The story of the steppe wolf

The wolf has been portrayed as the pariah of the prairie and the killer on the steppe for as long as anyone can remember in Kazakhstan—just as it has around the rest of the world. From folklore to fairy tales, Canis lupus is the go-to villain of numerous narratives, forever menacing children or slaughtering valuable livestock.

Here, and right across many parts of Central Asia, this dark reputation has resulted in a situation where a magnificent animal has gone from apex predator to prey species, with human hunters revelling in its violent destruction.

The grimmer corners of the internet are awash with horrific images and videos of wolves being taunted, maimed, mutilated and killed by gleeful assailants. Give a dog a bad name, it seems, and Homo sapiens will happily reveal their most savage side.

One leading conservation scientist I spoke to, who has a vast amount of experience in the region, told me ‘the answer to everything seems to be ‘kill the wolves’.’ And it’s hard to argue when you look at the situation on the ground.

The wolf is regarded as a pest species in Kazakhstan. They run into conflict with local people, are commonly blamed for killing livestock and domestic animals, and they’re seen as dangerous. You don’t require a licence to hunt them, and people apparently enjoy killing wolves for fun. And it’s far from just locals who hold this attitude—it’s also possible to simply book an eight-day wolf-hunting holiday to Kazakhstan from the UK or US.

Inevitably, this persecution has impacted numbers, which is proving unhealthy for the entire biosystem the lupine once lorded over, allowing weaknesses in prey species such as the saiga to spread. Take away the wolf and the biology of the steppe becomes dangerously unbalanced.

That’s not to say that the wolf has disappeared from the steppe altogether, because it clearly hasn’t—hunters are still posting kill shots and canine snuff movies, while other footage has emerged showing locals using wolves as guard dogs—but sourcing information about the health of the wild population in the post-Soviet era is exceptionally difficult.

It’s tough to even get estimated figures for the number of wolves that live in Kazakhstan or on the Great steppe—a vast region that sprawls across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, characterised by its devastating remoteness and climatic extremes.

A three-month-old wolf cub near its den site in summer.
A three-month-old wolf cub near its steppe den site in summer.

Cameron Feaster, a US-based specialist with the International Wolf Centre told us that, in 2007, the wild wolf population of Kazakhstan was believed to be around 30,000 wolves, but warned that accurate and up-to-date data from the last decade was extremely thin on the ground.

One group attempting to put this to rights is the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), a non-profit organisation that focuses specifically on the study and conservation of all endangered and threatened species in the country, across both flora and fauna.

Steffen Zuther, International coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, has been working with ACBK for nine years, on a project supported by the Frankfurt Zoologocal society. Among their target animals are wolves, and when I spoke to Steffen, his team were literally about to leave their field base on a mission to place collars on a number of individual wild wolves—a job much easier said than done.

One of these team members, conservation biologist Alyona Shmalenko, told me: ‘The figure of 30,000 is just an estimation, and one taken from a time when there was a lot of domestic livestock and saiga on the steppe [for wolves to prey on]. No census has been implemented for around 30 years. The real number is much lower.’

Zuther concurs, explaining that the figure of 30,000 dates back to Soviet times, and is at least 25 years past its sell by date. ‘No one counts wolves any more,’ he says. ‘And the organisations that are supposed to know, are more interested in saying there are higher numbers than there really are, because then they might get bigger quotas.’

‘The taking of livestock is actually very rare, but it’s talked about a lot,’ Zuther continues. ‘And there are virtually no domestic animals here for wolves to threaten.’

A researcher sets up an ear tag on a wolf cub.
A researcher sets up an ear tag on a wolf cub.

Yet the killing continues, and combined with other events—such as the recent mass saiga die-off, which wiped out half of the world’s entire population of an animal that is an important source of food for Kazakhstan’s wolves—the ramifications are potentially dire.

As we’ve seen with other species, the real problem is hunting on a scale that has not previously been possible, using modern technology that circumvents obstacles that used to limit the kill potential of human predators.

‘People here have always hunted a lot,’ says Zuther. ‘But now they’re using snowmobiles that will take them anywhere they want to go, whenever they want to go there. They have high-tech navigation aids to find the animals and high-velocity firearms to shoot them. Sport hunters are not killing individuals anymore, they’re wiping out large groups. You see photos where 60 wolves are lying dead.’

One of the fascinating things about the grey wolves seen in Kazakhstan and the surrounding region, is that they live and behave in a completely different way to their canine cousins in Europe and elsewhere in Asia.

‘This is not your typical wolf,’ explains Zuther. ‘Here the animals seem to hunt alone. Or you see family groups, but not big packs. In Soviet times they were being studied to see if they were in fact a separate species—the steppe wolf—but it was never scientifically proven.’

The lone wolf trait of the steppe sub species makes them an even more challenging animal to track and study, but Zuther and his ACBK colleagues are sticking tenaciously to their task.

‘We’re attempting to fit collars on the wolves. This will tell us important information about their distribution and movements—for example, how often do they actually come close to human settlements, especially during the winter? At the same time we collect scat samples, and study what they eat.’

Setting up a radio collar on a wolf is tricky business.
Setting up a radio collar on a wolf is tricky business.

However fitting a collar on a wild wolf in the midst of a Kazakhstan winter is quite the challenge. Like the hunters, the team are pursuing their quarry on snowmobiles, but there the similarities stop. Instead of using high-powered rifles to bring the animals down from a distance, the conservationists have to get close enough to catch the wolves with a net. At which stage, apparently, the animal ceases to struggle, and the collar can be applied.

We look forward to bringing you the information gleaned from the antics of the collared canines, as they lead their lonely and little understood life in one of the most remote and challenging parts of the planet.


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