September 2007 by Astrid Szelest
The wolves live on original territory
Welzheim. For a couple of years, Welzheim residents Astrid and Rüdiger Szelest have been supporting animal protection projects during their free time. Throughout Germany, the civil servant (38) and the sales representative (42) collect donations and inform about endangered species and wildlife sanctuaries. This is their report of a stay at an expert’s on wolves in Russia.
Biologist and wolf researcher Vladimir Bologov is one of the few who stands up for the protection of wolves in Russia. On German and international TV, as well as in the newspapers, there were several articles and documentaries about the expert, he is considered this creature’s advocate. We packed our rucksacks and visited him in his research station in the south-western taiga.
The wolf is one of man’s primal fears. In fairy tales, myths and legends it is displayed as a blood-thirsty monster. Slowly and on silent paws it now returns to Germany. In Russia, wolves have their permanent place in the ample forests. But the people there hate them.
The research station in the “Clean Forest”
The biological research station “Chisty Les” (Clean Forest) is located in a biosphere reservation about 450 km north west of Moscow, in the village of Bubonitzy, District of Toropets. In this district, in the north-western region of Tver, there are sweeping forests, swamps, lakes and moorlands. Birches and pines grow on the sandy soil. It is a habitat for wolves, brown bears, lynxes and elk. We are impressed by the naturalness of this landscape. There are few houses in the village, no stores and hardly any cars. Chickens are picking on the sandy streets. Time seems to have stopped. Far away from the noise, bustle and a thoroughly organized daily routine, the western soul finds soft deceleration and calmness.
While making tea in his cosy kitchen, Vladimir Bologov starts telling. The region of Tver is home to a large population of wolves that has been researched and observed for the last 30 years. The 42-year-old continues with the work of his father, Viktor Bologov, who is also a famous Russian Wolf researcher, since 1984, and started his own research in 1993. On an area of 34000 square kilometres the population in Tver remained 350 to 850 animals. Even though the lupine population declines, the animals are hunted in Russia throughout the year. For every wolf hunted down the government pays a bounty of around 45 Euros, a profitable source of income for the hunters. When caught in a trap, the animals are subjected to horrible pain; they are being beaten, poisoned and killed.
Domestic animals are attacked very rarely
The authorities are not willing to protect the wolves by law. They argue that domestic animals are attacked. Indeed this happens from time to time. But as there is no compensation for animals killed by wolves (like e.g. in Italy), there are no reliable numbers how often. The wolves are also blamed for spreading rabies. But in the Tver region, only three out of 370 cases during the last ten years can be linked to wolves. The key argument is the damage to game animals. For the authorities hunting is a secure source of income, because every hunter has to pay for his hunting permit.
Bologov’s aim is to abolish the bounty system in the long run and to reach legal protection for wolves, or at least to prohibit poisoning. With his project he wants to return to nature what man has taken from her. He buys wolf cubs from hunters and zoos and raises them. From his shelter, 17 wolves were released to the wild successfully. Every day he observes and films the animals, Russian TV is about to broadcast a program about his wolf cubs.
Currently the behaviour of two different wolf packs is being researched before they are released into the wilderness. Laetitia Becker, a 24-year-old biologist from France, is in charge of a group of seven wolves. The cubs don’t live in an enclosure and were raised as freely and with as little contact to humans as possible. On a one and a half hectare wide fenced piece of land lives another wolfpack consisting of five animals, which are being researched by students and professors from Moscow University. After some of the scientists leave, we take care of monitoring the wolves for approximately four hours a day, we observe the animals and make notes on their behaviour. The fence is five kilometres away from the research station. Every morning and evening we walk through the forest and fields to the abandoned village where the researchers are accommodated. Not much has changed in the houses during the last 60 years. We cook on a fireplace and draw our water from a well.
Wolfpacks moved deeper into the woods
To determine the population and whereabouts of the wolves in his region it is necessary for Vladimir Bologov to search for tracks regularly. During our first excursion with him we see the 20 centimetres big fresh track of a bear.
Due to aridity the wolves moved deeper into the woods and there are no fresh wolftracks to be found. During winter it is much easier to find tracks in the snow. Another possibility to find the wolves is listening to their howls at night and record them. With the gathered data a digital map can be created.
Apart from his research Bologov does a lot of educational work. He shows cattle owners how to protect their animals and informs visitor groups and school classes. In his research station scientists and other interested people have the opportunity to catch up on his work and to enjoy unspoiled nature. We meet Steffen, a zoologist from Brandenburg. He is in charge of the wolf project there and it is his second visit to Christy Les.
After a short while the village’s inhabitants are greeting friendly from their off-road cars when they meet us. The next place with a possibility for shopping is about 40 kilometres and many potholes away. Everyone has the time for a chat, a cup of tea or one of Natasha Bologov’s culinary delectabilties. During our stay it is very hot. We are always looking forward to cooling ourselves down in the water lily covered lake. On saturdays, the “Banja” is heated up. Traditionally, the Russian bath house is heated with a wood stove. Similar to the Finnish sauna (with a temperature between 80 and 100 degrees centigrade) a decoction of birch leaves is poured over the hot stones.
We are impressed by Vladimir Bologov’s work with and for the wolves. To continue his project he depends on sponsors. But as a volunteer one can also support his work actively and financially. Due to the costs it was hitherto not possible to equip the animals with GPS necklaces. With these necklaces it would be possible to obtain further important information like the exact position, prey, size of the packs and life-spans. When sufficient financial means are available, an information center on wolves is to be founded in an old school.