Looking for wolves in Poland
A primeval roar
burst from the forest disturbing the stillness
of a warm autumn evening. Through the trees we
could see a large stag, mouth open, tasting the
wind, antlers merging with the overhanging branches.
With hinds in
attendance it turned and crashed into the gloom
as its challenging bellow was answered by a chorus
of potential rivals in other parts of the forest.
We came to Poland
in search of wolves but found only their prey.
Bumping down narrow forest tracks in an old Soviet
truck, a disparate group of individuals, united
by their love of wildlife, was slowly facing up
to the realisation that wolf-spotting in the Carpathian
mountains is like looking for stars on a cloudy
night. You know they are out there somewhere,
but you simply cannot see them.
The group had
been assembled by Earthwatch, a charity dedicated
to supporting scientific studies by making them
accessible to volunteer researchers. The volunteers
pay a contribution towards the project which funds
the research and covers their travelling and accommodation
costs. These working holidays are attractive to
people who value a learning experience more than
they would drinking pina coladas by a poolside.
Every few weeks
the locals who live in the remote Bieszczady Mountains,
an area of the Carpathians in south-east Poland,
have come to expect small mixed parties of mostly
Americans, Europeans and Japanese, who stay in
a converted house once used by families who serviced
the local collective farm, now deserted and semi-derelict.
is perhaps the wolf's greatest ally. It was not
always so. In this part of Poland the memorials
to those who died in the Second World War are
dated 1945 to 1947, in recognition of the struggle
that continued against Ukrainian separatists for
two years after the German surrender.
The solution was
'operation Vistula', an exercise in ethnic cleansing
before anyone had coined the term. Villages suspected
of being sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause were
razed and the villagers removed to other parts
of the Soviet Union. The land was left to return
Today the Carpathians
form part of the last great temperate forest in
Europe, home to bison, deer, wolves , bears, wild
boar and lynx. Ecologically it is a success story
but this may be more the result of accident than
A few relics of
communist rule remain. In Muczne, the nearest
hamlet, there is a large modernistic hotel, originally
built by the old regime to house visiting dignitaries
invited to hunt.
The locals are
fond of recounting stories from the communist
days. On one occasion, anxious to secure a contract
from a German businessman, party officials invited
him to hunt but all he wanted to shoot was a brown
bear, a strictly protected species. A bear was
procured from a nearby circus and released near
the village. As the hunter approached, a passing
cyclist, alarmed by the presence of the bear,
dismounted and ran for the nearest tree. The bear
bounded over to the bicycle and started to pedal.
one of the research directors, tells the story
with a straight face. It is one of many that have
passed into local folklore.
The wartime legacy
means that the folklore does not go back very
far. Visitors who arrive with Gothic images of
torchlight processions of frightened townsfolk
armed with silver bullets would be disappointed.
Research has not uncovered a single example of
a wolf attack since the Second World War. The
only record before that involved the death of
Today the wolf
has become so timid of man that sightings are
rare and attacks, even of domestic animals, are
infrequent. On average, one wolf kills one domestic
animal a year in Poland. Usually it is a sheep.
In the Carpathian
mountains there is a fine line between predator
and prey as both wolf and deer are as likely as
each other to find themselves adorning the trophy
room of German and Austrian hunters who come in
their hundreds at this time of year.
Yet neither the
wolf nor the hunter seems to fit the usual stereotypes.
Here, in southern Poland at least, the hunter
can wear the mantle of benefactor, the benevolent
protector of the forest, while the wolf has become
a sort of ecological pressure valve, a vital component
in the sometimes uneasy balance between man and
of this balance has been exposed by the collapse
of communism, a system which inadvertently may
have helped to protect wildlife. Now conflicts
have emerged, familiar to those in the west, between
hunters, wildlife enthusiasts, farmers and foresters.
Somewhere in the middle is the banner of conservation
planted on the moral high ground.
The banner appears
to have been seized by the scientists who have
been studying the area for the last 10 years.
