I would bet that for most people, hamsters are pets. We never think about them as wild animals (which made this Smithsonian.com story on the origin of our fuzzy pets all the more fascinating). But now another wild hamster is in the news: Last week the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the European Union’s version of our Supreme Court, ruled that France had not done enough to protect the Great Hamster of Alsace (a.k.a. the European or common hamster) and that if France did not institute sufficient protections for the species, the country could be fined more than $24 million.
These hamsters aren’t quite your pet store variety—they’re about 10 inches long and have a brown-and-white face with a distinctive black tummy. They live in the meadows, grasslands and farm fields of Europe and Central Asia, from France into Russia and Kazakhstan. The hamsters are more abundant in the eastern part of their range; they’ve been locally extirpated from much of their former range in western Europe and in France are found only in Alsace. They burrow in soft soil and like to eat grass crops, such as alfalfa, which probably explains why farmers have long considered them a pest and killed them with poison or traps. The hamsters often relied on those crops, which ripen in spring, for food when they emerge from their winter hibernation, but many farmers have switched to corn. In addition, the hamsters have lost much of their traditional habitat due to urbanization.
The population of hamsters in France dropped to as few as 200 just four years ago. Since then, their numbers have risen to 800, but that is still a far cry from the 1,500 or so needed to consider them safe. And the court ruled that current protection efforts are insufficient to reach those numbers, saying that France must stop some of its urbanization plans in the region and reinstitute old agreements so that farmers grow more of the cereal crops that support the hamsters.
It should be interesting to see what happens next. I can’t imagine that a farmer would like to be ordered to grow certain crops just to watch them be eaten by hamsters. But at the same time, there should be a way for humans and hamsters to live together without shutting up all of the latter into a cage.