During my recent adventures in British Columbia, Canada, I visited a wolf education centre—the Northern Lights Wolf Centre. Not only was it wonderful to see these beautiful creatures up close, it was interesting and galvanising to hear the rise and fall of the wolf. It is sad to see such a resourceful, social, amazing animal in decline all over the world. What is doubly sad is that the wolf is one of those animals that divides people, you love them, or you hate them. And whilst the wolf is the subject of a number of conservation projects it is also shot, legally, throughout the world. In some places, the government still pays a bounty for a dead wolf. The Wolf Almanac takes you through the story of the wolf, from folklore to ecology and worldwide sub-species, to extinctions, conflicts with man, habitat loss, its important role as a keystone species, and slow recognition as an important part of the natural world. The wolf is a perfect example of why I became an ecologist—I am not a tree-hugger, and by that I mean I believe for conservation to work we have to aim for a careful balance. I’ve worked on many projects where nature conservation will not work, will not even get off the ground, if we don’t also deal with poverty, social issues or local community concerns at the same time. Nature conservation has to be a careful balance, it has to look at the whole picture, and we, man, are part of that.
What I found interesting reading The Wolf Almanac was how the perception of the ‘big bad wolf’ has persisted. Even where it has been proven that man has caused the loss of deer and other game, the wolf has been blamed and shot. Even where science has shown how important the wolf is as a keystone species, it has taken an awful lot of persuading to reintroduce them or to stop bounties and extinctions. I wondered as I read whether part of this perception is because of the pack mentality of the wolf (a group of animals is always more frightening that a lone animal) and because of its intelligence. Those two things combined create a very resourceful creature. And its often that combination that makes us fear robots in scifi, the borg in Star Trek, it’s why we’re endlessly fascinated by the hive mentality of bees.
What was also true when I was in Canada was that I did feel apprehensive hiking through the national parks. That was more to do with bears than wolves, but I think it’s true it is also because I am British and in the UK I only have to worry about cattle and loose dogs. Not really on the same level. But my concern was whether or not I knew how to behave correctly, the last thing I wanted was to be unknowingly doing something stupid and cause an incident with a wild animal. Knowledge is always a powerful tool.
I love the ecology of wolves, I think most people who love wolves love their social nature. It is why I love the wolf pack in The Jungle Book, why I read The Man Who Lives with Wolves by Shaun Ellis. They are intelligent and loving, they care for members of the pack, they share in the rearing of their young, and it is really touching to watch.
I really hope science continues to guide nature conservation and we find ways of learning to live with and make compromises in order to live alongside the beautiful animals of the wild. In the book there’s a quote from an Alaskan governor who seriously (yet humorously) said ‘nature should not be allowed to run wild’ (he was in favour of continued wolf shooting). I think the opposite, we should try our very best to give nature a chance to be as wild as possible.