People's views of the continent's top predators, which are often negative because of myths, children's stories and exaggerated fears, will pose the greatest threat to their survival as they come increasingly into contact with human populations, the fund said. The charity was launching a new campaign to save five top carnivores, which were once widespread in Europe but are now increasingly threatened.
One, the Iberian lynx, is the world's most endangered cat species with fewer than 800 left. Its relative the Eurasian lynx is down to 7,000 while the wolverine, a large relative of the weasel, is down to 500 in Europe with another 1,500 in Russia. The brown bear and the grey wolf are the other two species on the WWF's list.
"Large carnivores elicit strong emotions and their management is more socio-political than biological," said a WWF consultant, Dr Alistair Bath. `The key element to their recovery is whether people are willing to share space with them."
The fund points out that while the plight of Asia's tigers is well known, the threats facing Europe's equivalent animals have received much less publicity. Habitat destruction and the loss of prey species have contributed to their decline and today many occupy fragmented landscapes, dominated by humans.
The Iberian lynx, for example, is confined to about ten isolated pockets of Spain and Portugal. "If current trends continue, the Iberian lynx will probably disappear in the first half of the 21st century," said a lynx expert, Pablo Ferreras, of Spain's Estacion Biologica de Donana. "This would be a huge embarrassment for Europe, since it would represent the world's first well-documented extinction of a wild felid [cat] species."
The campaign aims to challenge ancient prejudices and help to fund projects that support the peaceful coexistence of people and predators.
It believes public support is urgent as wolves, for example, once exterminated throughout much of western Europe, are beginning to return to old haunts in France, Switzerland and Germany.
In other areas there is continuing human-animal conflict involving the brown bear, the lynx and the wolverine.
"We are at a crucial time in history," said William Pratesi, the project's co-ordinator. "We have the opportunity to exploit nature or we can coexist with it and leave our children the opportunity to see large carnivores in the wild."
The campaign will also highlight the still-fragile recovery of Britain's two biggest carnivores, the otter and the polecat.
THE PREDATORS AT RISK
Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx)
Europe's biggest wild cat, more than three feet long. Feeds on roe deer, chamois and reindeer and also birds and hares. Mainly a forest animal. Has no natural enemies and can live for up to 17 years.
Range: Once distributed across continent, survives in scattered populations in France, Italy, Germany, with a continuous population across Nordic countries and into Russia. Thought to be 7,000 left.
Habitat loss; hunting; traffic accidents.
Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus)
Smaller (half the size), of the Eurasian lynx, found only in Spain and Portugal. Main prey is rabbits but it will also feed on small deer, rodents and birds. Habitat is scrub interspersed with open areas.
Range: The most threatened cat species in the world, it is thought to be down to fewer than 800 animals in the wild. It is now found only in small isolated pockets of the Spanish and Portuguese countryside.
Habitat loss, hunting and road deaths, and decline of rabbits.
Brown bear (Ursus arctos)
Europe's largest predator, but not generally a good hunter. Feeds on young moose or livestock but also nuts, fruit or insects. Adult males weigh up to 600lb. Hibernates for between three and seven months.
Range: The most widespread bear in the world, living also in Asia and North America. About 14,000 in Europe, mainly in the Carpathian mountains and in Scandinavia. Another 36,000 in Russia.
Forest clearance; hunting; poaching for bear parts for Asian medicine.
Grey wolf (Canis lupus)
Wolves are social animals, living in packs with strong bonds in marked territories. Opportunistic feeders but often take deer. They prey on livestock less than is supposed by farmers.
Range: Once spread around the northern hemisphere, exterminated from much of central and northern Europe in19th century but starting to recover. Found in Iberia, Italy; bigger numbers in the Balkans, Romania and Poland.
Hunting by farmers; poaching; habitat fragmentation.
Wolverine (Gulo gulo)
The largest member of the stoat and weasel family, it looks like a small bear and lives in the forests of the far north. Preys on hares, rodents and deer. Very large home ranges: up to 1,500 square km.
Range: Now very scarce in Europe, confined to central and northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and northern Russia, with just 2,000 animals estimated to be left in the wild. Once ranged much farther south, as far as Poland.
Legal hunting and poaching; human encroachment on habitat.