Wild boars in Rome, big cats in Colombia cities, polar bears in Russian towns: a series of factors, including climate change and urbanization, is creating unlikely encounters between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.
Wild boars jogging down the street, pumas sauntering through the neighborhood, coyotes patiently waiting for the traffic light to turn green… This isn't the stage set for a new Jumanji or Ace Ventura movie, but an increasingly common sight in residential areas around the world. In recent decades, deforestation, changing agriculture and livestock practices, global warming and the rapid expansion of urban areas into the natural habitats of animals have forced a growing number of species to adapt to life in the city.
And with no sign of urbanization slowing down, some experts suggest that we have entered into a new era where city dwellers must get used to sharing their space with four-legged neighbors.
But while some animals have demonstrated an impressive ability to adapt to urban ways, others are struggling both to survive and become accepted by human residents. From New York to Berlin to Manizales, here's how cities around the world are affected by urban wildlife — and vice-versa.
Video of boar family in Rome neighborhood
Boars roam streets of Rome
In Rome, wild boars are increasingly seen strutting around the gardens and busy streets of the city. As late as last month, a dozen boars were filmed walking alongside the traffic on Via Trionfale, a busy road in the northern suburb of Monte Mario.
While boars have been invading Roman suburbs for some time, they're recently becoming more brazen, moving deeper into urban areas where they rummage through piles of rubbish. Some are even waiting for residents to take their trash out, while others have adopted more thuggish ways, as this gang of porkers stealing a lady's shopping bags outside a supermarket in Formello.
While similar videos have spurred comic remarks on social media, like the suggestion that Rome should introduce "wild boar lanes" instead of cycle lanes, residents of Italy's capital see the multiplying herds as another sign of their city's decay — from the rubbish-riddled streets to the unkempt parks and graffitied houses.
In fact, wild boars have even become a hot political topic as elected officials bicker over who is to blame for the influx, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. In the month that lead up to Italy's municipal election on October 3, now former mayor of Rome Virginia Raggi even suggested that the presence of boars in the city has been weaponized by her party's opposition.
Berlin's viral boar chase
Further north, German boars are also warming up to big city life. Especially after dry summers and autumns, when food has been scarce for the boars, well-groomed city lawns and parks offer plenty of acorns and insect larvae to gorge on before the frost sets in. In January 2019, around 25 Wildschweine were even caught on camera racing down a street in Kleinmachnow, a suburb on the outskirts of Berlin. It's worth noting that wild boars can run at a speed up to 25 miles per hour.
While few attacks have been reported in Berlin — dubbed the wild-boar capital by local media due to the 3,000 swine estimated to reside within the city's borders — locals have been expressing worries over the safety of their kids, ransacked gardens and traffic interruptions.
Some experts also point out that while boars are naturally shy, a more urban lifestyle risks spreading diseases like swine flu. They can also be aggressive, especially if accompanied by piglets. In 2019, German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that a sow and her two piglets had been filmed stealing a bag containing the laptop computer of a nudist bather.
Wildcats in Colombia
Jaguars and pumas in Colombia
In Colombia, where the expansion of urban areas into the countryside is encroaching on the traditional habitats of animals, wildcat sightings are becoming more common in cities.
Last week, a puma entered a residential complex in Manizales at night, Colombian daily El Tiempo reports. According to the regional director of the Panthera South America organization, Dr. Esteban Payán, these encounters will become more even more regular as jungles, forests, moors, mangroves and plains are being cut down and the food supply of great cats like jaguars and pumas are diminished.
"As there is less and less to eat, cougars have to adapt and will start to eat rats; they will start to eat garbage," says Payán.
Another contributing factor to their urbanization is the size of jaguars and pumas, which make them more likely to adapt to interaction with humans. Payan predicts that wild cats will appear more frequently in residential areas in the vicinity of their habitats, such as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta area and the country's southwest — near the cities of Popayán, Cali, Armenia and Manizales.
U.S. mountain lions
As the mountain lion population grows in the United States — mostly a result of more restrictive hunting regulations introduced in the 1960s and 1970s — these 150-pound cats are becoming a more common sight in urban areas ranging from New Mexico to Texas to California.
