The recent controversy surrounding the culling (put less euphemistically: killing) of nine wolves in Norway was somewhat bewildering for many Central Europeans who are used to thinking of Scandinavia as one of the last bastions of wilderness in Europe. The fact that a total population of 60-80 wolves in Norway and Sweden could provoke international controversy seemed particularly strange in an area where wolves are still relatively common.
Today, the Carpathian Mountains are the last great refuge for wolves in Europe. Though their numbers in the region are relatively healthy, the debates taking place in Scandinavia are not entirely foreign to the people of Central Europe. Here, as in Norway, the canine is fighting for survival against centuries of prejudice and misunderstanding, influential hunting lobbies and growing pressures on its habitat.
Estimates of the number of wolves in the Carpathians are as elusive as the animals themselves. Official calculations put the total number at over 5500, but this is almost certainly an exaggeration. Many of the official statistics probably include considerable margins of error due to double counting. The animals are highly mobile, typically covering a hunting territory of up to 70 km2. They also do not respect national borders, let alone the district lines on which much of the data collection is based.
Zoologists put the number of wolves in the Carpathians at less than 4000. A forthcoming study commissioned by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that there are about 2800 wolves in the Romanian portion of the Carpathians, some 400 in the Ukrainian part, 450 in Slovakia, 250 in Poland, and ten to 15 in both the Czech Republic and Hungary. The breakdown reflects not only the amount of territory in the Carpathians, but also the extent of intact natural habitats in each country.
Wolves in the Carpathians share the same bad image as their Scandinavian cousins. A recent poll conducted by the Focus Agency for the Vlk ("Wolf") Forest Protection Movement found that while on the one hand most Slovaks (72 percent of respondents) see wolves as being important to the health of forests and half (50 percent) do not agree that wolves bring more harm than good, on the other hand more than half (55 percent) of the people agree that wolves living freely in nature are dangerous to humans.
The emotion is not based in fact. While dozens of people are accidentally shot every year by hunters, there has been only one incident in the past 50 years in Slovakia involving a wolf attacking a human - and this was a case of self-defense (see the article "Big Bad Wolf?").
The effects of this negative PR have been disastrous for the animals. During the Ceausescu-era in Romania, there was a total persecution of wolves. Bounties equivalent to half a month's salary were offered to any ranger who managed to kill a wolf by any method. Even eliminating wolf cubs was rewarded by a quarter of a month's salary. The wolf population living in the Ukrainian Carpathians was reduced more than ten times between 1951 and 1981. By the beginning of the 1980s, there were only about 150 wolves living in the area.
Fortunately, things have improved. A 1996 law now protects wolves in Romania up to a fixed quota, while numbers in Slovakia have recovered. The Bern Convention, which Central European countries have signed on to, describes wolves as an endangered species in need of protection. In keeping with this, the animals enjoy full protection in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
In Slovakia, hunting still poses one of the chief threats to the animals. Though Slovak law protects wolves for most of the year, there is an open season on hunting them (with a permit) from 1 November to 15 January. In Ukraine, no protection exists at all. Wolves there can be hunted with a permit year-round. The skulls and pelts of the elusive animals are highly prized by hunters as proof of their hunting prowess.
The lack of coordination of laws between countries means that protection of wolves is limited; a wolf that is safe in Poland can be turned into a trophy as soon as it crosses over to Ukraine. According to Mojmir Vlašin, a zoologist working with the Veronica Ecological Institute in Brno, one effect of the relaxed protection in Slovakia has been a decrease in the number of wolves on Czech territory.
In any case, legal protection is no guarantee of safety. Throughout the region, poaching remains a significant problem.
Hunters and hunted
A sharp line has been drawn between hunters and those who defend wolves in the Carpathians. Hunters have become the main standard-bearers against the animals in Central Europe. Pick up a hunting magazine or strike up a conversation with a gun shop owner and you might easily get the impression that wolves are the greatest scourge of the region.
Hunting associations throughout Central Europe are well organized and politically influential. They usually enjoy close ties with the ministries of agriculture, which in terms of political clout easily outweigh the environmental ministries that are charged with nature protection. And they can usually count on popular prejudice against the animals for at least passive support for their cause.
In Slovakia, for example, the Law on Protection of Nature and Landscape in 1994 gave wolves full protection. However, many Slovak hunters did not respect the ban and many employees of the Ministry of Agriculture, which oversees hunting, passively resisted it. The hunting lobby applied intense pressure to roll back the legislation. They were ultimately successful: in 1999, the Slovak Ministries of Agriculture and Environment finally agreed on a compromise arrangement that established an open season for two months out of the year.
