How Germany uses science to live with wolves

The howls, more or less serious depending on the animal’s place in the pack, were heard by Tatjana Schneider from her house. Because the 54-year-old keeper and animal behaviorist lives at the gates of the Werner Freund wolf park, in Merzig, in Saarland, near the French border. He has been directing research there for eleven years, and has currently found about twenty specimens from around the world: common gray wolves, found in Europe, wolves from the Alaskan tundra, including their thick white coats, wolves from India, Siberia. .. This center, founded in 1977 by a researcher and embedded in thirteen hectares of forest, is one of the rare places in the world where the behavior of Canis lupus very close Goal: to better understand the predator to facilitate its settlement with another large predator, but also a breeder, Homo sapiens.

⋙ Wolves, eagles, bears, bison: a report highlights the successful return of wildlife to Europe

Destabilize the balloon instead of removing it

In Germany, the animal, which was dug up until its extinction in the middle of the 19th century, returned in 2000, from Poland, after a hundred and fifty years of absence. There are now more than a thousand specimens, mainly at the other end of the country, in the Elbe basin, in the North and East. From a quarantine in 2006, attacks on animals have increased to 4,000 in 2020. And many of them are calling for the elimination of wolves, a protected species.

In the forest of Merzig, every day without exception, Tatjana Schneider and her colleague Michael Schönberg, 42, enter the seven enclosures where the packs live. And there, they lend themselves to an unchanging and wonderful ritual for the visitor: kneeling facing the predators, they let the wolves come up to them to lick their faces. These specimens, given by zoos in Germany and other European countries, came here as cubs. And over the years, they became familiar with Tatjana and Michael, the only park team members authorized to see them every day. The two researchers somehow integrated the packages… That allowed them to study their behavior as closely as possible.

“Just like people, each wolf has its own personality,” says Tatjana. “Some are intelligent, others less so. Some are shy, others are more reckless…” The wolf Huka is one of those particularly cunning specimens, explains the behaviorist enthusiastically: he actually learned to seduce his brother lured him away from his share of the meat. “But because of this, some breeders in the area think it should be slaughtered,” regretted Tatjana. “They were afraid he would escape.” Because of this, no one forgets the storm Xynthia, which in 2010 damaged the fences of the park. Several packs of balloons took the opportunity to fly, before being returned to the cage. There were no injuries to regret, but the incident was most disconcerting.

Rare footage of a maned wolf with her cubs captured in Argentina

“And it’s true that in the face of wolves as intelligent as Huka, no herd protection measure is 100% reliable,” Tatjana admitted. But together with the park team, he continues to refine the parades. “I’m trying to show the breeders that the wolf is not the bloodthirsty killer that haunts the fairies,” explained the specialist. In addition to electrified fences and dogs, it teaches them a secret weapon: destabilization. In an example he wanted to give them. The story of a mountain sheep herder in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia – a true story told at an international wolf conference. “Every year, his animals are victims of attacks,” he said. “However, they are protected by a dog, a Caucasian Shepherd, a hardy breed, a mastiff that weighs 60 to 70 kilos and has a strong protective instinct. But the wolves, who have learned to organize themselves to attract he away from the herd, ended up killing him. Desperate, the breeder decided to replace his big dog with a dozen Chihuahuas. The smallest dog in the world, which is obviously no match for the wolf, but the incessant barking provokes of the Cacophony of hell. As a result, the wolves were completely discouraged! Five years later, the breeder took a mountain dog. And the new generation of wolves no longer had the knowledge to fight it.”

Learn to hunt with hunters and breeders

800 kilometers away, in Berlin, Guido Fritsch, a veterinarian who specializes in medical imaging and radiology at the Leibniz Institute for Zoological and Wildlife Research, has just received a wolf carcass. The animal was found dead near a road in Lower Saxony, in the northwest of the country. The scientist places the remains in a state-of-the-art scanner, “worthy of those used for humans”, he says proudly. The body is then taken to the necropsy room, where Claudia A. Szentiks, a veterinarian who specializes in animal pathologies, removes and examines the tissues. Cause of death: hemothorax (accumulation of blood between the lungs and the thoracic cavity), probably following a collision with a car. A frequent situation in winter, when young wolves, in search of new territories, cross busy roads.

Since the predator returned to German soil twenty-two years ago, the Leibniz Institute has been conducting detailed monitoring of local wolves, particularly specializing in research into the causes of their deaths. Last year, researchers received in their laboratory 142 corpses sent from all over the country. Scanner, necropsy, virological analysis, examination of fangs, study of stomach contents… They are examined from every angle. Conclusion: in 2021, 70% of deaths will involve vehicles, 11% will be due to illegal logging. “But this last figure is only the tip of the iceberg”, warned Heribert Hofer, director of the institute, who warned of the difficulty of knowing the extent of poaching. “A wolf that died in a car accident may, for example, show old traces of gunshot wounds,” explained the scientist. For the head of the Leibniz Institute, scientists must cooperate with hunters and breeders. “They gained valuable empirical experience and were experts in their field,” said the researcher.

The number of possible wolf culls has been renewed for 2021

Herbert Hofer has a specific example in mind: “In 2016, a hunters’ association in Saxony, in the east of the country, was delighted to have an exceptional season, with significantly more deer and wild boar than in recent years. Hunters have complained of catastrophic results in the same region. Animals are disappearing because of predation, they say. Wolf defenders are quick to discredit their words, accusing them of lying. Although in fact, it is quite possible that the plot in which these individuals are hunted is a crossing for the wolf, with a higher risk for local animals. To relieve tensions, we must start with by giving credit to the people living on earth, he concluded. It is up to the researchers to do their work, based on the facts, to ensure… or invite the greatest caution.

➤ Report published in the section A planet to protect GEO magazine of August 2022 (n° 522, Brittany).

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