Predators Good or Bad: A Country Struggles with the Return of the Wolf

By Rafaela von Bredow

For a decade now, wolves have been quietly advancing through eastern Germany and may be making inroads across the entire country. But people still haven't learned to live with the predator. Some glorify the wolves, others demonize them and many are simply afraid.

Photo Gallery: The Advance of the Wolves Photos
DPA

They are scenes one might normally expect to see in the Serengeti. But Franz Graf von Plettenberg has the privilege of watching them from his elevated hunting stand in the forests of eastern Germany.

In his case, though, it's a deer (rather than a gnu) that is walking calmly through the heath, even though the evil killer, a wolf (instead of a lion), is within sight, heading for the forest. It's as though the potential prey can sense that this wolf has already eaten his fill.

Plettenberg, a forest ranger, is responsible for close to 35,000 hectares (86,450 acres) of state-owned forest and open country. His territory also includes a military training area that became famous as the home of Germany's first wolf pack in 150 years.

Plettenberg likes the wolf, because it helps him deplete game populations, an important service because too many deer damage the forest. They love to eat the shoots of tender young seedlings and peel off the bark of larger trees and shrubs -- none of which is good news for someone interested in making money with timber.

There are, however, many hunters who don't share Plettenberg's point of view. They see the newcomer as a rival challenging them for prey and for control of the forest. "Until now, when hunters have been challenged to justify what they do, they've argued that it's up to them to do the work of wolves that no longer existed in German forests," says Plettenberg. But now that wolves have returned, hunters are complaining that they are driving away game.

Meet One-Eye and Sunny

It's been 10 years since the first pair of wolves crossed the border from Poland and appeared in the sandy and isolated heath of the Oberlausitz military training area in the eastern state of Saxony, where they mated and raised their pups. Two females emerged from this family, which in turn found partners and, since then, have reliably produced new litters year after year.

The two females, which were captured, sedated, fitted with transmitter collars and released, were officially named FT3 and FT1. Scientists have given them more endearing names since then. One female, which has a slight limp and, on the blurred images taken by camera traps, has a dark spot where an eye used to be, was named One-Eye. Today One-Eye sports the belly of an older female between her thin legs. Wolves living in the wild rarely live much longer than One-Eye's 10 or 11 years.

The other female, One-Eye's sister Sunny, has been equally productive. Sunny and One-Eye will likely go down in history as the primordial mothers of Germany's new wolf population. Their clan has been largely responsible for a bounty of some 158 pups. Many of them have died, while others have migrated into the wilds of Eastern Europe. Alan, a son of One-Eye, made it as far as Belarus. Nevertheless, some wolves have remained in Germany and established new families.

Today, close to 90 specimens of Canis lupus are roaming through the eastern German states of Saxony, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. One female, Zora, made it almost as far as Hamburg, where her trail disappeared.

A Stroke of Luck

By now, it is clear that wolves are here to stay. No one is prepared to make a reliable prediction, but it is quite possible that the predators will advance into the Central German Uplands, including the Harz Mountains, as well as the Taunus, Eifel and Westerwald, three low mountain ranges in western Germany. In these areas, as well as in Bavaria and the southwestern states of Baden-Württemberg and Saarland, they could encounter their cousins from Italy and France -- which, from a genetic standpoint, would be a stroke of luck for the German wolf population.

A wolf from the Mediterranean region was spotted in Bavaria as recently as this spring, and one of the Italian wolves even made it as far as the central German city of Giessen, where it was hit by a car. It hasn't been seen since. In July, one of the southern wolves triggered a camera trap in France's Alsace region, only 60 kilometers (38 miles) from the southwestern German city of Freiburg. Germany's Federal Agency for Nature Conservation estimates that the country could support as many as 440 packs.

Germany is becoming a home for wolves. The gray predators are on the increase throughout Germany as they are across the Continent. It's just that not all of the country's human inhabitants are happy about it.

No other animal has as many friends and foes, or is the source of so much friction. The presence of wolves is turning upright citizens crooked and driving otherwise well-mannered conservationists berserk, triggering a wave of harassment, denunciations and lawsuits. Politicians, biologists, forest rangers, hunters, farmers and even city dwellers are involved.

Near-Mythical Creature

The church once saw the wolf as the devil incarnate, and fairy tales, from Little Red Riding Hood to The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids, taught children to fear the wild creature. Wolves were treated as vermin: shot, poisoned and bludgeoned to death. Canis lupus was hounded into near-extinction throughout Central Europe, turning it into a near-mythical creature that existed only in fairy tales.

There is no justifiable basis for our fear of wolves. The predators usually do not attack people, unless they are rabid or have been emboldened as a result of being fed. But rabies is considered eradicated in Germany, and so far Germans have not been crazy enough to offer the animals bowls of freshly slaughtered meat on their doorsteps.

But the debate over wolves is rarely pursued by means of logical arguments -- neither in Saxony nor other places where wild wolves are likely to be roaming forests and fields in the near future.

The situation in the Lausitz region south of Berlin is a case in point. It illustrates what happens when the gray predators have come to stay, and how irreconcilable their fans and enemies still are after more than a decade.

Now the two opposing mindsets have a new reason to be at odds. Saxony's environment minister, Frank Kupfer, recently announced that wolves would in the future fall under the law which regulates hunting, which would mean that hunters, too, would be responsible for the protection of the animals. This has triggered outrage among many conservationists, who feel that hunters are nothing but potential wolf murderers. In their view, hunters abide by three rules when it comes to wolves: shoot, shovel and keep quiet. In fact, since the wolf became indigenous to Germany again, seven animals have been shot, most recently in the Lausitz region in May.

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