June 27, 2011
By PATRICK MCGROARTYThe rumble of tanks and the report of heavy artillery have given way after six decades in the rolling hills east of Frankfurt to more soothing tones: the gentle neighing of wild horses. Przewalski's horses, as they are called. The last breed of horse never to have been domesticated.
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They are here only temporarily, assembled from zoos across Germany and beyond, awaiting transfer to the Asian steppe as part of an international effort to boost their remaining numbers there.
Better for AnimalsIn the meantime, they are part of a growing taxonomy of wildlife reasserting itself in Germany as numbers of people decline and conditions of natural habitats improve.
According to government statistics, Germany's population, hit by falling birth rates, has shrunk by 700,000 from a high around 82.5 million in 2002, and could fall to under 65 million by 2060.
Local forests, rivers and grasslands, meanwhile, have benefited from intensive environmental restoration and adoption of less-polluting methods by factories and power plants.
To those with a direct hand in the return of some species, like Przewalski's horses, it's a dream come true.
"They're almost like unicorns, like white elephants," says Christoph Goebel, leader of the federal forestry office that is overseeing the Campo Pond project from nearby Schwarzenborn. "There's a special magic to seeing them—it gives you goose bumps."
Other once-vanished species regaining their footings include wolves and bears, which were hunted out of German forests centuries ago but now feast on exploding populations of deer and wild boar.
Salmon, too, formerly choked from their Rhine River spawning beds, are swimming and jumping again thanks to an aggressive cleanup of the river and surrounding areas.
Nature's triumph can be a nuisance for Germans obliged to commune with a growing number of wild neighbors. In 2006, Germans were captivated by the exploits of the first wild Eurasian brown bear to be spotted in the country in almost two centuries.
Initially dubbed "Bruno," the bruin soon earned a second nickname as "the problem bear" after he made a habit of raiding Bavarian sheep herds, chicken coops and beehives.
After an unsuccessful attempt by Finnish trackers to tranquilize and relocate him, local hunters shot and killed him. His stuffed carcass is now on display at a Bavarian museum, where he towers over a toppled beehive inside a glass display case.
A less dramatic struggle between man and beast is playing out in eastern Germany, where a number of wolf packs roam the forests and fields—to the delight of environmentalists and the horror of many hunters and farmers.
"Shepherds we can help. You can go to them and say, 'We support you, we'll help you live with the wolves,' " says Ilka Reinhardt, a biologist who has tracked the wolves since 2002 for government authorities. "But the minute there's one wolf, hunters say there are too many and claim that there isn't enough game left for them to hunt."
Salmon in the RhineBut wildlife isn't flourishing just in the east and Bavarian countryside. Below the surface of the Rhine, the shipping thoroughfare that sustains Germany's industrial heartland, cleaner manufacturing methods and the fading imprint of coal mining have encouraged the return of the Atlantic salmon.
Tens of billions of euros have been spent improving the water quality and building a series of fish ladders that allow the salmon to maneuver around dams to swim upstream.
Making the river safe again for salmon and eels is as good for people as it is for the fish, says Ben van de Wetering, secretary general of the Cologne-based International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine.
Mr. McGroarty is a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires in Berlin.