Spotlight Germany: Following the tracks of wolves

IFAW Germany is working to protect wild wolves returning to Western Poland and Germany.It’s cold. My breath is steaming and deep snow is crunching beneath my snowshoes. I’m accompanying a group of biologists trudging through the snow-filled landscape of the Silesian Beskydy mountain range, to the south of Krakow in Poland. It’s not simply a beautiful landscape to go hiking; for me it’s an exciting exercise. This is a really special habitat, because we’re searching for signs of a wolf.

My gaze scans the terrain for animal tracks in the snow, and we often make finds. Here a fox, there a deer, at times a wild boar, a weasel, and even a lynx. But then Sabina Novak from the Polish organization “Association for Nature (AfN) Wolf,” who is leading our group, confirms it - we have found the tracks of a wolf.

For the next few hours we follow its trail, literally up the hills and down the dales. Sabina Novak explains as we go along what can be read and gleaned from the tracks in the snow. Just like a detective, it is possible to decipher what has recently taken place here. In this way we feel quite close to the animal, without ever setting eyes on the timid wolf.

Suddenly the wolf’s trail meets the tracks of a wild boar, and the paw prints of a further wolf are added. We are able to follow them for several hundred meters more before we have to give up, due to the severity of the terrain.

Soon we discover new traces of a wolf. On the snow of a buried young spruce and a large boulder we find drops of urine mixed with a bloody secretion, which is contained in the urine of a female wolf in estrus. The marking of small bumps in the terrain and prominent features is typical behavior.

In another place we found a hollowed-out depression in the snow. It was obvious that two wolves had recently rested here lying closely side by side. We were also able to find more drops of bloody urine there.

Next we encounter a carcass lying in the snow – a deer decimated by a wolf. Along with wolf tracks there are indications of a neat throttling bite to the throat of the dead animal. We inspect the jaws of the deer. It is possible to estimate the age according to wear on the teeth. It obviously appears to be an old animal, which is typical prey for the wolf, especially in this season.

A short distance farther lays a small pile of wolf excrement. It is still relatively fresh. So we carefully gather a sample into a plastic tube. This will be investigated later in the laboratory and if possible a DNA analysis made of it. This enables us to draw conclusions about the wolf’s nutrition as well as its genetic origin.

This all happened in late winter of 2006 and was for me a most impressive nature experience. Since as a wildlife campaigner I’m also responsible for the IFAW German-Polish wolf project, I went on this educational trip to the Silesian Beskydy lasting several days in order to gain greater practical knowledge of the topic.

As the leading wolf researcher in Poland, Sabina Novak is certainly one of the best qualified to provide me with this. As a result I learned a lot about wolf research and the methods of scientific observation (monitoring) directly from the researcher. The experiences I made there have had a direct influence on my daily work of protecting the wolf.

For over ten years, the IFAW has committed itself to the successful return of wild wolves to Germany and western Poland. The focus of our work to achieve this involves support for scientific monitoring, professional public relations and consultancy for government agencies with a view to sustainable wolf management.

The first successful wild breeding of wolves in Germany in over 150 years was recorded in the year 2000. Meanwhile 80-90 wolves live here in 12 packs, in pairs or as solitary animals. In western Poland there has been an equally positive development with 19 wolf packs at present and around 95 animals.

-- RK

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