Magazine article Geographical

Pack Tracking: At One Time, the Grey Wolf Had the Largest Natural Distribution of Any Land Mammal Other Than Humans. Centuries of Persecution Have Cost It That Record, and While the Wolf Is Returning to Some Areas, Many Small Populations Are Still Vulnerable. Paul Evans Joined a Team of Volunteers Helping Monitor Wolves in Poland in an Effort to Stop Them Being Hunted into Local Extinction

Magazine article Geographical

Pack Tracking: At One Time, the Grey Wolf Had the Largest Natural Distribution of Any Land Mammal Other Than Humans. Centuries of Persecution Have Cost It That Record, and While the Wolf Is Returning to Some Areas, Many Small Populations Are Still Vulnerable. Paul Evans Joined a Team of Volunteers Helping Monitor Wolves in Poland in an Effort to Stop Them Being Hunted into Local Extinction

Article excerpt

IT'S A SOUND TO CHILL THE BLOOD. In the preternatural stillness that descends with the falling snow, a wolf howls. A reply comes almost instantly. For millennia, this call and response-both territorial display and an aid to pack cohesion--has rung out across the densely wooded slopes of Poland's Bieszczady Mountains, home to the highest density of wolves in Europe. But even here in this wild, remote region, it's a sound that is becoming increasingly rare.

One of these wolves recently walked along the ridge upon which we're standing, through beech and fir encrusted with a delicate tracery of frost. The smudgy prints that we've been following have now been resolved. There, stamped in the frozen mud, is one of the most enigmatic signatures of the wild. The fore print is about ten centimetres in diameter, four large clawed toes and a large heel make an almost circular shape; the hind print smaller and more oval.

The forests in which this wolf lives form part of Poland's 270-square-kilometre Bieszczady (pronounced Bish-cardy) National Park. Located 300 kilometres southeast of Krakow, and bordering Ukraine and Slovakia, the park has its own administration and conservation regime, a reflection of the immense importance of the wildlife it protects, which includes roe deer, wild boar, elk, European bison, beaver, brown bear and lynx.

The national park initially covered an area of 56 square kilometres when it was established in 1973 in the face of strong opposition from the hunting lobby. It was enlarged following the fall of Communism and then, in 1993, as part of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere initiative, it was included in the 2,000-square-kilometre East Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, which also takes in areas of Slovakia and the Ukraine. Bieszczady is the reserve's central protected zone, with a largely hands-off style of management. At present the Slovak and Ukrainian sections have only partial protection.

Of all the wildlife safeguarded by the reserve, it is the wolf whose status is the most contentious. Local anxieties and resentment, pressure from farmers and a powerful hunting lobby, inaccurate scientific data, social and economic development imperatives and an age-old fear combine to make conservation a political minefield.

Dr Wojciech Smietana of the Institute of Nature Conservation at the Polish Academy of Sciences has been studying wolves in Bieszczady National Park since 1988. "Conservation under Communism was poor," says Smietana, "but under capitalism it became worse. Only now are we beginning to make real progress." One of his main concerns is that the official figures given for Poland's wolf population are double what they are in reality. These official figures were influenced by data obtained by game managers who want to see a resumption of wolf hunting. Protected in Bieszczady since 1973, wolves were still hunted in its environs until 1998. However, illegal hunting, poaching and calls for culling for `scientific purposes' are ever-present threats.

"For years," says Smietana, "I applied for permission to use radiotelemetry to gain accurate information on the wolf population, but the hunting lobby blocked my permits. Yet permits were granted to hunt 150 wolves." From 1991 to 1995, Smietana used snow tracking to count wolves in Bieszczady. In an area of 100 square kilometres he identified the presence of five wolf packs, each of which comprised between two and ten individuals. His total estimate for the park's population came to just 60-80 wolves, but the official figure was 100-200. A cull of 100 was proposed, but only 35 were actually killed; however, this still meant the loss of as much as half the population.

It wasn't until 2000 that Smietana received permission to begin radiotracking. With the assistance of volunteers from Biosphere Expeditions, a non-profit organisation that engages in wildlife conservation projects, and Land Rover, which provided him with a vehicle, he has trapped a number of wolves and fitted them with radio-collars. …

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