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.
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.
The Warring Camps
Hunters, for their part, accuse the so-called "wolf protectors" of idealizing the predator. And why should conservationists be so upset in the first place, hunters ask? After all, they argue, the new hunting laws still don't permit hunters to shoot wolves, so their protected status would remain unchanged.
The real question revolves around who ultimately determines how many wild animals human beings will tolerate in an environment they have largely cultivated and developed.
Conservationists and wildlife biologists have long felt relatively strong, after having won numerous battles. The wolf is strictly protected, and Saxony has a wolf management plan based on European Union guidelines that is so exemplary that Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and, to some extent, Bavaria have already copied it. The government has come to terms with sheep farmers, who are compensated for dead sheep and receive subsidies to install fences and assistance in acquiring special dogs to protect their herds.
Hunters, on the other hand, feel short-changed and are unwilling to cede control over their forests to wolves or conservationists. For this reason, the hunting lobby has convinced Kupfer to place the wolf "under the protection of game laws," as it is phrased. When asked to expound on the issue, Kupfer tends to stress the word "protection."
Swedish environmental journalist Henrik Ekman has written a book describing what it was like when the wolf began to roam through Scandinavian landscapes once again, and about how its enemies demonized the animal while its friends welcomed it with open arms.
All it takes is to substitute German for Scandinavian place names to recognize that the same thing is happening in Germany. In the Lausitz region, the roles in the drama have already been assigned.
THE WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST
Ilka Reinhardt, one of two full-time wolf observers in the Lausitz region, opens the window of her SUV and sticks her head out. She has folded in the side-view mirror because it blocks her sightlines. With the wind ruffling her chin-length brown hair, she scans the ground next to and in front of the vehicle, while crawling along at 25 kilometers per hour (15 mph). Reinhardt is looking for tracks.
There are plenty to be found, crisscrossing the vast sandy soil of the Oberlausitz military training area.
"Hooves," Reinhardt mumbles, "hooves, and more over here." She is referring to the hoof prints of roe deer, red deer and wild boar. Suddenly she slams on the brakes. "There!" Is it a wolf track? "Can't use it," she says. "He was running." When a wolf is walking or running, its tracks are indistinguishable from those of a domestic dog. But the predator does betray its presence when moving at a trot, because it places its paws in a row, like pearls on a chain. Reinhardt nudges the gas pedal and moves on.
She and her colleague, Gesa Kluth, are responsible for monitoring the wolves in the Lausitz region and in Saxony-Anhalt. They drive or bike around the area, carrying tape measures to measure paw prints and the distances between them, sample bags for wolf feces, which is analyzed for genetic research purposes and to study the animals' diets, and memory cards for camera traps.
The goal is concrete, reliable evidence. Sightings reported by hikers are as useless as the running tracks. Only when Kluth and Reinhardt have obtained hard evidence, such as clear photos from the camera traps, can they record statistics on new pups or sometimes even entirely new packs.
But counting wolves is more than just science. It has also become a profoundly political act. It can safely be assumed that there are few biologists in Germany whose research is as controversial as that being undertaken by Reinhardt and Kluth.
Reinhardt thinks about her nine years with the wolves, about the discussions and the night watches over threatened herds of sheep, and she talks about the time Kluth was attacked by the tabloid Bild, which accused her of wasting taxpayer money on her work. She also mentions the letters calling for the wolves to be shot. A local hunter, the spokesman for a small group of wolf haters, has been stirring up public opinion for some time with his scaremongering tactics, saying things like: "Only when we find the first child's school backpack at a bus stop, without the child, will people finally wake up."
"I'm tired of it," says Reinhardt. "Hey, I'm a biologist. I just want to do my job." She closes the barrier to the military training area behind her, marking the end of another workday. On this day, at least, she managed to find pup tracks in a pack's territory.
Heinz Baacke characterizes the monitoring of Canis lupus as "balderdash." Why should it be left solely up to the wildlife biologists, asks Baacke, who represents the state hunters' association in Saxony. After all, he says, hunters have eyes, too. "When I'm sitting on a tree stand," he says, "I don't exactly shut my eyes when the wolf walks by!"
Baacke already suspects that Kluth, Reinhardt and their assistants are deliberately undercounting the wolf population. For him, it's obvious that they have an interest in keeping the official numbers low. "All I can say is this: The fewer wolves there are, the more they need protection," the bearded hunter says. He likes to wear the appropriate outfit, which includes a felt hat and a green loden coat, when he goes deerstalking with his wirehaired dachshund Belina.
Conservationists, on the other hand, worry that hunters would count each wolf they see several times. In the Lausitz region, a pack covers a territory of about 250 square kilometers (97 square miles), which is more than four times the size of Manhattan. Given their range, the animals are likely to run past several tree stands in a single night. Biologists claim, for example, that sloppy monitoring was to blame for no one noticing that the Iberian lynx was becoming a critically endangered species in Spain and Portugal.
Baacke admits that hunters haven't exactly been eager to report sightings or kills. He is quick to attribute this to "psychological reasons," saying that hunters have felt sidelined. "Of course, they felt terribly offended."
This will change as soon as the wolf is placed under the protection of game laws, says Baacke, because then hunters will feel obligated to report kills and collect feces. "After all, they're the group that's most affected by the wolves," he says, because hunters must share their prey with the animals.
Then Baacke ventures into the world of metaphors. Hunters, he says, are like bulls. And conservationists are like oxen -- namely impotent.
THE SHEEP FARMERS
There was a lot of blood on the pasture a week ago. Silvia and Klaus Münster are sitting at a table covered with oilcloth. There are plastic flowers in pots lining the steps leading up to their house in Steinitz, a town in Saxony. The smell of chicken feces is in the air and there are chickens parading around the yard, clucking away. A rooster is crowing so loudly that Silvia Münster has to raise her voice to be heard.
