Wildlife conservation is not known for its success stories. But in Europe, little noticed, we’re living through a most remarkable event in natural history: the return of large carnivores to our forests. These most iconic animals, the wolf, bear, lynx and wolverine were over centuries pushed to the verge of extinction through relentless persecution. This decimation finally came to an end at the turn of the last millennium, by which point these icons were restricted to to the most remote parts of our continent. Recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, strict legal protection has driven the recovery of their populations on a remarkable scale. Even countries as far west and as densely populated as the Netherlands and Denmark now have resident wolf packs. In just a few short years our forests have become a little wilder: fantastic beasts are returning to Europe.
Of these iconic species, the wolf has been by far the most successful. Surprisingly adept at living in Europe’s human-dominated landscapes, he has even settled in suburban forests criss-crossed by busy road networks − places the bear and lynx and bear wouldn’t dream of settling. One of the highlights exemplifying this is the return of wolves after an absence of over 50 years wolves to two heavily managed forests − Kampinos and Bolimów Forests – on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland’s capital city. This adaptability is what makes the wolf’s story remarkable – we are only required to stop hunting him, and he will grace our forests once again.
Now of course not everyone is as happy about the return of the wolf as nature enthusiasts like myself. To many, the wolf is a sheep-eating menace, to be exterminated should he ever reappear. Livestock eating beasts aren’t just a slight inconvenience, they are a serious threat to farmers’ businesses. On top of this, the tales and mythologies of most human cultures present wolves in anything but a positive light: just recall the fairy tale of little red riding hood, known to all European children, wherein the wolf eats the beloved grandma. Or in Wales, where we have the legend of Gelert the dog, in which Prince Llywelyn the Great returns home to find his baby missing, and Gelert with his mouth smeared with blood. Believing the dog to have savaged his child, Llywelyn kills his dog with his sword. Only then does he find his baby unharmed under its cradle along with the body of a wolf that had attacked his child and been killed by Gelert. After that day Llywelyn is overcome with remorse and never smiles again.
A wolf recently caught on camera in Kampinos National Park just outside Warsaw
Thus some people hate wolves and some fear them. But these conflicts have the potential to be managed and the mythologies to be dispelled. The recovered wolf population in Poland is proof that humans and wolves can co-exist; and in the process, long lost ecological processes can be restored and modern landscapes gain a little more wonder. As a scientist working on the front line in wolf conservation and ecology, in this short article I hope I can pique your interest by talking about a few aspects of wolves and their research. My hope is that this will go a little way towards convincing or inspiring you as to why we should allow wolves and wildlife a place in our world.
So firstly, a little bit about me. I’m just a young ecologist with aspirations of becoming a naturalist. I’m currently doing a PhD on the ecology of wolves in Poland, and spend my time tracking these fantastic beasts around forests. This sort of adventure-based research may sound trivial to some, but it serves an important societal purpose for two reasons. First, if we better understand the wolf, we will be able to more effectively protect and manage this conflict-prone species. Secondly – and this is the more important point − the ecological role of wolves and other large carnivores in our environment remains a critical gap in human knowledge. This latter point is important because biodiversity is continuing to plummet all across the continent, and if we are to understand the reasons behind this, we must find out how species interact with one another.
Apex predators play crucial roles in our environment by regulating ecosystems from the top of the food chain. In Europe, the role of apex predator is mostly played by the wolf, who drives landscape scale changes by hunting smaller animals. When the wolf is absent, as is the case in many landscapes across Europe, serious disruptions to natural processes often result. One of the best examples is the hugely overpopulated 1 million strong deer population ravaging the Scottish Highlands. Here, with the wolf extinct, the thriving deer proceed to eat any and every last bit of vegetation. This problem is what’s dooming the regeneration of the Caledonian Forest, which once stretched from one coast of Scotland to the other. Essentially, Scotland has become an ecological desert devoid of any meaningful biodiversity due to the absence of wolves.
So aside from instilling a greater sense of wonder to our forests, wolves have a critical ecological role to play. But what about their threat to humans – that which the wolf is renowned for in mythologies worldwide? The reality is that wolves are shockingly terrified of humans. So much so that after years of roaming through forests I’ve never even seen one. What’s more, there have been no documented wolf attacks on humans in Poland for decades, possibly going way back to the Second World War. Despite this, foresters and hunters are forever spreading rumours about menacing wolves lurking in the undergrowth. This year in fact, a local newspaper in southern Poland wrote about voyeur wolves ‘observing children returning from church and school’. While this was a patently absurd statement, it’s not to say that there is no threat whatsoever, but we need to keep some kind of perspective. There is around one bear attack on humans a year in Poland – but nobody uses this as a pretext for shooting at them. So using the same logic, why should we shoot wolves?
We monitor wild wolf populations by tracking them through forests. Through various approaches we can find out their population numbers, number of pups, diet and a host of other information relevant to their conservation, such as the family tree of all wolves across the country.
