Project Interview: Our Wolf Tracking Volunteer Project, Slovakia
August 25th 2023
Under the light of the moon, they pad through the snow along familiar game trails, following the banks of rivers, forest roads and ridgelines, stopping periodically to sniff the frosty air and scan the slopes below for movement. While bears lie hidden in their dens, wolves must continue to hunt, regardless of the weather.
With special blood vessels in their feet to prevent the buildup of ice between their toes and a thick double coat to keep them warm, wolves lead a nomadic winter existence, roaming through extensive territories searching for food. Their main prey in Slovakia are red deer, roe deer and wild boar, which together make up more than 90% of their diet.
As an apex predator, at the top of the food chain, the grey wolf (Canis lupus) plays a key role in shaping ecosystems. The wolf’s predatory nature also brings it into conflict with farming communities. Historically, people devised ever more destructive means of defending livestock and by the 20th century had wiped out wolves from much of Europe. Changes in attitudes and protective legislation have enabled wolf populations to recover and recolonise parts of their former range. But the return of wolves has led to a resurgence in grievances about their attacks on livestock and renewed calls for them to be controlled by hunting.
In the Danube-Carpathian Region, also known as ‘the green heart of Europe’, a group of passionate wildlife researchers and conservationists is working to obtain real-time data to inform decisions and bridge the divide between both sides of the debate.
“Disputes are partly driven by disagreement between interest groups about how many wolves there are and how many people think there should be,” says Robin Rigg, Slovak Wildlife Society chairman, researcher at the Carpathian Wolf Watch project and our Wolf Tracking Volunteer Project lead. “Simply put, hunters and farmers tend to claim there are too many large carnivores, resulting in damage to livestock, while environmentalists believe that hunting wolves threatens their survival.”
Official game statistics, compiled from hunters’ reports, show there to be thousands of wolves in Slovakia, but these figures are over-estimated due to multiple counts of the same wolves as they move between hunting grounds. Environmentalists reject the hunters’ figures but lack data to back up their own claims. These knowledge gaps are where researchers and volunteer teams come in.
The White Wilderness project
The Wolf Tracking Volunteer Project combines traditional wildlife tracking skills with ultra-modern genetic analyses to obtain objective, statistically robust estimates of wolf numbers. “When we started our work, neither hunters nor environmentalists had reliable data and monitoring by state institutions was inadequate, so our first goal was to strengthen understanding of population status and assess the likely impacts of wolf hunting,” Robin told me.
The project area is almost 2,000 km2 (770 square miles), covering parts of the Tatras, Low Tatras and Velka Fatra National Parks. “Large carnivores have huge home ranges, so we have to work on a large scale for the results to be ecologically meaningful,” explained Robin. “To achieve this, we need the help of volunteers.”
Each year the project hosts three ‘White Wilderness’ volunteer weeks. Under the close supervision of experienced project staff, volunteers learn to track wolves and other species and collect the samples needed for DNA analysis.
The work can be challenging. During the coldest months of the year temperatures sometimes drop below -20 degrees Celsius (-4° F), with deep snow in places, although climate change is making winters more variable. After training, the volunteer teams split into small groups, each walking 10-20km a day in hilly to mountainous terrain. There is a mixture of survey routes to suit different abilities. With only about 9 hours of daylight available, days start early, but there are ample rewards in the chance to see some stunning scenery and wildlife plus perhaps a visit to a nearby thermal spa to relax and recuperate during time off.
Since the project began, Robin has seen considerable progress. “We’ve definitely improved knowledge of the status of the wolf population and have successfully used the results to advocate for more informed decision-making processes on wolf management at the national level,” says Robin.
The project’s findings were included in the national wolf management plan, approved by the Ministry of the Environment in 2016. Five years later, the then Environment Minister added the wolf to Slovakia’s list of protected species, which the Ministry of Agriculture has so far chosen to respect by not setting further hunting quotas.
Genetics provides many other insights into the lives of this often misunderstood species. “A lot of people think of wolves as living in packs,” says Robin, ”but the typical pack is actually a family group consisting of the parents and their offspring. Unlike many other species, wolves are usually monogamous, stay together year-round and mate for life.”
The Slovak Wildlife Society, which runs the Carpathian Wolf Watch project and hosts the White Wilderness volunteer weeks, has also influenced how people mitigate the impact of wolves on their farms or local communities. “In particular, we have contributed to a substantial shift away from reliance on wolf culling in favour of the use of non-lethal damage prevention measures such as electric fences and guarding dogs to protect livestock.”
Guard dogs have been found to reduce livestock predation by wolves, enabling the coexistence of people and wolves in the long term. Interestingly, studies have shown that even when livestock is abundant in their territories, wolves still mostly hunt wild animals. This shows that considering the whole of the food web and ensuring that each species has space to thrive is key to reducing conflict between humans and wildlife.
But it’s not all about wolves…
White Wilderness volunteers also collect data on other species in the project area. The Eurasian lynx is the third largest of Europe’s terrestrial predators behind the brown bear and wolf. It is one of four species of lynx alive today, the others being the Canada lynx and bobcat in North America and the endangered Iberian lynx in Spain and Portugal.
The main prey of lynx in Slovakia are roe deer and brown hare but they sometimes take small red deer (females and fawns), though very rarely livestock.
Although one of the most widely distributed of all cat species, the Eurasian lynx, like the wolf and other carnivores, has been heavily impacted by human activities. Direct persecution and habitat loss eradicated lynx from almost all of western and central Europe. The species persisted in Slovakia, which has played a major role as a source population for reintroduction projects in Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia and elsewhere. However, despite a ban on hunting since 2000, lynx numbers in Slovakia appear to have stagnated and the species deserves more attention from conservationists and researchers.
Made possible by you, our volunteers
“We can’t do this work without volunteers – this was clearly shown by the Covid pandemic,” Robin told me.
“Restrictions on travel and gathering meant we weren’t able to host volunteers in 2021. We couldn’t complete the necessary fieldwork by ourselves over such a large area which left a hole in our data that year. Thankfully the project is up and running again now and we are looking forward to hosting the next group of volunteers!”
If you’d like to learn more about the project and be part of their story, head to the White Wilderness project page or email Victoria.McNeil@workingabroad.com.