization was the focus of a recent international conference held as part of the EU LIFE project ‘Ibriwolf’ <http://www.ibriwolf.it/en/content/available-abstracts-conference-november-2-4
For an analysis of both the Habitats Directive and the Bern Convention in respect of the hybridization issue, see A. Trouwborst, ‘Exploring the legal status of wolf-dog hybrids and other dubious animals: international and EU law and the wildlife conservation problem of hybridisation with domestic and alien species’, 23:1 Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law (2014), 111.