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Han Olff and the Oostvaardersplassen

Abused and Insulted

Nazi; pig; crappy scientist: these are just some of the names that Han Olff has been called online. He has even considered keeping his expertise about the Oostvaardersplassen and ecosystems to himself. But Han Olff is a man of principle; he has to tell his story.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Has he ever been threatened? He doesn’t want to say, because there’s no right answer to the question. If he says he’s being threatened but that he’s not scared, ‘that will just encourage people to try harder.’ But if he admits that he’s not being threatened, that will have an adverse effect as well. ‘Before you know it, someone takes it upon themselves to start.’

Better to just stay quiet.

It’s clear, however, that RUG professor of ecology Han Olff is not very popular among certain people. He has been called a crappy scientist, the ‘nutty professor from Groningen’, and an amateur. Other less civilisedpeople have referred to him as a ‘disgusting pig’, a ‘Nazi’, or ‘Han Olff the cadaver wolf’ on social media.

Experiment

Why? Because the ecologist, who has studied large ecological systems and biodiversity for nearly 25 years, has said everything is fine at the Oostvaardersplassen. Because he says the venture – a young ecosystem of plants, birds, and large grazing animals developing free of human involvement –is a success. And because he says that the fact that the population of cattle, horses, and deer went from 3,500 to 2,000 during last winter is evidence that the most important ecological principles are working as they should. ‘Ten years ago we predicted that it would take approximately 3,200 animals to keep the system going. And we were correct’, says Olff.

Olffhas studied elephants in the Serengeti, fish in the Wadden Sea, and the effect of large grazers on biodiversity generally. He’s on the supervisory council for the WWF, the scientific advisory committee for NIOZ (the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research), and has held seats on large government committees advising on nature policies. If anyone is qualified to say something about ecology of the Oostvaardersplassen, it’s Olff.

No one thinks we should start hand-feeding seals in winter, either

But the general public doesn’t care about the science. From their train windows on the way from Lelystad to Almere, they see skinny horses wandering around what looks like a wasteland, and it makes them sad. They see dead animals decaying in the grass and call it animal abuse. They see fences around the reserve that remind them of a concentration camp.

Suffering

They don’t realise that this is simply how nature works, whether on theplains of the Serengeti, inYellowstone National Park, or in the Oostvaardersplassen. They also don’t realise that the animals aren’t allowed to starve; any animal in poor condition is shot to prevent unnecessary suffering. And they certainly don’t consider that the cadavers of animals who have died naturally provide food for insects and scavengers that are crucial to the ecosystem.

The fences surround 5,600 hectares of open ground. The ‘wasteland’ serves as a foraging range for greylag geese in the spring’, says Olff. ‘Grazers keep the reeds short in the marshes, making them more attractive to the marsh birds. But if you take out too many of the large grazers, the vegetation will grow too high.’ That means the geese would leave, and the marshes would silt up. That would mark the end for this wonderful ecosystem.

Olff has been trying to explain this to people for years. He is active on Facebook and Twitter, writes op-eds in newspapers, appears on talk shows like Nieuwsuurand Pauw. He always tells the same story. ‘It’s a beautiful, special area. It’s very inspiring, and the unique ecology means there are processes happening there you don’t see anywhere else.’ But the animals that live there arewild animals. ‘No one thinks we should start hand-feeding seals in winter, either.’

Tweaking

Sure, the biodiversity isn’t optimal yet, and sometimes the nature conservation organisation has to tweak things a little, such as stimulating the drying up of the marshes once every thirty years. This is necessary to prevent the marsh from getting ‘old’ and because the water in a polder is no longer being influenced by natural processes. But other than that? ‘The area is only fifty years old. In ecological terms, it’s still a baby. And we don’t send babies straight to high school, do we?’

And trust me, I’m not enjoying my controversial role

Interestingly enough, animal protection organisations such as Animal Protection, the Fauna Protection Society, and the Party for the Animals all agree with him. They’ve all studied the case and they all conclude that the system at the Oostvaardersplassen is working. They see no evidence of unacceptable animal suffering, no ‘failed experiment’.

