After Centuries of Absence, Big Bad Wolves Have Returned to Germany

A recent surge in the canines' presence is dividing farmers and conservationists.

A wolf is seen in an outdoor enclosure at a game park in Gross-Schoenebeck some 40 kilometres north of Berlin August 14, 2003. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

BERLIN - Open any number of German children's books, and you'll see this: a villainous wolf preying on a hapless child. From Little Red Riding Hood to stories of wolves eating German soldiers marching home from Russia after World War II, these canines have gotten a bad rap here for generations.

Wolves have been absent from Germany for nearly a century, hunted out of existence by the end of the 1800s.

But over the past 10 years, they've made a comeback as packs from Poland and Russia have migrated into the sparsely populated eastern German state of Brandenburg. Today, some 160 wolves in 17 packs rove south and east of the capital Berlin, occasionally wandering into the city.

Their reemergence has not been without controversy. The wolves' return has pitted conservationists against farmers, who are angry that the wolves are eating their sheep, other livestock, and sometimes even household pets.

"We're not against wolves, but we want them to stay on government-owned lands. When they leave these territories, we want to be able to shoot them," said Lutz-Uwe Kahn of the Brandenburg Farmers Alliance.

Wolves have killed some 360 sheep and other livestock since 2007. Though the state of Brandenburg has created a fund to compensate farmers for their livestock losses, Kahn said some members of his group have waited up to a year for reimbursement. Farmers have also encountered red tape when attempting to tap into a fund that supports the building of livestock pens and the training of sheep dogs.

Wolf expert Gesa Kluth of the Lausitz Wolf Office in Rietschen is a strong proponent of the wolf's return to German soil. She hopes their comeback could mark the regeneration of an ecosystem that hasn't existed in Europe for 200 years. But she is worried that old biases against wolves could kill them off again just as quickly as they've returned.

"Poland is an example we should follow," Kluth said. "They are much more relaxed. They have about 700 wolves - an impressive number for this part of Europe - and the numbers are growing. They don't want to hunt them. Rather, they are taking steps to protect their sheep and goats from wolves."

Unlike North American wolves, which travel in larger packs in order to improve their hunting success, wolf packs in Germany usually consist of parents and offspring. When food is scarce, a mother wolf might venture into a small town and forage for food in garbage containers.

Several such incidents have been reported -- and this has angered farmers like Lutz-Uwe Kahn, who are banned from shooting wolves on their own land because the wolves are on Germany's endangered species list.

"The wolves aren't dumb - they're going to seek out the easiest places to find food. And they'll start to feel more comfortable around people, lose their natural shyness, and attack people," Kahn explained.

Veterinarian Oliver Krone dismisses this, however. He and his team of wolf experts at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin say attacks against people are exceedingly rare.

Yet Krone is worried that farmers are ignoring the ban on killing wolves. Perhaps the country's most famous vet -- he was part of the team that autopsied Berlin's famous polar bear, Knut -- Krone says he has the evidence to prove it. Numerous bullet-pocked wolf carcasses sit in freezers ringing his lab. He distributes to reporters a PowerPoint with graphic wolf dissection photos and fancy charts with wolf facts.

To gather evidence for his theory, Krone and his colleague Gisa Kluth setup a 24-hour hotline for people to call after stumbling on a dead or dying wolf. After getting a call, Krone and his team dispatch an animal ambulance truck to pick up a carcass and bring it back to the lab in Berlin. Krone said that through the program, he has been able to autopsy over 20 wolves. Many were shot by hunters, but the majority were mowed down by cars.

"It's easier to kill a wolf this way," Krone said sarcastically. "You can't stop and get out your rifle. But if you know the road is fenced on both sides, you just accelerate, and kill the wolf."

But in a telephone interview, Lutz Uwe-Kahn of the farmers group denied that he and his members are running over wolves with their cars.

"I can't confirm this," Kahn said. "And if wolves were killed by cars, these were simply accidents."

Wolf conservationists remain skeptical of the farmers' claims and are worried that they might lose the battle to save Germany's wolves. For them, protecting Europe's wolves has global implications. Their argument goes like this: if Europeans don't protect their wolves, Europe loses the moral authority to tell African and Asian nations not to hunt their own large carnivores.

"If we can't protect wolves in our own country," Krone noted, "Then how can we ask other countries to protect their own tiger, lion, or elephant populations?"