Wily red foxes coming back from extinction in Europe

5th April 2008, Comments 0 comments

The cunning canine is even outsmarting its most dangerous mortal enemy -- man.

Hamburg, Germany -- Once on the verge of extinction, the wily red fox is making a dramatic comeback in Central Europe, where its natural enemies have all long since disappeared.

The cunning canine is even outsmarting its most dangerous mortal enemy -- man. Foxes are encroaching on urbanized areas, even being spotted in large cities like Berlin and a Munich.

Experts say the disappearance of lynxes, brown bears and wolves in the 20th Century has helped to reverse the fall in the fox population. Without those natural enemies, foxes have been able to establish themselves as the dominant carnivore in many areas of Central Europe.

And the widespread eradication of rabies has also been a boon to fox families, since rabies has always been the primary biological enemy of these creatures.

Fox hunting is still popular in Europe and record numbers of foxes are killed in forests and rural regions. More than 600,000 red foxes were killed by hunters in Germany alone during the most recent season. That is more than 1,650 a day.

Ironically, the record fox hunt tally is a further indication that the fox population is resurging. Even so, foxes are not high on the average hunter's priority list of game trophies. Red fox pelts are out of fashion and foxes are not good eating.

Also, the fox tapeworm very easily infects humans. So most hunters take aim at other game.

And besides, these sly animals are abandoning the woods to seek a better life in the towns and cities of Central Europe. For one thing, hunting is not allowed in urbanized areas, and foxes somehow seem to sense that they are safer there.

"Foxes are incredibly adaptable creatures," says Holger Wonneberg, head of the Berlin Foundation for Nature Conservation. "They have figured out that humans provide them with a veritable picnic table loaded with goodies."

Wonneberg says it is not the food that humans eat which interests foxes so much as the animal companions of humans -- rats, mice, pigeons -- and also the plentiful and often overflowing garbage that humans generate.

"Humans throw out vast quantities of perfectly edible left-over food which is heaped into garbage cans behind restaurants and suburban homes," Wonneberg says.

"People even leave pet food in dishes on the back porch for stray cats, little realizing they are feeding foxes," he says. "People dump scraps onto the compost heap in their garden and it is a veritable banquet for four-footed foxy friends."

Foxes also help other species, such as song birds.

"They decimate not only mice but also other small mammals and snakes and other egg thieves," says Torsten Reinwald of the German Hunting Association.

"We actually get appeals from residents to kill more foxes because they are eliminating too many predators in some nature wildlife preserves," Reinwald says.

Health experts say the fox is helpful in eliminating road kill and other cadavers, which can pollute rivers and ponds.

But they pose a threat to European zoos and wildlife parks, which hitherto have never had to build predator fences.

"We lost 13 flamingos in a single night to foxes," says Anja Paumen of the Stuttgart Zoo. "We had never had to provide anti-predator protection before. But we've since learned our lesson and all our zoo animals are safely behind electrified fencing."

DPA with Expatica

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