But whenever he tries to explain this, he is often met with anger and aggression. ‘And trust me, I’m not enjoying my controversial role’, he says. ‘It’s not like I enjoy being insulted. I love animals; I’ve been a vegetarian and nature conservationist my entire life. I can hold my head up high when it comes to animal ethics, and yet I’m called an animal abuser. I can’t really win.’

Negativity

So why does he expose himself to the anger of protesterswho insult him, cut the fences around the ecosystem, and threaten foresters? He doesn’t have to. He could just withdraw to the safety of the ivory tower, where many of his fellow academics take shelter.

‘I never really found my way to the ivory tower in the first place’, he smiles. ‘But I do occasionally think about quitting, when it takes up too much of my time, when there’s a lot of negativity, or when it’s difficult to find time with my other work. The time I spend on this is time I don’t spend on getting my next grant, on my PhD students, or on writing an article.’

But if he doesn’t speak out, who will?‘This is my field, my expertise. It’s my responsibility to say something about it.’ He’s also convinced that the sincere despair of some animal lovers is being exploited by lobbying groups from the hunting, agrarian, and horse sectors. Those groups have a hard time accepting that a game population can be kept in check without the use of guns, that cows can survive without being put up in a stable, and that horses are fine without blankets and plaited manes. ‘These are things people have put their heart and soul into; having to consider that those things aren’t necessary can lead to a kind of identity crisis for those people.’ He smiles. ‘There was one woman who became all indignant because she felt the mares in the herd were being raped. She was upset because the stallion might damage her legs. But what she meant was that her method, artificial insemination, was a better one.’

Mountain biking

These groups, he says, are determined to teach the nature conservationists of the Netherlands a lesson. And that is something he won’t abide. ‘Politicians should make decisions that have this kind of societal impact on the basis of scientific arguments, concerns, and ethics. That’s something I can accept, if done well. But I don’t feel that that’s happening in this discussion.’

Should everything on this earth be in service to mankind?

The nature reserve has become a symbol of a much larger discussion. ‘I do worry about Dutch people’s relationship to nature and how we’re handling that. Should nature be allowed to exist on its own, or should everything on this earth be in service to mankind? It’s pretty of course, but should we be allowed to go mountain biking?’

And so he keeps doing what he does. He shares opinion pieces, provides context, explains things. ‘Those are my principles. The protesters base their arguments on ethics, but I have my own code of ethics as well, about the role of knowledge and correct information in societal decisions and society itself.’

The Oostvaardersplassen are a fort, he says, a fort that he has sworn to defend. ‘Because if you allow this reserve to be challenged, you run the risk of people challenging all the other nature reserves in the country as well. It would never end.’

Konik horses in the Oostvaardersplassen – Photo by Thomas Gerhard

The Oostvaardersplassen

The Oostvaardersplassen is a 5,600-hectare nature reserve in the province of Flevoland. The reserve’s marshlands are home to many unique birds, such as spoonbills, cormorants, great egrets, and greylag geese. On the dry lands you can find Heck cattle, Konik horses, and red deer.

Human interference in the area has been minimal since 1995. After a rapid increase of large grazing animals, the number stabilised in 2000. This meant that animals on the preserve died, a fact which led to fierce protests. In 2010, therefore, it was decided that animals who clearly wouldn’t survive the winter would be shot to prevent unnecessary suffering later in the season.

But the winter of 2017/2018 led to renewed protests. People demanded that the government start hand-feeding the animals. When this didn’t happen, protesters started cutting fences and threatening foresters. In the end the province of Flevoland, which is responsible for the reserve, decided there was no ‘societal support’ for the current policy concerning the large grazing animals at the Oostvaardersplassen. The province has made plans to move hundreds of horses and cattle and to shoot 1,800 red deer. Several nature organisations filed an injunction against this, because red deer are on the protected species list. A decision will be made on Monday, 19 November.

Nederlands