Germany Struggles with the Return of the Wolf


The minister leaves after an hour, but the rest of the audience sit patiently in their seats as Werner Freund, a mumbling, geriatric 78-year-old, gets up to speak. He owns a wolf zoo in the Saarland town of Merzig. He shows a film depicting the captive wolves licking the "catch" -- as he calls his mouth. Whenever the local butcher has some offal to spare, Freund, as the leader of the pack, gets the first bite. It's great to feel like a wolf, he says.

A Revitalized German Ecosystem? Passion, politics, feuds and agitation -- it isn't the animal itself that gets people so excited. It's the burden of the narrative people have created for this predator. The wolf has become a symbol, while defending or hating the creature has turned into a religion.

Conservationists used the wolf as Europe's answer to the Giant Panda, as a heraldic animal of sorts. It represents the return of the wild, and the last chance to heal the gaping wound that the most brutal of all animals, Homo sapiens, has inflicted upon nature. For conservationists, the wolf has finally returned to his rightful place at the top of the food chain, and their hope is that this will help restore the forest ecosystem to its original state. Almost as if Eve had never taken a bite out of the forbidden fruit.

But for many hunters, farmers and sheepherders, the predator's return represents a step back in the history of civilization. They argue that man has tamed nature for millennia. And now they are suddenly expected to share the forest with a predator once again? Why should they even raise livestock, they ask, if only to witness wolves slaughtering their sheep and goats in a bloodthirsty frenzy?

A large-scale study published in Science concludes that the expulsion and annihilation of large predators was "arguably humankind's most pervasive influence on the natural world."

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park in the United States has been a success story. The wolves have depleted the massive herds of elk that have existed for decades, allowing trees and shrubs to return to stream banks. Beaver populations grew and built dams, creating habitats for rare species of birds and other animals. Vultures benefited from the remains of wolf kills. An entire ecosytem was revived.

'Nurtured and Cherished'

Is a similar outcome possible in Germany? Most scientists are skeptical, because of the more pervasive presence of man in Europe.

According to one study, a wolf pack consumes about one roe deer a day, along with two wild boars and one red deer a week -- a sizeable take -- in an area of 100 hectares. Human beings, on the other hand, bag twice as many deer and four times as many wild boar within the same area.

Canis lupus will find it more difficult to play his traditional role in such a tamed ecosystem -- unless hunters turn over the field to wolves completely. But for that to happen, more hunters would probably have to take a deep look into the eyes of the gray predator.

Biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber once described how that feels. He wrote that he was "immediately transfixed" by the experience, during a hiking trip through the Ethiopian highlands.

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