- - Thursday, May 12, 2011

BERLIN — It’s the age-old tale of man versus beast.

In Germany’s leafy capital, Berlin, wild boars are wreaking havoc on the city as they snout their way through parks and gardens, destroying land and butting against the boundaries of urban life.

This year, they tore through the grass and uprooted graves at a Berlin World War II cemetery for British soldiers, causing damages exceeding $14,000.

Roaming wild boars are showing up on abandoned plots of land, overgrown parking lots and lush highway medians in search of food — and the problem is only getting worse.

“The boars have stopped following the rules,” said city wildlife officer and biologist Derk Ehlert.

“They’re leaving the forest and entering the city. And not just for a short amount of time, for extended periods of time — sometimes permanently.”

Mr. Ehlert attributes the problem to an explosion in the wild boar population. About 50 years ago, 50,000 boars were killed by hunters or died in accidents annually across Germany.

Today, that number has reached 600,000, in large part because the animals have access to more food and are reproducing at a much faster rate.

Berlin is arguably Europe’s greenest metropolis. More than 40 percent of the city is covered in water, forest and leafy plots of land where swine can roam free and feast on grubs, worms and vegetation.

As the variety of that nourishment and freedom has waned in the forests, the offerings outside — particularly in the city — have become much more attractive, especially as people continue to throw garden compost into fields or leave their trash on the curb too early for pickup.

“In the forest, the food is not that interesting,” said Berlin forest ranger and licensed boar hunter Matthias Eggert.

“In the city, there is an entire menu. The boars are like the French. They like good food.”

Mr. Eggert is one of a group of about 40 hunters authorized by the city to shoot-to-kill wild boars in the forests and within the city’s boundaries. Targeted hunting, say officials, is the only practical solution to reduce the wild boar population and protect land.

“Catching them and releasing them somewhere else doesn’t work because the wild boars are everywhere,” said Mr. Eggert. “There aren’t any empty places anymore where they don’t live.”

However, animal rights organizations say hunting is not an effective answer.

“Hunting is a method that will relieve the problem for a few months, but doesn’t solve the bigger problem,” said Marcel Gading, who leads Berlin’s Animal Protection Society. “For us, hunting is the last resort.”

The animal society has suggested introducing a kind of birth-control pill that would slowly reduce the population while keeping the boars alive. Berlin rejected the proposal, partly because of the time and cost associated with implementing the medication.

Mr. Eggert said he is often confronted by animal lovers and residents who disagree with the city’s shoot-to-kill policy.

“Hunting is supposed to be fun, but this killing just to kill and reduce the population is not at all fun,” he said.

Tricking or distracting the animals hasn’t worked either. Wild boars, which can grow as large as 100 to 400 pounds, are intelligent.

“They remember the exact path they took to reach their food,” said Mr. Ehlert. “They might wander around the first or second time, but then they get it right and never forget.”

Some Berlin residents have taken to petting and feeding the animals, which is illegal. Now some boars have learned to seek out people and beg for food.

“[The boars] have lost the fear of humans they normally have,” said Mr. Eggert. “They’re interested in people.”

Researchers say wild boars are generally peaceful, but have been known to attack humans when injured or threatened.

A hunter in Berlin died last year after shooting and wounding an adult boar that struck back and gored the man. Still, violent encounters are usually the result of human error and have remained exceptions.

Lothar Loffelbein, who owns a small plot of land in one of Berlin’s municipal gardens, said a massive wild boar tore through a metal fence a few years ago, rummaged through the gardens and ruined everyone’s crops.

“We saw a few people even feeding them apples,” said Mr. Loffelbein. “And of course that was a great thing for the wild boars. They started to come down here.”

A sturdier fence has kept the hungry boars at bay, but they often return at night to search for food in a surrounding field.

“If a female comes down here with her young and feels threatened, that could be dangerous,” said Mr. Loffelbein. “But I’d be up a tree or be jumping over a fence as fast as I could.”

With wild boars pushing closer into downtown Berlin, even near the city’s fashionable shopping district, city officials say, it is crucial to address the problem now with a combination of hunting and public awareness.

Berlin has even started offering a course on wild boars at a community college that offers a tour of the animals’ favorite spots in the city’s Grunewald forest park.

Still, Mr. Ehlert said that eliminating the problem completely is not realistic.

“We are just going to have to get used to living alongside the boars,” he said.

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