Monday, 31 December 2012

Call of the wild

After millennia spent exterminating them, humanity is protecting wolves. Numbers have risen again—and so have ancient resentments

IN AUGUST 2011 Desiree Versteeg, a Dutch mortuarist, was driving home in the suburbs of Arnhem in the eastern Netherlands when she saw an animal in the road. “At first I thought it was a dog. Then I thought it was a fox. Then—I couldn’t believe my eyes—I saw it was a wolf.” She got out of the car to take a picture. “I was seven or eight metres away from him. He couldn’t get away because a fence was blocking his path. He turned and stared at me. That was a frightening moment.” Both she and the wolf fled.

From Ms Versteeg’s photographs, and from the carcass of a deer found nearby—its throat torn out in classic wolf fashion—scientists verified that she was the first person to have seen a wolf in the Netherlands since 1897. Having talked to the experts, she now understands that the wolf was probably more frightened than she was. “But all you know at the time is: it’s a wolf, it’s a predator and I’m in its way.”

Ms Versteeg’s experience illustrates a dramatic reversal that has taken place in the West over the past couple of decades. Economic change has led to a fundamental shift in humanity’s attitude to wolves. For the first time since man first sharpened a spear, he has stopped trying to exterminate them and taken to protecting them instead. The effort has been so successful that wolves are recolonising areas from which they disappeared as much as a century ago. As they do so, they are forging revealing divisions over whether mankind can live side-by-side with the species it replaced as the Western world’s top predator.

State v wolf
Most man-made extinctions have been accidental—the result of over-hunting, or importing predators or diseases. Wolves are different. Through most of human history, killing them has been regarded as a public good. As soon as anything that looked like a state developed, it set about exterminating wolves.

In England King Edgar imposed an annual tribute of 300 wolf skins on Idwal, king of Wales, in 960; monarchs made land grants on condition that the beneficiaries carried out wolf hunts; King Edward I employed a wolf-hunter-in-chief to clear central and western England of wolves. By the end of the 15th century they seem to have disappeared from England, though in Scotland they hung on a little longer: in 1563 Mary Queen of Scots had 2,000 Highlanders drive the woods of Atholl for a hunt that bagged 360 deer and five wolves.


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