Wolves eating people - hunters’ tales & zoologist’s facts.

How many different myths, fables and legends surround this wonderful animal? Some cultures associate it with demons and the realm of shadows, others in contrast, with symbols of power and family devotion. We are trying to understand the nature and origin of such different attitudes to this beast.
The Wolf

The Eurasian Wolf (Canis Lupus) is a predatory mammal from the Canidae species. We owe our ancestors for the domestication of such a strong and smart predator, who afterwards became the most devoted friend of man – the dog. The last scientific DNA-research confirms the fact that wolves are the real forefathers of domestic dogs.

Etymology of the Russian word “volk” (wolf):

Old Russian language – [вълкъ]

Old Slavonic – [влъкъ]

General Slavonic – [ vъlkъ]

(Bulg. вълк, Serb. вук, Sloven. vоɫk, Czech vlk, Pol. wilk, Belaruss. воўк, Ukr. вовк)

The word “volk” was borrowed from Old Slavonic (where it came from General Slavonic) in the 11th century meaning “predator animal, related to the dog”.

The origin of this word is from an Indo-European stem, with the lexical meaning “to carry”.  Following this the Old Slavonic word can be translated as “the one who carries” (for example, domestic cattle).

Words with the same phonation and semantic definition can feature in Lithuanian (vilkas – “volk”), German (Wolf), Gothic (wulfs).

(Semenov’s etymological dictionary).

Landscapes where it’s possible to meet a wolf are highly varied – forest-steppes, tundra, steppes, semi-deserts, foothills. It prefers open, weakly billowed spaces, avoiding deep forest tracts. It can settle not so far away from human habitation. In the taiga has expanded following man.

A couple of centuries ago, the wolf’s natural habitat was second in size to that of the human being. However, nowadays the number of grey predators has reduced significantly. Of course, the guilt for this lies with those who kill animals for pleasure or necessity, defending their own domestic beasts, disturbing and urbanizing natural landscapes. Although in the northern regions, its population remains stable.

Life in the pack

Wolves often settle on exact territory: their hunting area can reach 60 km in diameter. They usually move around their territory searching for prey, simply catching its scent over the kilometers.

Wolves usually live in packs. Each pack has from 5 to 38 individuals and there is a strong hierarchy within. At the head of the pack are a couple of leaders – the alpha-male and alpha-female (a reproducing couple), then their adult relatives and unrelated wolves. The two most recent litters hold play a special role, as they continue to be looked after until they reach 2 years old.

An unknown fact is that wolves are monogamous. Couples are formed only once and stay together forever. Just the leading couple takes part in reproducing. However, sometimes young and ready-to-multiply wolves divide themselves into packs, founding their own (usually happening during autumn and spring at the time of estrus). The wedding period lasts from January to April (it depends on the geographical area). At this time, male and female wolves take care of, and even flirt with, each other. Wolves also are able to love and have some different human feelings. The tragic story of Ernest Seton-Tompson’s Lobo-leader is a good example. In one season the pair makes only one litter. The pregnancy period lasts up to 65 days, after which, between3 to 13 blind little wolfs are born, getting the ability to see on the 12th or 13th day.

A wolf’s home is situated in nooks and crannies. Usually it has natural hideouts such as flaws or small caves in rocks, scrubs and niches in ravines.  As a home, wolves can also use bock, fox and polar fox burrows. Wolves never hunt less than 10 km from their home.

At home inside there is only the female-wolf with her children. Female-wolves feed them with milk and warmth. The male is the one who brings food: returning after hunting, he regurgitates half-sodden meat from his stomach to the female-wolf. A little bit later, parents will begin getting their even growing babies used to eating damp meat in their way. From this moment, puppies start to go out and examine the world around them, learning hunting skills in spontaneous fights. Now they try to get food themselves, catching mice and other rodents or insects. When puppies reach 5 months, they begin hunting with the whole wolf pack.

The name-classification of the wolves (in Russian) according to their age is very interesting:

Young wolves from one year old – “pribiliye”.

From one to two – “pereyarki” (born in the last year).

Older than two years, achieving virility – fully-grown wolves.

Wolves older than 10 years old are thought to be graybeards.

Medics of the forest

Wolves have got this nickname not by accident. That’s because they play a very important role in our ecological system. Usually predators choose as food the old, ill and straggled from the herd of young animals. This kind of natural selection allows strong and healthy individuals to survive.

Wolves are born hunters and excellent killers. Their tactics and strategies even can stagger your imagination. They use all the landscape’s benefits, driving their prey to cliffs or ravines, surrounding them and cutting off all ways out. Wolves always hunt in the dark. The peak of activity is during the morning and evening twilight.

Wolves are at the head of the food-pyramid. Their menu first of all is based on hoofed animals, like elk, deer, roes, northern deer and wild boar. Hordes of strong fully-grown wolves are able to block a half-ton elk- but it’s more likely to be an exception. Wolves, for example, never attack huge bulls, because this type of wild boar can simply cut open wolf’s stomach with its 6 inch lower tusks.

