Standort: / Meldung: "Into The Wild"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

18. 2. 2017 - 08:49

Into The Wild

Tracking wolves, bears and lynx - and their poo - in Slovakia

The crusty snow crunches under our snowshoe-clad feet as we climb up a forest track on a misty day in the snowy mountains of northern Slovakia. I’ve joined a research team from Biosphere Expeditions monitoring populations of large predators here in the Lipova valley, one of the remotest stretches of the western Carpathians.

Wolves, bears and even the reclusive lynx roam those forested mountains. Slovak scientist Tomas Hulik, who is leading the small research team today, describes them as “key species”.

Keeping the Forests Healthy

These large predators help keep the ecosystem in balance by preying on smaller herbivores that can wreak havoc in the forests if their numbers aren’t kept in check.

“Without wolves, for example, there’d be too many wild boars and deer," says Tomas, "and they can devastate the small plants and young trees.”

Miha Krofel

Wild boar also ravage lucrative cereal crops in summer so you’d imagine that wolves would be seen as natural ally of farmers. But this is not the case. Wolves have suffered an image problem since the times of the Grimm brothers.

As children we are told that wolves are big and bad. “I call it Little Red Riding Hood Syndrome,” laughs Tomas.

Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf? Not me.

In fact there have only been 59 recorded cases of wolves attacking humans in the past 50 years - mostly involving wolves infected with rabies. Only 5 of those have involved a fatality.

So even with 10.000 wolves in the wild, only one person has been killed by a wolf per decade. There's nothing to fear from these shy animals.

Nice gloves wolf track

Chris Cummins

Yet the negative reputation has had its impact. The Grey Wolf was hunted to near extinction in Europe during the 19th century and, though steadily recovering under the protection of the EU Nature Directives, numbers are still fragile.

Stopping for breath, Tomas and I gaze across the rounded mountains of this wintery landscape. All the large predators need to survive, says Tomas “is to be left in peace by humans.”

"Horrible" hunting quotas

But they are not. Wolves in Slovakia can be legally hunted between November and January or until an officially designated quota has been filled. And this quota has what Tomas Hulik describes as a “horrible” impact on their chances of regeneration.

This year, the quota was set at about 70 wolves out of the roughly 300 or 400 wolves roaming the area. “Each year the hunters are allowed to shoot down nearly a third of the population.”

Beautiful wolf

Miha Krofel

One of the problems is that we are not quite sure of the exact populations and quotas are set on the basis of an unscientific count made by hunters themselves.

Conservationists fear that these figures are spurious or even deliberately inflated and, as a consequence, too many hunting permits are issued.

Scientific Methodology

That’s why the work of Tomas’ team is vital. They are trying to document the real extent of the predators populations based on sound scientific methodology. Later the scientist will show his research to the commission tasked with issuing the hunting permits.

The research could save the lives of wolves.

Tomas has been joined by three volunteers: Gill from England, Ed from Washington DC and Idan from Israel, all of whom are using holiday time to take part in this conservation project, and, indeed, even paying for the privilege.

“I wanted to contribute to the work that people like Tomas are doing,” says Ed, “I want to help to further the science.”

Ed Hiking

Chris Cummins

Ed hiking

These volunteer scientists play an important role says the overall co-ordinator of the expedition Malika Fettak. “A field biologist is no more than a stamp collector,” she says. “You need feet to walk to ground and eyes to spot for signs and tracks and faeces.

It may not be glamorous but it is fun. When we find a the paw print of a wolf, bear or a lynx the team photographs it next to a ruler and then enters the coordinates of the find into a GPS machine.

An Extensive Log

There are two other Biosphere Expedition teams in other parts of the mountains and at night the various groups gather back at their base above the small town of Kraľovany and tally the findings.

The groups cover between 15 and 20km in a day and so at the end of a week there’s an extensive log of the local area.

The researchers

Chris Cummins

“The volunteers get some hands on conservation experience working with real scientists out in the field,” says Malika, “and they can be confident they are contributing to a good cause.”

A Snowy Adventure

It’s also a bit of an adventure of course. I should be looking down for yellow snow, but I find myself gazing upwards. In the higher reaches of the forest it is a winter wonderland. The pine-needles have tuned white with frost and the sound of an owl is echoing through the branches.

“This combines so many things I love,” says Gill: “Being outside in the mountains and contributing to conservation.”

Quite early on we find the paw print of a lynx. Nearby Tomas bends down and starts sniffing at a tree stump. He has found a patch of days old urine and wants to check for the tell-tale catty smell. Satisfied he pulls a motion-sensitive camera trap out of his back pack and starts tying it to the stump.

By a tree

Chris Cummins

“Right now we are in the mating season of the lynx,” he says. “They are communicating by marking their territory with urine. So we hope this lynx will come back and will mark our camera trap with urine and then we will see it.”

A week later I see the result. A ghostly picture of this shy and reclusive animal. I feel a frisson of excitement. Images of glory of nature still fill me with an almost childlike sense of awe and it's a thrilling feeling that I've played some small part in capturing one such picture.

Image caught by Tomas

Tomas Hulik

Later we find and follow bear tracks, which, in my ignorance surprises me: I thought the bears would still be sleeping at this time of year. “They only hibernate because there is no food,” explains Tomas, “but these years there are many fruits of the beech tree around.”

Near the tracks we are spotting a stump where the bear has rubbed his back. You can see a few clumps of fur. It’s a marking tree explains Tomas, a sort of telephone for bears to communicate with each other.

Beat Tracks

Chris Cummins

These dark mysterious Carpathian mountains - home to wild and exotic animals - can seem a world away from Austria, but, in fact, I've travelled less than 5 hours from Vienna to get here. The lessons I'm learning here have a pressing relevance. The past few months have seen wolves settling in Austria.

The Return of the Pack

Reality Check Special: The Call of the Wild

This Saturday we follow the tracks of Europe's last large predator carnivores. Wolves, bears and even lynx still roam the remote snowy forests of the northern Slovakian forests. They play a vital role in the ecosystem of the forests but face prejudice and hostility. Chris Cummins joins a research group of scientists and international volunteers tracking them in the snow and monitoring their numbers.
This Saturday, February 18th, 12-13, on FM4’s Reality Check and afterwards seven days on demand.

Although they were official declared locally extinct in Austria back in 1882 wolves have been passing through our borders for years now, some of them coming from Slovakia but also from Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia and Germany. Now in the past months some have decided to stay and make this country their home; and for conservationists, this is very exciting.

“The wolves play such a vital role in our ecosystems,” says Christian Pichler of WWF Austria, “and it is time we learn to live alongside them again.”

The Wolves Are Back

New footage released by the WWF shows that a pair has settled in the 15,000 hectare (37,000 acres) Allentsteig military camp in the Waldviertel.

The fact that this military area is closed to the public has made the reintegration fairly easy but there will be conflicts in the future. Wolves hunt mainly deer but if they find an unprotected sheep it feels like a free lunch and farm animals have been killed in Kamptal.

To deter wolf attacks, Pichler recommends electric fences, specially trained sheep dogs and, of course, governmental compensation for farmers. It's expensive and logistically complicated but the WWF expert says it is worth it to have these magnificent animals back.