Chances with wolves
Efforts in the east to bring back a long-lost breed
Posted: January 9, 2013
Although media reports of killed livestock herds in the 1990s led to widespread panic, the public perception of wolves, pictured above at Prague Zoo, has subsequently improved, and could facilitate their rehabilitation in the country.
At least once a week, 29-year-old Miroslav Kutal hikes to the deep woods of the Beskydy Mountains in the northeast part of Moravia with only one wish: to see wolves.
The wild animals portrayed for centuries in the local literature as a symbol of evil caught his attention many years ago. In 2002, Kutal, currently a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Forestry and Wood Technology at Mendel University in Brno, started organizing his Wolf Watches, a volunteer program that sets up photo traps in the woods, hoping to get at least the slightest documentation of wolves' existence in Beskydy and promote the cause of reintroducing the animals into the Czech Republic, the only country in Central Europe where packs no longer roam in any significant numbers.
"Poachers and legalized hunting in neighboring Slovakia stand in their way," Kutal says.
Wolves have always been a part of the region's wildlife. "The old Slavs worshipped them, but, with the arrival of Christianity, things changed," Kutal says. During the 17th and 18th centuries, hunting intensified. The last wolf was killed in the Beskydy Mountains in 1914. What remains from those times are 80 or so villages that have the word "wolf" (vlk) somehow incorporated into their names. Only about 20 years ago were scientists able to confirm a recurrent presence of the wild beasts.
"The Beskydy are closely connected to mountains in Slovakia, where the population is still very large," says Dana Bartošová, a zoologist with the regional nature conservation agency. "They naturally cross the border."
Kutal, who now works for the Rainbow Movement (Hnutí DUHA), says the public perception of wolves has improved since the 1990s, a period of "ridiculoud" hysteria surrounding often-exaggerated media reports of killed livestock herds.
"There was a certain panic in local communities," Kutal says. "Summer camp programs for kids were aborted, and people hung excerpts from old articles on bus shelters, showing old texts about deadly wolf attacks."
From a historical point of view, the 21st century so far seems amicable toward wolves in Central Europe, especially in countries like Germany and Poland, where the population is on the rise. Across the border in the German region of Lusatia, near the north of the Czech Republic, 10 to 13 packs roam freely. They arrived from Poland in the 1990s.
"Back then we were at the same starting point," Kutal says. "Unfortunately, poachers and sometimes also huntsmen who should be protecting the forests decimated the population," he adds.
"Wolves are, to a certain degree, hunters' competitors," Bartošová says. "They regulate the deer population, which is - as huntsmen claim - also their job. Years ago, I thought the hatred toward the beasts would diminish among hunters. Unfortunately, it seems the new generation considers these wild animals more of a trophy than a protected beast. At least the wolves are officially protected here."
In Slovakia, wolf hunting has reached such a frenzy that Bartošová deems it lupicide. "You can find tons of pictures online," she says. "Slovak authorities even legalized wolf hunting [in 1999]. Even if wolves do settle in Beskydy again, they are still in great danger. Their territory is huge and naturally extends to Slovakia."
For his part, Kutal remains optimistic. The Wolf Watch program unites about 100 individuals willing to help wild animals. The Rainbow Movement has also sent a complaint to the European Commission, hoping that Brussels will step in to stop the killing of wolves in Slovakia.
"We are very determined with our cause," Kutal says. "I really hope the wolves will come back soon."
Tomáš Rákos can be reached at