However deer and elks are likely to migrate and they are not always situated in the wolf pack’s territory. In this case, the grey predators have to eat what is left – rabbits, grouse and waterfowl birds, mice and other rodents. When there is not enough food in the forest, they even have to eat frogs, little beetles, berries and lichens. We know some incidents, when hungry wolves have attacked weak bears sleeping in dens during winter.

Wolves have a very strong survival instinct; they are prepared to take risks and are starting to even approach people. Farmlands for them are like a magic tablecloth: here are sheep, chickens, geese, and young calves. The main thing for wolves is that all these are very approachable, they don’t have to follow their prey and use their hunting skills: just arrive, wait, catch and leave. This moment means the beginning of conflict between wolves and human beings.

Wolves eating people - hunters’ tales & zoologist’s fact

In soviet times, all stories of wolf-cannibalism were officially covered-up. Any publications on this topic were strictly forbidden. However, there is some evidence in police documents. Yes, wolf-attacks existed and it was connected firstly with people’s location at that time. Thousands of small villages and farms were scattered all over a huge territory. Some settlements were very small, including just one family, and located very far from each other. Usually children were the one who looked after the animals, at the same time they were prey for wolves.

Later in twentieth century, from the 50s onwards, labor conditions had changed a lot. Most of the small villages had ceased to exist. Technology had appeared in the fields and small farmlands were unified into large collective farms. Adult horse herders started to look after big herds. Since those times, wolf-attacks on people have reduced a lot.

One Russian zoologist, A.A. Silantiev, talks about a very interesting statistic in his book “Research of trade hunting in Russia” – from 1870 till 1887 in 49 provinces of the European part of the Russian Empire, 1445 people were eaten by wolves, which means on average of 85 people a year.

The number of victims in traffic collisions in Russia for the half-year (January-June 2013) was 10364 people (according to official data of GIBDD (Main Directorate for Road Traffic Safety (Russia)). That means that myth of mass wolf attacks on people can be disproved, because nowadays these situations are so uncommon that you can’t compare them with the number of victims in traffic accidents or people who every year die from smoking or alcoholism.

The question is: what is the main source of these tales and rumors? Of course, hunters themselves who are interested in unregulated wolf-hunting.

Nature around us is perfect, it’s absolutely self-sufficient, and all mechanisms needed for self-regulation have already existed in nature from the beginning. When hunters interfere with nature and start killing all the best creatures, the strong wolves, they completely interrupt the strict family hierarchy inside a pack. As a result, wolves start multiplying more and more, but don’t have such healthy and clever individuals, because now all females reproduce, not only the dominant couple as it used to be. In this way the number of animals grows, but their quality reduces. Most of the packs are falling to pieces. Weak and inexperienced animals can’t live off the forest anymore, which is why they start attacking domestic animals. Following this, hunters hurt our nature even more.

But is the damage of wolves to farmlands really so strong or not? D.I. Bibikov in his monograph “The wolf” (Moscow, 1985) writes: “It should be noted data on the harm to livestock by wolves is not always certain enough due to the absence of special calculations. Particularly high were the distortions for deer and sheep”. Another Russian scientist N. Zheleznov proved even in 1978, that the killing of deer by wolves in the Magadan region had reached only 8-12 % of the total victims, the other 88-92% were just distortion.

However it is data from 30 years ago, what about the situation nowadays? Since that time not a lot of things have changed, there has been no exact controlling system until today. There is only one pilot project about chipping and electronically-monitoring animals, but right now it’s only in its testing stage.

The loudest scream about “grey terrorism” is in the Yakutia republic. According to cattle farmers, this year in 4 months they’ve lost 7668 deer, 4130 of which were killed by wolves. According to the Yakutia Veterinary Department, in this time wolves attacked the heads of 2641 deer. We can agree that these numbers differ a lot from each other. Wolves caught in the Trans-Baikal region are delivered to Yakutia, where the price for one predator reaches 35 000 RUR. During one season, up to 1000 wolves are usually shot, but by spring time, their population is again restored. Consequently, 1.1 million USD from the governmental budget every year is spent for no purpose, and this is only for one region.

Something more ridiculous is the results of sociological research in the Carpathian region of Ukraine. It turned out that local wolves only touch insured cows.

Taking in a consideration all of these facts, I suppose that now you understand for who and what it is profitable to create and spread myths about wolf-attacks on people and about huge damage to farmlands.

Escape from this problem could be in creating compensation funds and a total ban on wolf hunting. Resources which were spent every year on killing wolves would be spent on a loss compensation, which farmers suffered after a wolf-attack. However this kind of compensation will exist only for those farmlands which maintain strict electronic records of all livestock, because there is no confidence in their statistics.

In this way it will be possible to reconstruct the wolf’s population using their own natural self-regulation. And we will again live in a world of harmony with these wonderful smart animals exactly like our ancestors did hundreds and thousands years ago.

Text: Andrey Sugakov-Romanov.  Translation: Margarita Maslova.  Photo: Fotolia.

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