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1995, 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.

Bieszczady's remoteness 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 to nature.

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 design.

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.

Kajetan Perzanowski, 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 a child.

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 nature.

The fragility 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 Switzerland.

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.

Boguslaw Bobek, 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 must pay.

The Carpathian 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 $10,000.

These specimens 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 wolf.

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.

Another factor 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 no data.'

His observations 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 .

The Carpathians 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.

© Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved