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Wolves are Refusing to Pack It In

Rabu, 17 Juni 2009

Wolves are Refusing to Pack It In

Wolves are still found roaming wild only 20 kilometers or so from the Coliseum in Rome. They are among a few hundred descendants of the legendary she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the city’s founders, to have survived into the 20th century.

Prospects that the Italian wolf, canis lupus italicus, will see in the next century are better now than at any time in the past 20 years. The number of wolves in Italy has increased from an all-time low of about 100 in the early Seventies to between 350 and 400 today.

However, the future for the wolf is bleak elsewhere in Europe. Wolves are left in only eight of its 23 member states. Western Europe has a total of a few thousand wolves, according to a recent report by the Council of Europe.

The wolf if has had a bad press. Children’s stories and folk tales have conditioned countless generations to fear and despise Europe’s largest carnivore. Much of the hatred stems from the belief that they kill people as well as livestock.

But it is almost impossible to find authenticated cases of attacks on adult humans, except by rabid wolves. There are a few instances of small children being attacked while wandering alone in remote places.

Two children were killed in Galicia, in Spain, at the end of the 1960s; another two in 1974. on both occasion the attacks were made by a lone female wolf. But attacks like this are extremely rare. More people probably die on Europe’s roads every day than have been killed by wolves over the past thousand years. Ironically, it is northern countries like Norway and Sweden, generally considered as environmentally aware, that the wolf is on the verge of extinction.

Larger populations have managed to survive in southern Europe and also notably in Turkey. There were once tens of thousands in Spain and Portugal, where perhaps only 1700 now roam.

The decline of wolves in Italy until the 1970s appears to have been halted and their range has extended slightly over the past decade, giving rise to optimism among conservationist.

Because of long isolation, the wolves of Spain and Portugal and of Italy, are genetically distinct from those in the rest of Western Europe and from those in Eastern Europe and Asia, where wolves are more common.

Biologists regard them as different sub-species and their feeding habits differ. Italian wolves have a varied diet of small rodent and hares, fruit, plants, food scraps and the occasional domestic animal. Spanish wolves take food scraps too, but prey mainly on small wild boar and game birds.

This isolation of many wolf populations heightens concern for their survival. Dr. Hartmut Jungius, of the Worldwide Fund of Nature, says “Wolves are an endangered species. They are a priority for conservation in south and west Europe, where they are connected to the larger populations in Asia”.

Italy’s successful wolf protection programmed, launched in 1987, and has double the animal’s number and the habitats available to them. Their range is also increasing, rapidly so in Tuscany and Liguria. The country’s leading wolf expert, Dr Luigi Boitani, of Rome University says that a small number are being bred in captivity so that reintroductions can be considered where they have been driven to extinction.

A major step forward has been the provision of compensation by several of Italy’s regional governments for unfortunate farmers whose livestock have fallen prey to wolves. Two or three hundred sheep can be killed in just a few hours. Feral dogs-domestic animals that have reverted to the wild can do the same and the carnage is all too often blamed on wolves.

Italy has about 80,000 feral dogs plus another 200,000 stray domestic dogs, vastly our numbering wolves, says Dr Boitani. He is worried about the risk of these dogs interbreeding with wolves, wiping out the Italian wolf as we know it. Ironically, he says, though wolves are often reviled, animal protection organizations leap to the defence of stray and feral dogs. In Scandinavia the main conflict between wolf and main hinges on game animals, especially reindeer, because they are so important in the local economy.

In the north, east and extreme south of Finland, for instance, wolves can be legally hunted in winter. In central Finland they are protected, although the government can and does grant special licenses to kill them. In the 1980s average of 41 wolves were killed every year, despite full compensation for livestock losses. Wolves would never survive in Finland without the steady influx of animals from northern Russia, where they are more abundant.

In Greece the wolf has been legally protected since 1983 in theory. But organized huts and poisoning are commonplace, apparently sanctioned by the authorities.

While numbers seem to be falling in Portugal, in spite of legal protection since 1988, they have risen in Spain over the pat ten years. An increase in habit and food available, and controls on hunting, seem to be the reasons.

The Council of Europe has proposed a 12-point plan to conserve Europe’s wolves, including captive breeding programs, controls on feral dogs, compensation for livestock losses – and better education to foster greater understanding of these impressive animals. It wants countries with wolves to set a side areas in which they are fully protected, but to allow limited control on other areas, if need be. Dr Boitani says each fully protected area should cover at least 20,000 square kilometers.

But the European wolf is far from safe, even in Italy its increasing population there remains scattered in fragmental areas along involved in its conservation, better co-operation between countries with surviving populations and learning from the success of the Italian programmed could guarantee a better future for the legendary wolf.

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