Now, wolf tracking adventures may sound quite niche or specialist, but they really don’t require any particular skills or equipment. In fact many citizen-scientists and hobbyists across the continent have been eagerly following the return of the wolf. With a cheap guidebook, you could track them too. One can simply follow their prints in the snow, counting the pairs of tracks and measuring their sizes (females and pups have smaller paws). Another option is to howl at them – if you’re lucky a wolf may just howl back (this really works!). On the more sophisticated side, researchers often add camera traps: automatic motion-activated cameras, usually attached to trees. But scientists’ recent favourite approach is genetic analysis, which is known in science jargon as a ‘non-invasive’ technique, meaning no contact with wolves is required. This is a godsend for modern conservation science, as direct observations of enigmatic forest dwelling creatures are just too difficult. So instead we can just collect some wolf hair or poo from the field, and take them back to the lab for analysis. In this way we can find out a whole load of other important factors for conservation, like their family trees and genetic diversity. So from simple snow tracking, to fancy genetic works, we (and you) can track wolves in many different ways!
In these ways without even seeing a single wolf, let alone having to catch one, astonishingly intimate details can be gathered. And all of this data can later be used for the species’ conservation.
But what actually is a wolf pack?
If we are going to talk about tracking wolves, I feel I should clarify a most important concept in wolf ecology – the concept of the ‘pack’ – a widely misunderstood term. Age old stories tend to make these out to be bands of menacing individuals, with a strict hierarchy and an aggressive alpha male as their leader. But in fact, the pack, which is the central unit of wolf society, is just another term for a wolf family group: a mother and father, and their kids. The father is the alpha male, the mother is the alpha female, and together they share responsibility for their family. All other wolves in a group are descendants of this pair, either their young from this or previous years. Only occasionally are there cousins or unrelated wolves attached.
Moreover, there is another little known characteristic of wolf family groups. Namely, that once a wolf pair establish their territory in a given location, it is likely to remain their home for life, with no outsider wolves allowed in. The beauty of these living arrangements is that continual monitoring of one forest area allows us to follow the intimate life history events of a single wolf family over time: the birth of their pups, their rearing, and then their later migration to far away lands. So to illustrate this point – when a wolf family settled in Kampinos Forest last year for the first time in 50 years, we immediately began tracking it. We noted them having a litter of pups last year, and then again this year. In this way it’s really possible to get intimate and attached to a local wolf family, as they provide us with stories over the course of several years.
So to finish up this article I’ll tell you short story that we recently took part in: the touching story of a young wolf from the Kampinos National Park wolf pack. The story highlights some of the dangers wolves experience living in such proximity to humans, but ultimately has a positive ending 🙂
The Tale of Kampinos the Wolf
So back in April this year, a young two year old wolf named Kampinos (after his forest of origin) got caught up in a hit and run car accident near Leszno, a town on the outskirts of Kampinos Forest, not far from Warsaw.
He was left laying at the roadside, till some time later he was found. Thankfully the national park authorities and vets were called, who contacted the NGO my colleague R.W Mysłajek co-runs – the Association for Nature ‘Wolf’.
The team brought him to the Warsaw city wildlife rehabilitation centre, where he was swiftly diagnosed with a broken pelvis and damaged liver. It was a anxious time: his blood analysis results didn’t bode well and wolves rarely recover from such traumatic injuries. Despite this poor prognosis, the expert vets deftly operated on him anyway; they had to give it their best shot. Thus Kampinos’ pelvic bone was stabilised, after which began a wait to see how his recovery would bode.
The repair of a broken bone always takes time, so young Kampinos was moved to a facility in the Masuria forests, up in the northeast of the country. Over this period a team of foresters, members of the Association for Nature ‘wolf’, and a dedicated vet nursed him back to health.
In the meantime, the conservation genetics team at the University of Warsaw conducted genetic analysis on samples taken from the young wolf, finding that he is a descendent of the alpha wolf pair of Kampinos Forest. This is important, because it only made sense to release him back into Kampinos National Park if he was originally from the local wolf family.
With his recovery going smoothly and his place of origin established, preparations for his release back into his natal family group were put into place. To help follow up on his future adventures (and to give important research data!) he was given a GPS collar, which tracks the wearer’s movements across the landscape and sends them back via the mobile phone network.
So three months after his accident, Kampinos had recovered. He was sedated, and then driven three hours back to Warsaw, whereupon he was released back into the national park.
The wolf Kampinos being released back into Kampinos National Park after being nursed back to health
What followed turned out to be an agonising wait to find out his fate. There was always the chance that he wouldn’t acclimatise back into the wild, and an even more worrying prospect was that his family may not recognise him, possibly even attacking him.
Three weeks later the follow up report finally arrived. It turned out he had been sitting in a gap in the mobile phone network: in his family’s so-called ‘denning and rendezvous site’. This technical jargon refers to a small portion of a wolf family’s wider territory where they spend most of their time. In Kampinos Forest, this unsurprisingly lies within a wet marshland to which humans seldom visit.
It looks like Kampinos has recovered well. Last I heard he was still roaming around Kampinos Forest. But his real adventure will start soon. He’s getting to the age where he will soon leave home to establish his own family. The best part is, that with great excitement we will be able to follow the next part of his life story.
By allowing wolves like Kampinos to return to our forests and thrive we’ve made progress to reversing the damage of millennia of persecution. So I hope you remember the take home message: stories about wildlife and the environment are not doomed to failure from the outset. If together we take an interest to care and manage wildlife conflicts, as we are beginning to do with the wolf in Europe, it’s possible for us to live alongside the nature we share this world with, ensuring the future of mother nature’s legacy for future generations.
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