Surprisingly, perhaps, in their model for conservation,
they have found more in common with the hunter
than those who argue for blanket protectionism.
While the wolf
might not be the first to agree with this last
observation, few could deny that its revival in
Poland since it was declared a game species in
1975, has been an extraordinary success story.
The population, which had dwindled to about 100
is now closer to 1,000. And in search of new territories,
the wolves are spreading westward into Germany
and may soon become established in France and
For so long an
animal of fear and loathing, villain of a hundred
nursery rhymes and co-star of countless Hammer
horror films, the wolf is making a comeback across
the globe. For years it was trapped, shot, poisoned
and gassed. Now there are wolf enthusiasts lobbying
for its introduction in many countries where it
had been hunted to extinction.
A population has
been re-established in Yellowstone Park in the
US, some have urged its reintroduction in Scotland
and there are firm proposals to release wolves
back into the wild in Japan.
professor of wildlife at Jagiellonian University,
Krakow, was viewed with suspicion by the hunting
fraternity when he began studying deer populations
in the Bieszczady Mountains 10 years ago. Hunters
had become concerned at the declining antler weights
among deer shot for trophies. The bigger the antlers
that can be taken home for mounting on walls,
the bigger the price that the foreign hunters
red deer are among the largest in the world. A
prize specimen with antlers and skull weighing
between 11kg and 12kg would cost the hunter about
attract the wealthiest and most committed of hunters.
Their black Mercedes and Japanese off-roaders
are conspicuous among the patched-up Polonezes
and tiny Fiats of the locals. Their money is a
mainstay of the local economy. Hunting is second
only to forestry in the region, attracting about
$1m (£650,000) a year in foreign income,
according to Bobek.
No wonder that
when the hunters looked for an explanation for
the falling antler weights, the most convenient
fall guy was the deer's natural predator, the
The case for the
prosecution seemed convincing. Only 20 per cent
of stags are successful enough to mate during
the rutting season. These are the biggest and
strongest animals. Rutting, however, reduces them
to shadows of their former selves, theoretically
leaving them prey to marauding wolf packs.
Bobek's team tested
this theory by studying the carcass remains of
deer killed by wolves . They found that the wolves
not only killed animals in poor condition but
also those in good condition. In fact, there was
evidence to suggest that directly after the rut,
the successful stags, though thinner, remained
strong enough to evade a wolf hunt while the unsuccessful
males risked being slowed down by their body fat.
As winter wears on, some of the larger stags do
fall prey but not all. It seems a classic case
of survival of the thinnest.
If anything was
lowering antler weights, argued the scientists,
it might have been the hunters themselves, initially,
because the way they calculated the age of animals
was imprecise. The forestry administration may
also have to shoulder some blame for allowing
the shooting of too many deer in its anxiety to
protect young fir trees.
may be increasing tourism in the area. A greater
presence of people would cause deer to move more
frequently, leading them to gain weight less rapidly.
With 40 per cent
unemployment in the region it is vital, says Bobek,
that a correct balance is maintained between farming,
forestry, hunting and wildlife populations. This,
he argues, can only be achieved if decision makers
are aware of scientific research. The hunters
play a crucial role in gathering this information.
'If the wolf becomes
protected the hunters will lose interest in it
and it will be killed by other means. As it is,
the hunters take a deep interest in the species
and provide us with valuable data that would be
otherwise unobtainable. It takes two weeks of
sitting and waiting, on average, for a hunter
to shoot a wolf,' says Bobek.
'The lynx is protected
now but we have no idea how many they are. The
hunters are not interested and therefore we have
send an important message to those who seek overall
protection orders. If a species is not threatened,
protection can lead to over-population and a possible
backlash from those who consider it a pest. This
can apply to deer as well as wolves .
and their sparse human population at present allow
wildlife to maintain its natural order. Whether
this could be replicated in Scotland, Bobek believes,
is doubtful. 'There is not the tree cover and
there could be too much conflict with hill farming,'
he says. He is more optimistic, however, about
Japan and France.