"It's not a sight you can easily forget," she says, with her arms crossed. "There wasn't much left of the Cameroon sheep" -- nothing but scattered body parts.
The Münsters probably won't even be compensated for the four animals they lost in the massacre, because the pasture wasn't completely fenced in. "We didn't expect them to get through the reeds along the ditch," says Silvia Münster. "The people who showed up seemed to think it was funny. It was just an invitation to dinner, the woman said, the one with the dog."
The woman with the dog was Ilka Reinhardt, who investigates sheep killings to determine whether a wolf was to blame or just a feral dog. Her Longhair Weimaraner is trained to follow wolf tracks. He found parts of the sheep's bodies that had been dragged away, leading Reinhardt to conclude that it was indeed a wolf.
"It's outrageous, the notion that the wolf is more important than people," says Silvia Münster. She is not a fan of Reinhardt and her colleagues. "They're the ones who brought him here, the wolf, for scientific purposes, for observation purposes!" She refuses to be dissuaded from believing this theory of wolf reintroduction -- one that is widespread in the Lausitz region.
And then her taciturn husband speaks up: "I'm not afraid of the wolf. I'd beat him to death."
THE FRIENDS OF WOLVES
The gray predator's biggest fan club, the "Society for the Protection of Wolves," has about 1,000 members, while another group, the "Friends of Wolves Living in the Wild," has 200. That makes more than 10 wolf protectors per wolf in Germany, not to mention organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The officials of these organizations travel around Germany in the hope of changing negative views of the predators.
On this particular evening, the Society for the Protection of Wolves is holding an event in the state of Saarland, which the friends of Canis lupus refer to as a "state expecting the arrival of the wolf." The event is an informational gathering in the Neuhaus barn, a cozy place with rustic walls and wooden tables, north of the state capital Saarbrücken.
The environment minister, a member of the Green Party and the head of the state forestry agencies are there. Hunters were invited, but none showed up. Instead, a group of like-minded people listens to a presentation by a representative of the Society for the Protection of Wolves, who spends two hours raving about the wolf as a fairy tale-like creature. He also mentions the "really cute children's books" his organization sells to instill an affection for the animals among little children.
The minister leaves after an hour, but the rest of the audience sit patiently in their seats as Werner Freund, a mumbling, geriatric 78-year-old, gets up to speak. He owns a wolf zoo in the Saarland town of Merzig. He shows a film depicting the captive wolves licking the "catch" -- as he calls his mouth. Whenever the local butcher has some offal to spare, Freund, as the leader of the pack, gets the first bite. It's great to feel like a wolf, he says.
A Revitalized German Ecosystem?
Passion, politics, feuds and agitation -- it isn't the animal itself that gets people so excited. It's the burden of the narrative people have created for this predator. The wolf has become a symbol, while defending or hating the creature has turned into a religion.
Conservationists used the wolf as Europe's answer to the Giant Panda, as a heraldic animal of sorts. It represents the return of the wild, and the last chance to heal the gaping wound that the most brutal of all animals, Homo sapiens, has inflicted upon nature. For conservationists, the wolf has finally returned to his rightful place at the top of the food chain, and their hope is that this will help restore the forest ecosystem to its original state. Almost as if Eve had never taken a bite out of the forbidden fruit.
But for many hunters, farmers and sheepherders, the predator's return represents a step back in the history of civilization. They argue that man has tamed nature for millennia. And now they are suddenly expected to share the forest with a predator once again? Why should they even raise livestock, they ask, if only to witness wolves slaughtering their sheep and goats in a bloodthirsty frenzy?
A large-scale study published in Science concludes that the expulsion and annihilation of large predators was "arguably humankind's most pervasive influence on the natural world."
The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park in the United States has been a success story. The wolves have depleted the massive herds of elk that have existed for decades, allowing trees and shrubs to return to stream banks. Beaver populations grew and built dams, creating habitats for rare species of birds and other animals. Vultures benefited from the remains of wolf kills. An entire ecosytem was revived.
'Nurtured and Cherished'
Is a similar outcome possible in Germany? Most scientists are skeptical, because of the more pervasive presence of man in Europe.
According to one study, a wolf pack consumes about one roe deer a day, along with two wild boars and one red deer a week -- a sizeable take -- in an area of 100 hectares. Human beings, on the other hand, bag twice as many deer and four times as many wild boar within the same area.
Canis lupus will find it more difficult to play his traditional role in such a tamed ecosystem -- unless hunters turn over the field to wolves completely. But for that to happen, more hunters would probably have to take a deep look into the eyes of the gray predator.
Biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber once described how that feels. He wrote that he was "immediately transfixed" by the experience, during a hiking trip through the Ethiopian highlands.
"When I looked up, the wolf was staring directly into my eyes," Weber notes. "I froze, and what happened next can only be described as our having exchanged looks. The predator's black eyes were trained on me, as if he were staring from the depths of the other. At the same time, however, I saw a reflection of myself in those eyes: a solitary wanderer in the silent mountains."
When Weber reflected on the fascination that this moment with the Abyssinian wolf had had for him, he concluded that mankind, while surviving in the wild for hundreds of thousands of years, had come to a deep realization, one that endures to this day, that he could only exist because of the existence of the wild.
Today's Homo sapiens, in the form of a hunter, finds it difficult to experience this self-reflection, or to find his place in nature. A hunter in the Lausitz region puts it this way: "Here I am, the fool who has to stop hunting deer, just so the wolf can be nurtured and cherished."