A History of Wolves in Russia

By: Evgeni Okhtin, Chief of the Russian Independent Research Group

In September 1998, Wolf Song of Alaska entered into an exchange of information about wolves in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Our Executive Director, Tom Talasz, began a dialog with Evgeni Okhtin, Chief of the Russian Independent Research Group. Very little is known about wolves in Russia, so we wanted to share portions of exclusive conversations with the visitors to our web site. The translation of this particular conversation, from Russian to English, is as close to the original text and interpretation as possible.

Evgeni Okhtin...

"In spite of the fact that scientific studies about the wolf in Russia appeared long before the twentieth century, questions about the ecology of the wolf and the relations between the wolf and humans have not been reviewed in Russia in current times, as they have been discussed elsewhere.

Some researchers in Russia have studied the wolf in relation to biology, behavior, habits, intelligence, and its relevance to nature. One of the most objective authors was L. P. Sabaneev. His studies, from the late nineteenth century, are the basis for those who study wolves today.

From the beginning of the twentieth century until 1945, few researchers in Russia thought about studying wolves at any great length. After World War II, the general Russian human population suffered and spent much of its time focusing on its own need to survive. As a result, there were huge wolf population increases.

Unfortunately, the reaction to this increase in the wolf population was ultimate 'hatred' for the wolf. The people were starving and the wolf took away the people's food, their livestock, and their wild game. Hunting was considered a part of the state food program. The wolf took the food resources and thus the wolf became an 'enemy' of the state.

According to V.V. Kozlov, a researcher in the Oksy Reserve and the Stolby Reserve in the 1950's and 1960's, the USSR destroyed 42,300 wolves in 1945, 62,700 wolves in 1946, 58,700 wolves in 1947, 57,600 in 1948, and 55,300 in 1949. From1950 until 1954, an average of 50,000 wolves were killed annually in the USSR. The wolf survived mostly because of the vast amount of territory that was not inhabited by humans. The struggle continued where wolves and humans lived side-by-side.

In the late 1950's and through the 1960's in the USSR, science was directed toward the economy and defense of the country. Very few scientists studied wolves. Scientists were required to carry out the orders of the governments and thus, the study of wolves was virtually nonexistent. If scientists did not coincide their opinions with the officials, they did not work. Individual scientists tried to remain focused on wolf issues, but influence of the individuals on policies of the government was virtually unknown to the public.

When the wolves were studied, the efforts were concentrated in state hunting departments. The scientists in these groups were instructed to study ways to destroy the wolves rather than to save them. The practice continued until the 1970's. Fortunately, much of the information that was generated during that era has become very useful in the study of wolves today. If anything good came of that program, it was the resource of scientific and technical information about those wolves that is still used. The statistical information gathered in that era remains extremely valuable.

Although the academic and scientific communities were involved in the wolf programs, financing for these programs remained scant, and the results are that many of the efforts of specific individuals may have been lost forever.

In the 1970's, the attitude toward wolves began to change again. For the next twenty years, and into the 1990's, many scientists began studies that would ultimately protect the wolf. Numerous publications, books, television, and other broadcasts began to reveal the wolf as a 'natural regulator' of its environment. Although human pressure on the wolf has lessened, the struggle between wolves and humans in Russia continues.

Now, in the late 1990's, Russia has begun the very difficult transition to a country with modern economic and political systems. Again, there is a shift away from so much attention focused upon the wolves. The number of publications and television programs is again decreasing and the funding for these programs and studies is declining.

Due to the increased focus on the economy and other issues in the late 1990's, wolf populations are again on the rise in Russia. But, as predicted, more and more incidents of wolves attacking livestock, and even humans, are being reported. Special interest hunting groups are increasing pressure to control wolf populations. The trend appears to be against the wolf as we head into the next decade.

The status of the wolf in Russia today can be best described as an 'outlaw'. In practice, it means that any person, at any time of the year, can shoot any number of wolves unless they are protected in reserves.

Stories about wolves in Russia are numerous. The most revered story is the success of the wolves in relation to the persecution by humans. These amazing animals have the improbable ability to survive during centuries of wars between wolves and humans. A commonly held belief is that many more wolves will die naturally than at the hands of humans.

One of the more disturbing recollections comes from a visit to a zoological museum in Moscow. A scientist, engaged in morphology of a wolf, told the visitors that the wolf is a 'licensed' animal in Russia. This statement implied that the wolf is under special protection of the state. This is not true. It is obvious that some things have not changed, even in the late 1990's.

In spite of the wolf's history in the former USSR and Russia, there are remarkable scientists and researchers who are studying wolves in current-day Russia. Examples of great progress being made exist in Central Wood Reserve, in the Tverskaya region, and the Osky Reserve in the Ryazanskaya region.

Funds remain hard to come by, and life can be difficult for these researchers, but they pursue the plight of the wolf and its role in modern Russia. Life goes on, but we are assured that there are many people in Russia who not only love the wolf, but nature in general."