Udbina (Croatia) (AFP)
The dead wolf hanging from a road sign outside a small Croatian town warned that farmers had been pushed too far – attacks on their cattle were driving them to despair.
No one knows who hanged the wolf, but the April incident came just days after a local farmer saw around 90 of his sheep slaughtered by wolves.
Images of bloodied sheep carcasses have been circulated in newspapers and on social media, shocking many and prompting increasingly strident calls from farmers to take down predators.
“It’s just a plague,” says Ivan Tesija, a cattle breeder.
“Wolves are everywhere, they are not afraid and people do not know how to defend themselves. “
The animals have been protected by law since 1995, when they were on the verge of extinction.
Although a slaughter quota was allowed from 2005, ministers reintroduced the full ban in 2013 to protect declining numbers.
The ban is strongly supported by animal welfare groups.
“We are the ones who created this mess, so we should be the ones to solve it and not make the wolves pay for our mistakes,” said Luka Oman, head of the NGO Animal Friends.
– Wolf dog threat –
Nearly 3,000 domestic and farm animals – mostly sheep – were killed or injured by wolves last year, slightly above average, according to official figures.
About 160 wolves roam sparsely populated areas from the hinterland of the Adriatic coast to the mountains on the borders with Slovenia and Bosnia, estimates the Ministry of Economy.
But farmers and hunters say the actual figure is around 300. Too much, they say, for the 25,000 square kilometer (9,652 square mile) habitat.
# photo1 The situation is further complicated by the presence of wolf-dog hybrids – estimated by scientists to be around 10 percent of the current population.
“Hybrids are a huge problem – they are fearless, lack a natural hunting instinct, and seek out easier prey,” says veterinarian and hunter Boris Katic.
This means cattle or sheep rather than wild boars or deer, he explains.
Katic says some locals raised animals as a hobby during the days of Croatia’s War of Independence in the 1990s and its aftermath.
Josip Kusak of the University of Zagreb points out, however, that hybrid populations explode when male wolves are killed, forcing females to mate with stray dogs.
But, they agree that wolfdogs are bad news for the wolf genome.
Katic says all hybrids, which he believes could make up about a quarter of the current wolf population, should be killed, and then a slaughter quota should be reintroduced.
# photo2But the Economy Ministry said the number of wolves “dramatically declined” when the quota was cleared before 2013, and the slaughter did nothing to reduce attacks on livestock.
Experts and animal welfare groups say farmers can thwart attacks with better electric fences, by rounding up their animals at night and monitoring them during the day.
The number of attacks “does not reflect the number of wolves but rather the number of poorly bred cattle,” says Kusak.
– Unbearable torments –
The question is not just scientific. It has strong emotional and economic elements.
Farmers feel their livelihoods are at stake.
“These are torments that no one can endure,” Kosa Galovic told AFP, recounting how six wolves killed three of his sheep and five lambs last month, putting his finances at risk.
Ivan Tesija says around 100 of his cows have been slaughtered in the past 12 years and showed a photo of a calf that died in a recent attack.
The government is offering compensation ranging from around 80 euros ($ 95) for a sheep or goat carcass to 10 times that amount for a pregnant cow – amounts described as paltry by Tesija.
Animal welfare groups, however, see it as a larger issue of humanity’s relationship with nature.
“The coexistence of humans and wolves is not only possible, it is necessary,” explains Luka Oman.
“If we want to preserve a true natural environment, it must also contain wild animals. “
He argues that the hunt could make it worse for farmers, as killing a dominant male or female can destabilize the pack and lead to more attacks – a view shared by the ministry.
But his calls are unlikely to influence the besieged farmers.
“You never know what the night will bring, people feel terrified,” said Josip Subaric, telling AFP that two of his calves were killed by wolves last month despite electric fences.
“In our profession, the wolf is the master of life and death. “
© 2021 AFP