Indicating its hopeful recovery, a Eurasian wolf has been seen in the forests of Belgium for the first time in 100 years. In fairy tales and bedtime stories, a wolf in the forest is generally a bad thing that indicates only terror to come. In this case, it is not a fairy tale and it is no terror looming in the dark. This recovery marks an important point in the wild population of these Eurasian wolves.
Apart from humans, wolves have the broadest natural distribution among terrestrial mammals. The Eurasian wolves (Canis lupus lupus) are a subspecies of the gray wolf, which contains numerous sub-species and was once widely distributed across the northern hemisphere. As their name suggests, the Eurasian wolves were once widespread across Europe and Asia before their decline in Europe.
The Eurasian wolf is the largest of the gray wolves. Along with their size, these wolves also have coarse and short fur that allows them to adapt to the many environments they would encounter across Eurasia, especially the cold. Currently, these wolves can be found mainly in cold areas, like Siberia.
Being a relatively larger predator, these wolves hunted many animals that ranged from deer to bison, if they are desperate. They prefer medium and small preys, but if food becomes scarce they will try their hand at bigger things. Unfortunately, as prey becomes limited, the wolves are forced to move around and seek food elsewhere. This puts them in contact with humans.
Eurasian wolves have been known to scavenge around farms and human habitats as they look for easy prey. This contact between humans and wolves has contributed to the animosity that some have against them and their recovery in Europe.
The image of a wolf conjures thoughts of fear, wildness, and untamed power of nature. In the middle ages, Europeans saw the wolf as a threat to their safety and the well-being of their livestock. To that end, Eurasian wolves were hunted for extermination until the late 1800s. From royal legislation to bounties, large amounts of effort was placed in turning people against these wolves.
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It was a successful campaign than drove wolves from places like England, Ireland, and Sweden. Wolf populations effectively became extinct in many European countries. Denmark eliminated all of theirs in 1772 and Bavaria (now Germany) eliminated theirs in 1847.
With their connection to Asia, many eastern European countries reduced their wolf populations but did not drive them to extinction. Even in the 1900s, the wolves were still hunted down. The Soviet Union hunted 30,000 to 50,000 wolves annually after World War 2, which drove them out of many parts of Russia and Eastern Europe.
Given the extreme antagonism with wolves in Europe, similar sentiments were felt in the United States and Canada as gray wolves were hunted down in these regions as well.
As of 2017, the Eurasian wolf is extinct in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland, and United Kingdom. As of today, Belgium appears to no longer be on that list because of the recent siting.
Given the persecution of these Canis lupus, their original range has been reduced by 1/3 across the world because of extermination in Europe (the Eurasian wolves) and North America.
Today, threats against the Eurasian wolves are farmers and habitat fragmentation as their homes become too small to sustain viable populations for growth.
Because of their relatively stable populations across Asia, the Eurasian wolves are considered to be “least concern” by the IUCN red list of endangered species. This stability comes from the slow realization that our perceptions of wolves were clouded behind misconceptions and outdated concepts.
Despite continued threats against the Eurasian and other gray wolves, legal protections, changes in land usage, and growing urbanization since the 1970s has allowed the wolf populations to grow.
The Bern Convention of 1979 made the Eurasian wolves a protected species as they became to represent a fundamental part of the European heritage. This legally binding agreement also helped to improve the perception of the wolves and made integrating them back into Europe a little bit easier.
These changes have also encouraged wolves to return to these areas on their own. There was a potential wolf spotting in 2011 as cameras had picked up images of what appeared to be a wolf in Southern Belgium. Unfortunately, no physical evidence could be found to confirm the initial findings and Belgium remained without wolves until now.
Recently, a wolf was found wandering the forests of Belgium after a 100-year absence. The wolf was previously collared and it indicates that the wolf moved from Germany into Belgium. This migration represents a huge step towards recovering a population in Belgium because it indicates that the wolves are interested in returning.
Since its return in December 2017, the wolf has remained in Belgium as it roams around the country. The ability and success of the wolves returning to their old hunting grounds on their own is the perfect situation for conservationists and environmentalists because it means these areas are becoming habitable for the wolves.
It is not surprising that the wolves were able to return on their own because previous studies have shown that some carnivorous species were capable of repopulating their former humans without the assistance of humans. The recovery of these native species is adding to the biodiversity of these ecosystems. More biodiversity represents a healthier and stable environment.
Despite the resistance that many rural farmers have against the reintroduction of the Eurasian wolves, they are occurring with and without the aid of humans. This inevitability will force them to reconcile their differences with the wolves because they are returning.
The success of this natural reintroduction along with the other introductions will serve as a point of study as researchers use it to assist them in recovering other populations across Europe and the world.