In defence of Russia’s wolves

In defence of Russia’s wolves

Russian wolves are still the subjects of old human hatreds and cruelties. So imagine the loneliness of Russian wolf biologists.

Friend of the devil
It was late September when biologist Nikita Ovsyanikov set out to explore the rugged interior of Wrangel Island, a Russian nature reserve off the north-eastern coast of Siberia. Deep inside the island, he found the signs that wolves had returned to Wrangel: tracks of four adults and three cubs, running across the snow-covered tundra.

Wrangel is one of the most important wildlife reserves in the High Arctic, made famous by the thousands of female polar bears that den there each winter. Introduced reindeer and muskoxen have thrived to such a degree that heavy grazing now threatens to damage the fragile vegetation. According to Nikita, in the long term, two populations of large ungulates cannot exist if the third component of their natural evolutionary assemblage – the wolf – is missing. And, the last wolves seen on Wrangel were shot in the early 1980s – casualties of what Nikita describes as Russia’s relentless “war on wolves.”

War on wolves
Though Russia supports one of the world’s most important populations of wolves, periodic state-sponsored hunting campaigns have caused the population to fluctuate wildly, reducing it from about 40,000 animals after the Second World War to less than 20,000 in the early 1970s and again in the early 90s.

“The fewer the better – that’s the official line for the wolf in Russia,” Nikita’s colleague, wolf specialist Volodya Bogolov, tells me bluntly. It’s certainly the attitude taken by Alexander Tikhonov, head of the Department of Hunting Resources, who assures me over a crackling telephone line that “the more wolves you have, the more problems there are.” His department currently licenses a kill, across Russia, of up to 14,000 wolves each year, with permits given to hunt even inside the nature reserves.

Hysterical reaction?
For Nikita, the policy of widespread eradication of wolves currently being revived in Russia amounts to a political ideology that has nothing to do with traditional hunting or the protection of people and livestock. “Why is the reaction to this animal so hysterical? Because bureaucrats need it as an enemy who can be responsible for all their mistakes and their inability to manage agriculture properly.” Or, as Ameriwilderness visionary, Aldo Leopard once wrote, ‘We have chosen the wolf to embody everything we dislike about ourselves’.

Volodya’s father, Viktor took me out one evening to listen for his local wolf pack. Standing on a small hill that rose above the trees, he howled to the wolves he knew were there. But the forest remained silent. “You try,” he said. “Sometimes they prefer a woman’s voice.” Almost against my will, a call rose from deep within me. And when I heard the wolves answer, the space we humans have placed between ourselves and the wildness of the wolf vanished into a call and response across the darkening forest.

Poisoning wolves
Russia remains the only country where poison is legally used to kill wolves. A fluorine-acetate-barium compound is licensed by the government and distributed through hunting associations. This toxic chemical causes agonizing death spasms, and a dying wolf will run for hours, retching in a vain attempt to expel the poison and spreading the contamination to other wildlife. While the use of such poisons may, in theory, be strictly controlled, Volodya Bogolev’s research demonstrates that, in practice, it is not.

“I know rangers who have poisoned a bear, a lynx, foxes, racoons – though they would never admit this,” Volodya says. “Hunters even lay the poison out late in spring when the bears are leaving their dens and are hungry for food. I know one ranger who believes the best way is to poison a living dog and then cut him so he bleeds and draws the wolf by the smell of blood… The amount of poison doses set out in the forest is much higher than the number of wolves that die and, in addition, not even one half of all poisoned wolf carcasses is ever located.”

Wolf benefits
In the forest with ranger Belaev, I find the remains of a moose carcass. There is still a hollow in the snow where the moose lay resting until it was surprised by the wolves. The spine has been crushed and lies in small broken fragments. I pick up sections of the larger jaw and thigh bones. They have been scoured and polished to such a smooth clean finish that scarcely one fine white thread of ligament remains between the joints. The bleeding carcass of a recent wolf kill draws many other creatures, particularly birds such as ravens and eagles, to share the feast. Volodya has learned that these are favoured places to leave poisoned bait. “Birds now rare to this region, like the golden and white-tailed eagles, are dying because they flock to fresh moose kills… and these are animals that are supposed to be protected by federal law.”


From an original article in the March 2003 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine – Friends of the Devil.