Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Can humans and wolves coexist in rewilding?

Yes, but we need to change behaviors

Photo by Inna Kupchenko on Unsplash

First things first: why should we reintroduce wolves? Or, what is in it for me?

The short answer is a more resilient ecosystem with more biodiversity.

We can not simply pave half of the world’s landmass and cultivate the other half. It is not possible if we want to keep surviving as a species.

Wolves are a keystone species, positively influencing the ecosystem as an all. We need a lot of healthy nature to keep the Earth’s ecosystems working.

Studies show several gains wolves provide, from small animals like ravens to large animals like bears. Wolves stimulate plant growth, including trees, by controlling herbivores’ numbers and behaviors. More trees allow beaver numbers to rise and build more dams, which fosters growth in fish numbers and restores river systems.

Won’t humans become wolf prey?

In Europe and America, wolves do not look at humans as food. Even the chance of being attacked by wolves is scant.

Wikipedia keeps a list of wolve attacks; you can see how rare they are if you divide attack frequency by the surrounding population. Conclusion: Human death is almost unexistent — the same for attacks on humans.

However, wolf attacks are more common in Asia, as they used to be in Europe. Why?

Wolves are good predators.

Wolves, as good predators, target the weak, the sick, the young, and the old. When food is the motivation, wolves’ main target is children — either child tending sheep or night sneak attacks in villages.

Children alone in the wild are scarce nowadays in Europe and the US. And villages and even isolated houses have doors strong enough to detain wolves in addition to lighting during the night. So most attacks today happen in Asia, particularly in India.

It also classifies the wolves motives, which is paramount when wanting to learn how to reduce attacks.

Wolves motives

There are several motives. According to two studies covering wolf attacks on humans, rabies is the most common cause of wolf aggression on humans.

Rabies can act as a mind-controlling virus in its excitative stage. The Victims become hyperactive and bite everything near them. The virus zombifies its hosts to spread. Rabies attacks are not normal wolf behavior like it is not for infected dogs and cats.

Humans being humans

Another motive is human provocation, incredible as it seems. Sometimes understandably, but in a not very well thought-out way. For instance, when trying to expel a wolf from your backyard.

Wolves are top predators, and humans should avoid conflict with them. One should call specialized authorities to deal with it.

On the other hand, if you live in an isolated rural area, it may take a long time for such authorities to come (if they exist). And wolves must fear and respect human territory.

Habituation to humans leads to more attacks and potential deaths. On the other hand, dealing with wolves can not be handled by ad-libbing in an amateur fashion.

Wolf attacks because of very confused Humans

And this leads us to another way when humans are responsible: when they confuse wolves and their protection with cuddly animals. Wild canine habituation of humans that give them food leads to later attacks.

Amazingly enough, in Sweden, there was a program for “social activities” for humans with wolves, including petting them. Activities continued until wolves killed an employee, despite previous attacks. It took the casualty for such activities to stop.

Wolves may look like dogs, but they are not. In the same way, lions may resemble cats, but we do not go on petting safaris in Kruger Park. If you get close to wolves, chances are they see it as an invasion and a challenge and respond aggressively. Or see you as uber eats, where you are a self-delivering pizza.

Still, even with humans being humans:

  • Attacks are rare;
  • Fatalities are even less common.

But what about domestic animals?

Wolf attacks domestic animals.

As part of rewilding efforts, wolves stay in rural and wildlife areas. Consequently, most attacks will happen to domestic animals frequently in those areas.

Cows, sheep, goats, and horses are examples. Another example is hunting dogs.

Wolves, domestic animals, and food

Part of the problem with reintroducing predators is not reintroducing prey as well. Studies show that if wolves have the option, they prefer to prey on wild game. With the reintroduction of wolves must come their mark, particularly ungulates (large hoofed herbivores).

Add wolf dogs to flocks to further hedge wolves’ opportunistic predator behavior to our advantage. Increasing the risk and difficulty for wolves to raid flocks and herds makes their attacks less likely.

Provided with an ample option of their preferred wild games versus their second choice food protected by shepherd dogs, their choices will tilt towards the wild game.

The human issue

Currently, reintroduction policies pay compensation for cattle eaten by wolves. However, this only addresses some of the problems. And I don’t mean it because sometimes the compensation process is too bureaucratic or economically unfair.

Economic compensation only addresses financial losses. There is a deeper layer than the economic loss of sheep or horses.

When the current President of the European Union, a descendent of aristocratic and business European dynasties, mourns the loss of her pony mauled by a wolf, I don’t think it is all about money.

For centuries the fear of wolves roamed the countryside. For shepherds of flocks and herds and farmers further afield, wolf extinction felt like a liberation. For hunters, killing a wolf was an honorable did and sign of worth.

We can not or should not return to a bad past

To roam the countryside again in fear of wild beasts, particularly in most of western Europe, is a new return to an unwelcomed past.

Some slick city people, smug and safe in their big cities, tell us we must accept the risk in our land. We must accept the losses of the animals we care for and face threats to personal security and even death on our properties.

On the other hand, in that same cities, academics gather data from fieldwork, showing the imperative need for rewilding to rebalance our ecosystem. The ecosystem is an interconnected web of trophic relations in which wolves are keystone species.

We can’t also get back to business as usual. Agriculture and hunting must change.

The tricky challenge is to change behaviors.

The best chance is to induce the separation of humans and wolves by influencing each other’s behaviors.

On the one hand, rural communities must face the added risks from added wolf numbers can not be fixed by exterminating them again. The same rationale is valid for hunters; some practices must change.

On the other hand, conservation efforts must address rural communities’ reasonable fears and needs. It is not presenting statistics that wolves’ kills are still very low or wolves’ status symbol in rewilding.

Statistics are not everything.

Human deaths by wolves may be lower than those caused by lighting, but that is not the point. Not all causes of death weigh the same to the public eye, which is neither wrong nor unreasonable.

Homicide was also much higher in the past, yet we still aim lower it.

We can’t go back to the past works both ways.

Rewilding can not mean a return to the past to life in fear for rural communities. We have much more science, technology, and resources. Especially if and when we take this issue seriously.

We can track wolves and know where they are. We can add wolf dogs to flocks and create complementary technology, including behavioral, like aversive conditioning, on wolves to stay away from humans.

And there are sucess cases already.

We can upgrade homes, padlocks, and corral protection against predators while working to increase wild game numbers. We can even develop clothes to protect ourselves and our children from wolf attacks if we choose to.

But all of these actions, to work, require a change in behaviors, and both sides take each other needs seriously.

This is part 2 of a series. Part 1 covered the European Parliament’s efforts and the European Commission’s President to water down projections for large predators in the EU.

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Miguel Pacheco

Architect with scholarly background. Writing on the intersection of Buildings, Energy & Environment with People. Top writer in Energy and Transportation.