Wolves in the shadow

Wolves have often been portrayed as an evil animal in many of our childhood folklores. Grey wolves, once spread across Northern America, Eurasia have had their ranges declined due to widespread human persecution, fear of human attacks and livestock depredation. Eurasian wolves (Canis lupus lupus) have become extinct over 8 European countries, and the remaining populations are largely fragmented. But recent conservation measures have resulted in a gradual rise in their population in Europe and North America.

Image: Snow-tracking wolves

A couple of years back, I had the opportunity to do an internship on Eurasian wolves in Poland, under the supervision of Dr. Katarzyna Bojarska, also known as Kasia. Kasia has long worked on wolves and is a researcher at the Institute of Nature Conservation at the Polish Academy of Sciences. The internship was part of a study on the ecology of wolves in western Poland. This was the first time I was doing anything related to wildlife on the field. Coming from India, I wasn’t really used to being out in the cold for long durations and this internship being in the winter put my discord towards cold to test.

Image: A marten and wolf captured on camera traps

I stayed at a house inside the forest with a Polish family, Kasia and another colleague. There were 6 wonderful dogs and cute pony whom we had to take out every morning for a walk. The first half of the internship consisted of studying and collecting data on what kinds of habitat wolves used for different activities and spatio-temporal interactions among wolves. We drove a 4×4 and this Landy definitely had some rough days. We were mainly studying one particular wolf pack which had 7 members. Evenings mostly ended with some vodka and some hot food. The nearest grocery store was in the nearest town that was 10kms away. It was always funny to look at people’s surprised expressions when I went to the supermarket in our Landy, in my fluffy jacket and my dirty boots. I would definitely have been the first brown person to go to that part of the world.

Image: Kasia checking for signal on the radio collared wolves

I was always excited when we stopped and tried picking up a signal for the pack‘s alpha female, who was radio collared. Every time it snowed, we would try and track the wolves on foot, as its easier to track them on the snow, and there were nights where we played a game where the winner who finds wolf tracks would get hot tea mixed with vodka. We also gave a talk at the local school and I was surprised at the kids interest in learning about the wolves and even more surprised at their interest in knowing more about India.

Image: Wolf tracks on the snow

The second half of my internship involved helping collect data on how wolves might be using forestry plantation fences for hunting and also involved setting up camera traps near wolf kills. This internship sparked my interest in pursuing more on wildlife conservation and I couldn’t have learned more about wolves in any other way. One of the most social animals, wolves are crucial in regulating ungulate populations, and can have much negative impacts when removed as was seen in Yellowstone National Park in 1900s. Saving wolves means also saving fragile and complex ecosystems on which thousands of species rely—while also conserving an important piece of our national heritage.

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