As lions slowly reclaim habitats they have occupied for thousands of years and also expand their range, conservation efforts in the 1980s and 1990s for deer and elk have also increased the food source. Deer and elk typically congregate in south and west-facing mountain slopes in the winter — the very same areas where humans like to build their homes.
Looking at the numbers, mountain lions aren't a much greater threat to humans than coyotes, with less than two dozen people killed by mountain lions in North America in the last century. But experts worry that as interactions become more frequent, news of isolated attacks could have a negative effect on our perception of these animals, and potentially lead to overhunting.
That was the case in May 2018, when a biker was killed by a mountain lion in North Bend, some 30 miles outside Seattle. The attack triggered a renewed lack of tolerance for wild mountain lions, with politicians introducing new legislation increasing hunting limits — in defiance of recommendations by state biologists. According to an analysis in Deseret News, this is a course of events that has repeated itself across the West after someone is killed or attacked by a lion, as "states react swiftly and definitively against the lions." The article also adds that decisions to relax regulation neglect the evidence suggesting that there is actually more conflict between humans and mountain lions in the areas where hunting is the heaviest.
As the U.S. mountain lion population moves increasingly West and also spreads to the East, another issue is that these large cats venturing into urban areas limit themselves to much smaller areas than their habitual 960 square miles. Male mountain lions risk getting stuck and hemmed in by increasing city development; unable to find mates and unaccustomed to close quarters, they tend to get in fights and kill one another. In addition, there are reports of mountain lions being killed by cars and from eating rat poison.
Raccoon dogs come out of Shanghai shadows
Residents of Shanghai are struggling to adapt to a growing population of raccoon dogs sharing the public space. Most Chinese would have heard about these nocturnal creatures from the proverb 丘之貉," or "raccoon dogs of the same hill" — a Chinese equivalent to "birds of a feather."
But it's only in the last few years more people have learned what these shy animals actually look like. A relative of the fox, raccoon dogs are native to the Yangtze River Delta — the triangle-shaped megalopolis comprising the Wu Chinese-speaking areas of Shanghai. According to experts, they are now moving from the outskirts to the city due to extreme weather conditions caused by climate change.
As raccoon dogs hibernate during the cold season, a prolonged winter postpones the mating — causing pups to be born later and shortening the time to build up fat reserves before the next frost returns. As this last winter was the coldest Shanghai has experienced in 35 years, raccoon dogs moved to the city where temperatures are higher than nearby rural areas.
With forestry authorities last year estimating that there are more than 2,000 raccoon dogs in the city, not all Shanghai residents are happy. In a recent interview with Beijing-based broadcaster CGTN, a resident from one particularly invaded neighborhood complained about the scavengers: "I have to be extra careful when taking the garbage out, with my phone's flashlight on. It's scary. They just dashed out of the bush, at least 20 or 30 of them, their eyes are like little light bulbs."
However, with the steady trickle of similar complaints in the last year, municipal authorities have pointed out that locals' lack of knowledge about raccoon dogs often leads to distorted and exaggerated news, adding that these animals' normal reaction to stress or danger is to flee rather than attack.
Polar bears surround Russian village
Climate change changes bear habitats in Canada and Russia
In the 900-strong Canadian town of Churchill, located some 1,600 kilometers north of Winnipeg, polar bears in search of food are becoming more frequent visitors. Every year, some 900 bears in the western Hudson Bay area must be airlifted out of the town.
While bears can be seen in the region all year long, the majority enter Churchill around Halloween as they start their migration from south to the northwest shores where the ice needed for seal hunting is formed earliest in the year.
While the residents of Churchill, baptized the polar bear capital of the world, have adapted to living in proximity to the large carnivores,. Authorities nowadays receive 250 alert calls annually compared to the 20 or 30 they used to get when the "polar bear alert program" was started in the 1980s.
The reason: Climate change. As temperatures increases, the sea ice sometimes melts away as soon as July and takes longer to freeze back during the autumn and winter. The result is that the polar bears have less time on the ice to hunt the food needed to build up fat reserves for the warmer season.
With the community of Churchill built on a peninsula bordering the Hudson Bay coastline and the Churchill River, hungry polar bears often get distracted by the town's sounds and smells on their way north.
As polar bears are forced to adapt to a world that is melting away under their paws, similar reports have come out of other cities in the last few years, including the Russian town of Ryrkaypiy that made international headlines when 50 bears entered in 2019.