Challenging the hunters is a network of organizations throughout the region that are committed to defending wolves. Among them are Vlk ("Wolf"), a Slovak organization with a number of chapters and a nationwide presence. In Poland, there is the Association for Nature Wolf, which is also involved in Wolfnet, a network of some 200 individuals and several organizations that monitor and study wolves. Hnuti Duha (Rainbow Movement) and Bezkydcan in the Czech Republic work particularly closely with their Slovak colleagues from Vlk. In Romania, WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) has been working with other organizations in the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project to study and protect wolves as well as bears and lynx.
A basic task for the organizations is to conduct research and simply monitor wolf populations. Many of the official statistics on wolves are based on data collected by hunting associations, which have a vested interest in inflating the number of wolves in an area in order to downplay the need for their protection. Members of Vlk in Slovakia make regular tours of mountain habitats to search for tracks, scat and other signs of wolf presence. Their Polish and Romanian colleagues use more high-tech approaches, whereby they employ radio transmitters for animal tracking.
Wolf advocates need to not only poke holes in popular myths regarding wolves, but also explain the place of wolves in the greater context of natural ecosystems, ie the greater value of the carnivores, for humans as much as for the rest of the natural environment. It is an uphill battle in societies accustomed to viewing the world through a narrow anthropocentric prism and that are just beginning to realize the complex web of life of which they are both a part and on which they also depend.
A frequent charge leveled by hunters against wolves is that they wipe out gamestock. Zoologists and wolf protectors respond that this is little more than a veiled complaint about unfair competition. It assumes that humans are necessary to properly regulate natural processes—ignoring the fact that wolves have been an integral part of ecosystems for much longer than humans have mounted stands to take potshots at game. It is wolves not humans that are best calibrated to natural processes.
Rastislav Mičaník of the Slovak Vlk organization notes that wolf populations (unlike hunters) naturally fluctuate with the numbers of their prey—growing when game is plentiful, shrinking when populations drop. In fact, the predators serve to stabilize populations of game, keeping them from fluctuating wildly between overpopulation and collapse. Furthermore, wolves serve to keep populations robust as the predators focus their attacks on older and weaker prey.
A more justified accusation made against wolves is that they prey on livestock and thus cause unacceptable economic damage. While wolf advocates admit that the canines do occasionally pick off sheep or goats, they maintain that the extent of the damage and the risk has been blown out of proportion.
Accurate figures on the loss of domestic livestock to wolves do not exist. Upon investigation many reported cases proved not to have involved wolves. At the same time, other cases—especially in countries where no compensation is paid by the state, like Slovakia, Ukraine and the Czech Republic—are not reported at all.
Risk can be substantially limited by centuries-old methods, like use of sheepdogs. A number of organizations have developed information materials and programs to teach shepherds and farmers how to protect their livestock from wolf attacks.
Ironically, efforts to limit the problem by picking off individual wolves may only serve to make the situation worse. Killing individual wolves disrupts packs, increasing the risk that young and inexperienced lone wolves will turn to livestock as easier prey.
In Poland and Romania, the Association for Nature "Wolf" and the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project even see wolf tourism as a way not only of promoting understanding of wolves, but also of winning over local populations by posing the animals as a potential source of income for local communities.
Besides hunting, the other main threat to wolves in the Carpathians is loss of habitat. The move to a free market system and increasing globalization of local economies over the past decade has accelerated the pace of development. New roads, urban growth and forestry are fracturing remaining wilderness areas. The first to be affected are large mammals, like wolves, that need large and relatively untouched territories to survive.
Thus, wolf protection is intimately connected to broader efforts to protect forests and wilderness areas. The Slovak Vlk, for example, has been the most determined defender of the country's last remaining natural growth forest. The organization has campaigned to stop clear cutting, lobbied for changes in legislation and are now collecting contributions to purchase a tract in the Cergov Mountains that will be the region's first private nature reserve.
As a sensitive barometer for the overall condition of the environment, wolves have been designated a "flagship" species by nature conservationists. In this light, the current populations of wolves, like similarly robust populations of bears, lynx and other large carnivores, are an indication that the Carpathians are still in relatively good shape.
Nevertheless, the hysteria regarding Norwegian wolves may yet be instructive for Central Europeans. If past experience is anything to go by, enlargement of the European Union will further accelerate the construction of new roads, homes and industries, and intensify agricultural practices and felling of forests. Unless this development becomes more environmentally sensitive and popular (including hunters') attitudes to the canines change, it may not take long before wolves in the Carpathians reach the same state as in Scandinavia today.
Andreas Beckmann, 23 April 2001
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