Recent observations have shown that wolves are perfectly capable of adapting to the presence of humans. They have been observed crossing large areas of non-wooded land and road infrastructures.
In Europe, they have been seen entering villages at night to rummage through rubbish bins; in North America, they may frequent the outskirts of villages. This return has rekindled problems linked to interactions with humans that had caused their disappearance locally, despite the wolf’s status as a protected species and a rural economic context that is substantially different from that of previous centuries.
Today, the wolf problem mainly affects medium-sized and large sheep farms, and results from the incompatibility of farming techniques that were put in place when large predators were absent with the presence of the wolf. In the Alps in summer, sheep graze freely and unsupervised.
Although the damage can be significant for an individual farmer, the overall damage as a percentage of production in the livestock sector is almost always insignificant (< 0.5%).
The wolf attacks, but the number of direct victims is generally low, even on ungulates
Studies have shown that the majority of livestock attacks only result in between one and two victims per predation, and that attacks involving more than a dozen individuals are very rare. Major losses are essentially due to the behaviour of domestic animals.
Livestock (especially sheep) are gregarious animals that move slowly and, above all, are not used to the presence of predators. Unlike wild ungulates, they do not adapt their behaviour to the local risk of predation, and they are easily approached. What’s more, they panic when a predator approaches.
Thus 99% of losses during wolf attacks are due to the herd losing control as a result of panic. These wanderings can also be caused by other events, such as dogs not being kept on a lead, storms, etc.
Despite this, the risks and effects of wolves are often perceived as exaggerated. This tendency to exaggerate the real impact of wolves is due to three factors:
- The existence of a deeply rooted negative culture towards the wolf.
- The psychological impact of this type of death (bloody attack caused by a predator).
- Overestimation of the number of wolf victims due to technical difficulties in clearly distinguishing wolf attacks from those of feral dogs and domestic dogs.
Furthermore, the last two factors give the impression of a wolf outbreak, which does not, however, tally with the reality of the demography and spatial distribution of wolves.
The notion of an outbreak implies an exponential increase in the number of individuals of a species, all concentrated in a limited area.
However, wolves do not concentrate their populations: they disperse where animal prey is available in quality and quantity and where space is favourable to the establishment of a pack.
What’s more, wolf populations do not explode, but balance out depending on the availability of prey and human pressure.
Here we can see how better information on wolf behaviour could help to improve acceptance of the wolf’s return.
Wolf behaviour towards livestock
To accurately assess the risks associated with wolves, it is necessary to know both the behaviour of the wolf and that of the livestock, and the relationship between them.
However, little is known about the exact nature of these relationships, particularly in areas with high livestock densities.
What’s more, since wolves are more likely to attack livestock at night, information is needed about their nocturnal movements. The main reason for these nocturnal attacks is that guarding conditions are more difficult at night, or that there is no guarding at all.
The gradual introduction of preventive measures (guard dogs, presence of a shepherd, etc.) tends to lead to an increase in daytime attacks, which have risen from 5% to 15% in the Alpes-Maritimes. However, these daytime attacks generally occur when visibility conditions are poor (fog, thunderstorms, regular rain).
Knowing that, when given a choice, wolves generally show a marked preference for wild prey, several reasons have been put forward to explain wolf attacks on livestock: the main factor involved would be the proximity between wolves and domestic animals, which tends to increase the probability of an attack, although predation can sometimes be infrequent despite proximity.
Indeed, wolves can have a significant impact on a particular livestock farm, while adjacent farms may remain untouched.
For example, a study carried out in the Southern Alps [France] showed that out of 76 herds in the wolf zone, only 12 herds accounted for three-quarters of wolf attacks.
The reasons for this disparity have not been fully explored, but it seems that the farming techniques used, and in particular the level of surveillance of the herds, play a significant role.
Seasonal variations can also be observed, which can be linked to the way the herds are run, and by extension the number of herds accessible to wolves.
A second factor influencing predation on domestic animals would be the absence or scarcity of natural food resources for wolves, either in a given region or during certain periods of the year.
The disappearance of their natural prey in certain regions or during the winter months could encourage wolves to turn to domestic animals, which are not as nutritious as wild ungulates but easier to catch.
In a herd of domestic animals, wolves seem to prefer young individuals. But the characteristics of the animals killed seem to vary according to the age of the dominant individuals in the pack who lead the hunt, their level of experience and the presence and age of any pups, which influence the pack’s food requirements.
In the case of wolves, it is technically difficult to differentiate their attacks from those of feral dogs. When it comes to domestic animals, the motives of wolves and dogs are generally different: wolves only attack domestic animals in order to feed their pack, and in particular their offspring, which is not always the case with dogs, who may attack livestock simply for fun.
