Transylvania, the last great stronghold for wolves in Europe

Transylvania has the largest wolf population in Europe. In fact the total population here is greater than all the wild wolves of western Europe put together. Many people have an irrational fear of wolves, which has lead to centuries of persecution by hunting and trapping, leading to their near irradiation in many parts of the continent. This is one of the great tragedies of the natural world as they are a "keystone species", one natures most important apex predators, considered to be vital "ecosystem managers". In reality we now know that they pose no threat to humans, so why do we continue to persecute them? 

Grey Wolf

Why are wolves so important for the environment? Well firstly they strengthen the ungulate population e.g. wild boar and deer, by preying on the sick, old and genetically inferior animals, allowing the healthiest individuals to breed and perpetuate their species. Wolves are the only predator in Europe that do this. They also feed other animals as the remains of any carcass left behind, help feed brown bears, eagles, foxes and other scavengers. Wolves improve riparian areas by redistributing deer, allowing vegetation to recover along rivers and streams. More willows and aspens provide food for beavers. More beaver ponds benefit aquatic plants and animals. Shade from the trees cools the water, making the habitat better for trout. (J & J Dutcher)

How easy is it to see wolves? The simple truth is that sightings are very rare and difficult as wolves are very aware of our presence and shy away when they pick up human scent. Man is the wolves main predator and  their experience is to regard humans as a threat. I have discussed this subject with Transylvanian transhumance shepherds and they tell me that the wolf is always aware of you before you are of them. Often all you get to see are their tracks, the leftovers of a kill, or maybe some fur on a tree where they have been scratching themselves. This all adds to the mystery of the wolf, and why a rare sighting becomes extra special. Most villagers have never seen a wolf and the few recorded sightings are usually from rangers, shepherds or hunters. According to the rangers the best chance of seeing a wolf is by closely following large flocks of sheep. The shepherds are resigned to the fact that they will lose the odd lamb and in some instances even an adult sheep. The dogs guarding the flock do their very best to guard their flock, but with four or five dogs guarding several hundred sheep, a wolf occasionally finds a target momentarily off the dogs radar. They are very intelligent animals and can be in and out of a flock within seconds. Once they have the prey in their mouth they can run with the sheep still very much alive. The shepherds tell me that the neck muscles on a wolf are immense, which helps them carry heavy prey running at speed. It also gives protection to vital blood vessels in the neck if they are attacked.

Wolves rarely venture into villages, but occasionally in the depths of winter when food is scarce in the forest, they enter villages at night and take stray dogs. Although such events are rare, this demonstrates just how strong their survival instincts are and willingness to take risks to gain vital food for their families.

How much of a threat are wolves to human safety? I went on a fact finding mission, starting in my village of Ozsdola, to find any wolf stories. After several weeks of research I managed to obtain several stories of bear attacks by first hand survivors, but not a single account of a wolf attack. The rangers, who spend most of their lives in the forest could not recall one single attack, not from this or any other region in Transylvania. So I think it is reasonable to conclude that wolves do not view us as a prey species, probably fear us, and tend to keep their distance.

I found this large wolf track in forests close to the village of Ozsdola. So how do we know that this track was made by a wolf? We first you need to consider what other animals are out there which could produce an impression of approximately eleven centimetres in length. This narrows the number of possibilities dramatically as even a large domestic dog would struggle to produce a track of that length. Then the overall symmetry of a wolf print tends to be longer and narrower compared to that of a dogs. So the only other animal in our forest capable of  producing a track of that size is a bear, and there is no difficulty distinguishing between bear and wolf tracks as the wolf has four toes and the bear five.

Here is a wonderful video clip filmed by the BBC which will give you some insight into the subject of wolves in Transylvania and their often close proximity to humans.