In Russia, old enemies die hard

SUN JOURNAL

Wolves: Since the end of mass eradication efforts, the despised animal's population has rebounded, but some worry that the comeback could be short-lived.

March 02, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAYUTINO, Russia - Nikolai Bekin, a 24-year-old with a pistol tucked in his boots and a shotgun by his side, is stalking Russia's ancient nemesis, the timber wolf.

He jerks the handbrake of his dented UAZ jeep, opens his door and jumps out to get a close look at some tracks in the snow. "That's wild boar," he says, disappointed. "There are four of them, two big ones and two small ones. They came past here last night, about 7 p.m."

Wolf tracks have been spotted in the open fields and vast birch forests in this rugged country about 100 miles west of Moscow. And Bekin, working with about 15 other hunters, sets out on a winter weekend to corner and eradicate the animals, which have been feasting on the boar and elk that Russian hunters prize.

The timber wolf, also called the gray wolf, has long been a symbol of troubled times for Russians, and has always been ruthlessly hunted here. The animals once were found in most of the Northern Hemisphere but are now confined mainly to thinly populated regions of Russia, Mongolia, Central Asia and Canada. (The two other major wolf species - the red wolf and the prairie wolf, or coyote - are found only in warmer parts of North America.)

In Siberia, timber wolves grow 3 to 5 feet long, but some are even larger and can weigh up to 220 pounds. A healthy animal can run at up to 60 mph, leap over 16-foot-high fences, and cover 100 miles a night during a hunt.

Despite the slaughter of tens of thousands of wolves annually during Soviet times, the animal survived, sheltered by Russia's trackless forests. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, government officials say, the animals' population rebounded significantly in parts of European Russia - including in this area, not far from Moscow.

Today, by official estimates, there are between 40,000 and 60,000 wolves in Russia, perhaps five times the number during the height of Soviet eradication efforts. Perhaps 15,000 are killed annually.

In most of North America and Europe, wildlife biologists regard the animals as part of the natural ecosystem, and wolf hunting is banned or strictly limited.

In Russia and several other former Soviet states, there are no limits. Wolves can be killed without a permit in any number, at any time of the year, using whatever methods are handy. Regional governments and hunting societies even pay bounties of up to $190 for each wolf slain, making the wolf something of an outlaw.

Hunters say, in effect, that there is no more need to limit the killing of wolves in Russia than there is to control the extermination of rats in America. "In Russia, we always have to reduce the population of wolves because we have a huge territory of wild forest," says Aleksandr M. Mikhailov, chief of the Hunters and Fishermen's Society of Russia. "Even if everyone were to go hunting, they couldn't kill them all."

But some Russian environmentalists argue that the wolf's numbers are decreasing because Russia's sick economy sent many people into the woods to hunt for game. The animals are further threatened, they say, by the clear-cutting of forests in Siberia and Russia's Far East for timber. In European Russia, wolves are likely to come under further pressure as more forests are cut down to feed pulp mills.

Wolves have long symbolized treachery in Russian folk tales, and wolf hunting has been part of village culture for centuries. Those attitudes are well-entrenched.

"In Russia there was a time when the majority of the population lived in rural areas, and the population of wolves was much bigger," says Viktor Bologov, a wildlife biologist who lives in a cabin in Central Forest Preserve near Tver, about 150 miles northwest of Moscow. "Today, wolves no longer pose much of a threat to humans or their livestock. But the way people treat wolves has not changed."

Pytor I. Petrovan, director of the Nekrashevo collective farm outside Tver, says wolf packs occasionally raid the farm, killing a cow or two, dragging off a dog or sheep. He sees little need to protect the predators. "I would exterminate them all without a second thought," he says.

But during the economic slide of the late 1980s and 1990s, he says, hunting the animals became difficult. There was no money for radios or gasoline - much less the small planes that Soviet authorities once provided.

Traditional hunts are communal affairs, involving a dozen or more hunters who surround the animals and shoot them. But the population of Nekrashevo plunged from 80 to 14 over the past decade. "The fact is, there are not enough people here to hunt now," the director says.

In recent years, Petrovan has resorted to a less laborious method of exterminating wolves. He tracks female wolves to their dens and kills the pups. Sometimes, he will leave one pup and then hide with his rifle, shooting the mother when she returns.

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