To differentiate between a wolf attack and a dog attack, the carcasses of the animal victims must be examined to gather all the information needed to establish suspicion.
This examination must first take into account any reports of stray, roaming or free-roaming dogs, whether or not wolves are known to be present in the area, and any genetic analyses carried out on samples (excrement, hair) that may have been found at or near the scene of the attack.
The farmer’s testimony and an examination of the immediate surroundings of the carcass are essential to gather this information.
Examination of the carcass must then confirm whether it is indeed a case of predation:
- Evidence of bites with associated haematomas (the most obvious and reliable criterion).
- Rapid and total consumption (provided that the examination takes place after the damage has been done and that the action of scavengers is excluded or limited).
- The presence of indirect traces (traces of blood, struggle) are all indicators of an act of predation.
The size of the perforations and the presence of any underlying lesions (particularly their depth) can then be used to assess the size of the predator.
If the predation is attributed to a large canid, a specific identification may be proposed, taking into account :
- The location of bites: wolf bites are generally located on the shoulder, neck, throat and/or hindquarters (when they are pursuing their prey). Dog bites are less localized and affect the whole body.
- Associated lesions: wolf bites are generally more powerful and therefore deeper (> 10 mm) than dog bites. Furthermore, in the case of wolf predation, more than 50% of perforations have a minimum diameter of 3 mm.
- And consumption characteristics: consumption is described, trying to distinguish the part due to predators from the part due to scavengers. In particular, the movement of the carcass, the degree of consumption, the presence of gnawed or broken bones, etc. are described. Wolves are voracious and not very selective when it comes to consuming prey. As a result, carcass remains are often small. Conversely, dogs that kill more often for fun tend to kill more prey that they consume little of each.
Attack on humans
Conflicts between wolves and human interests also include attacks on humans. The question of whether wolves are dangerous to humans is a pertinent one, given the many legends and false stories that have enriched the subject since man first came into contact with wolves.
European and Asian literature is still full of accounts of attacks by wolves, which are presented as notorious man-eaters.
One example is the legend of the Bête du Gévaudan, a wolf that officially killed 99 people between 1 July 1764 and 12 June 1767, not counting those injured and traumatised.
The perception of the wolf as a dangerous animal varies geographically.
In Europe, for example, people in Central Europe have a more negative view of wolves than those in Southern Europe, and rural populations are generally more negative towards wolves than urban populations.
Contemporary observations cast considerable doubt on the veracity of this negative representation.
In fact, during the 20th century, in the whole of North America and Europe, only one fatal attack by wolves on humans was recorded. The victims were two children in Spain, but it was never clearly established that the attacker was a wolf and not a dog.
However, dog attacks on humans are far more frequent than wolf attacks (a 1998 study estimated that there are 200,000 dog bites a year in Europe, and 3 million in the United States; a 1999 study mentioned around thirty human deaths a year in France due to dogs), and despite this, dogs are not generally considered to be terribly dangerous.
Most contemporary reports of wolves attacking humans come from India and Central Asia.
One study showed that in India, wolves could pose a threat to children in areas of high human density (>600/km²), great poverty, few wild prey and intensively kept populations of domestic livestock.
However, the majority of wolf attacks today involve wolves that are enraged, cornered or injured. Under normal circumstances, when confronted by humans, wild wolves tend to run away, even from children.
However, the abundance of accounts of attacks on humans recorded from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance suggests that they were probably not all invented.
In fact, it is assumed that the phenomenon of man-eating wolves probably existed, but in particular circumstances, notably during wars or epidemics (the great plague, for example). During such periods, human corpses were readily available to scavengers, which could have made it easier for wolves to become accustomed to human flesh and actively seek out and kill humans.
Today, however, there is no formal proof that wild, non-rabid wolves pose any danger to humans.
No case of a non-rabid wolf living in the wild having killed a human has been reported in Europe.
The reasons for such a low occurrence are little understood as wolves have many opportunities to attack, as has been observed with bears in different parts of Europe.
It seems that, although attacks on healthy wolves are not totally impossible (as with any wild animal), wolves generally tend to be tolerant of close contact with humans as long as it does not have a negative impact on their lives.
Knowing the wolf so that you can protect it better is my motto, because it also means protecting ourselves. The negative news and the frightening decisions on the subject of the wolf have led me to change the ethology programme I had planned for you.
We’ll be back at it in September. In the meantime, I wish you an excellent and relaxing holiday.
Artificial intelligence translation of an original text by Sandrine Devienne.
Click here to read the French version