Romanian shepherds are well used to the threat of wolves.
Where the forests meet the open grasslands, bells and bottles hang from trees, clattering in the wind as warning to large carnivores.
Hefty guard dogs, some hybrids of wolves themselves, prowl protectively around flocks of sheep. Shepherds watch on, staying with their animals at all times, heavy sticks at hand.
‘The beast attacked like a lighting bolt’
But when Kilyén Sándor installed surveillance cameras around his farmyard in a Transylvanian village, it was thieves he was expecting to find rustling his animals. Situated in a well-populated valley and over three miles from the nearest forest, wolves were not something he had ever had to worry much about.
By the time I arrived at his house, Sándor’s problem with the canine ‘criminal’ was already national news. Just hours after the wolf had attacked his sheep, the crew of a national TV station had arrived, sieved through his CCTV footage for gory details and reported the incident with a grizzly hyperbole usually found in tabloid tales of murder cases.
“The beast attacked like a lightning bolt, in the middle of the night. The poor sheep ran away terrified and in just seconds the hungry animal had grabbed a little lamb … then he came back for five more.”
A stern promise of ‘retribution’
Sándor, the news anchor assured us, was set on retribution, and would be working with the local hunting association to make sure that he got it.
Sándor’s story, as reimagined by the media, is at once ancient myth and immediately relevant. Almost any Romanian would recognise the speed and cunning of The Big Bad Wolf from a number of local fairy tales, and could predict its eventual downfall at the hands of the vengeful.
At the same time, according to the officials at the ministry of environment, real life attacks on livestock are on the rise, and calls for culls can be heard across the country, both from livestock farmers and hunting businesses.
Wolves on the move….
Ovidiu Ionescu is a scientist, hunter and the man employed by the state to compile official information about wolves in Romania and come up with the yearly hunting quotas.
We meet at his office at the University of Forest Research and Management, in the medieval city of Brasov. Bear skulls hang alongside mounted antlers on the wooden walls. A map of the country hangs above his desk, peppered with hundreds of numbers which represent the distribution of wolves.
The wolf population, he says, lies somewhere between 2,300 and 2,750, by far the largest in Europe and, in the Carpathian Mountain regions at least, one of the most densely compacted populations on earth.
Officially, the population is slowly increasing and the wolves’ territories are spreading. It is the latter situation which most worries the government.
“There are new areas occupied by wolves, areas which at least the forest research institute consider that from economic and social point of view are not suitable for wolves”, says Ionescu.
“People don’t know how to react to the presence of the wolves and they don’t know how to protect their livestock in the way that people in the mountains do, so the levels of conflicts are very, very high. We harvest large carnivores where the damages are registered.”
Over count, over kill
While the evidence does suggest a spread in wolf territories, the numbers and stability of the population is strongly disputed by many independent conservationists. In reality, explains Attila Kecskes of Milvus Group, a wildlife conservation group in Transylvania,
“Nobody knows the status of the wolf population in Romania. Because there is no relevant and credible national data, nobody knows if the population is growing, is stable or decreasing.”
The problem, as he sees it, is that the main monitoring and management of wolves is done by the hunting associations which, since the privatization of hunting in 2002, have sprung up at an exponential rate.
There are now almost 1,000 associations, each responsible for an area considerably smaller than a wolves territory, and each with a bottom line of making a profit.
And for them, the wolf is competition. Wolf hunting brings in little money. It is the wolves’ prey – deer, chamois and wild boar – that keep the hunting associations in business. So the economic logic is clear – to get rid of the wolves.
Numbers are submitted – but are they accurate?
Every year, the hunting associations have to state the number of wolves in their areas, and give the numbers to Ovidiu Ionescu and the Forest Research and Management Institute.
“A wolf pack of four members has a territory of minimum 100 square kilometres”, says Kecskes. “Because the hunters do not talk to each other, it’s very probable that the same wolf pack is counted more than once, in more places. This is the biggest problem.”
With other members of Milvus group, Kecskes has been working on an independent study for the last three years, monitoring wolf numbers in a protected area of 2,500 km² at the foothills of Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains.
While the official numbers given by the hunting associations came to 151 wolves, Milvus’ count was considerably lower – between 20 and 30.
The process is arbitrary – and inaccurate
Ovidiu Ionescu is aware that the hunter’s estimates are vastly inflated and, based on the theoretical estimates of how many wolves could live in each area, he calibrates the numbers down to a level that is at least ecologically possible.
This process, he admits, is “completely arbitrary”, and the final numbers are still well over double those found in the independent study. Yet it is from this number that the hunting quota is drawn, allowing for between 10% and 30% of the population to be shot each year – far more than the diminished wolf numbers could support.
Add to this the threat of poaching, which Milvus Group speculate could equal or even exceed those killed officially, and the situation is potentially very grave for the wolf.
Wolves forced to breed with wild dogs
Hunting does not only diminish the number of wolves, it also changes their behaviour, says Kecskes:
“The tendency in the hunting family is to follow the western countries’ practices which resemble a kind of animal husbandry. Wilderness disappears and the natural ecological role of wolves is altered.”
He points to studies which show that in areas where hunting is carried out even at a moderate level, wolf packs start to split and shrink in size and individuals start to breed with wild dogs.
This in turn leads to a spread in wolf territories as new packs search out territories of their own. With available wild spaces thin on the ground, and with wolves increasingly emboldened by the DNA of dogs, new packs are claiming territories ever closer to human settlements.
And in these places damages to livestock go up, hunters take out their ‘retribution’ on local wolves – and the cycle goes on.
A world without wolves.
Though there is little agreement between the state and NGOs over wolf management, all agree on one thing – the loss of the wolf would mean a fundamental change in the ecology of the Romania’s forests.
As wolves disappear, grazing animals such as deer and wild boar would increase rapidly. This would damage the ability of forests to regenerate naturally, which in turn would alter almost the entire ecosystem, from bird habitats to the species and populations of fish in the rivers.
The topography would change, with the loss in trees leading to increased erosion, and even the routes taken by rivers would alter.
Naturally, some hunters argue that they could take the role of carnivores, keeping ungulate levels down – and profiting in the process – as is the model in much of the rest of Europe.
But a comparative study made between the German Alps and the Romanian Carpathians shows that the influence of hunters on ungulate behaviour differs dramatically from that of wolves.
German forests are unable to regenerate naturally
Though both areas have a similar amount of ungulates, the German forests were shown to be failing to regenerate naturally. The ungulates would concentrate in a single area and stay there until all the food was gone, then move on and repeat the process.
In Romania, a concentration of ungulates would quickly attract wolves and other large carnivores, causing the grazing animals to move on before they had over-depleted the forest resources.
For now, the ecological process of many of Romania’s forests still function. But, with hostility to the wolf entrenched in the very system in place to protect it, this could soon change.
And as the reality of the wolf situation so unclear, even an acute decline in this iconic species, in its greatest European stronghold, could go unnoticed until it is too late.
Luke Dale-Harris is a freelance reporter and investigative journalist in living in Transylvania, covering environmental and human rights abuse issues.
This essay originally ran in the Ecologist.