Wolf picked national animal over hedgehog

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PHOTO: PATRICK PLEUL / AFP / Scanpix

After months of debate and arguments, the wolf, who is perhaps the most controversial wild animal inhabiting our forests, was finally chosen as Estonia’s national animal yesterday.

The election process was just as controversial as the new national animal. The decision was not an easy one, and the final signatures for the wolf were only given yesterday.

The decision was preceded by heated arguments, and it was suspected that the organizers had already settled on the wolf before the vote could even begin. No referendum was held to choose the national animal. The wolf was picked by a jury made up of around 20 nature conservation and cultural organizations.

The judges explained that the wolf is a symbol of wild and untouched nature and has been ruling our marshes and forests for hundreds, even thousands of years.

“The wolf is a universal indicator species: it measures the forest’s condition and reflects Estonians’ understanding of the entirety of nature. If we understand the wolf’s position in the forest, we understand how nature works,” the decision-makers found.

Clash of the titans

The discussion over who would become Estonia’s national animal began five years ago. Several candidates were proposed, but the process petered out.

The topic resurfaced on the eve of Estonia’s centenary. We have a national flower, bird, fish, rock, and even a butterfly – how is it possible we do not have a national animal?

The people put in charge of picking that animal immediately split into two camps: the supporters and opponents of the wolf. Convinced proponents said that the wolf is a central character in Estonian folklore and one of the feared predators of our woods. Those against choosing the animal accused it of the same thing: a hero on one hand, a predator on the other.

The wolf’s biggest competitor for the title of national animal was the hedgehog – the wise counsellor from the epic “Kalevipoeg” whom everyone is always glad to come across. A true people’s champion. Or to borrow the words of the organizer of Nature’s Omnibus Jaan Riis: an animal sporting a serious cute factor. Even though Riis was himself in favor of the wolf.

“The question was which do we prefer as our national animal,” Riis said, “someone people like or someone that is a symbol of our swamps and woods and is not encountered often.”

An online poll by Postimees determined that the hedgehog is indeed the people’s favorite. A Facebook page titled “Hedgehog for national animal” was created already back in 2010 and has around 1,000 likes.

“Oh yes, the hedgehog was fierce competition; it is everyone’s favorite,” said one of the organizers Helen Arusoo from NGO Animal of the Year. The judges considered the hedgehog’s bid with all seriousness; however, one of the arguments in favor of the wolf was that the hedgehog is rather a park and farmyard animal.

Our national flower and bird can both be found in fields, which is why organizers were sure the national animal would have to live in the woods. “We love to talk about ourselves as a forest people which is why our national symbols should include a symbol of the forest,” Arusoo said.

The bear and elk were ruled out as potential candidates as they are already the national animals of Finland and Sweden respectively.

Jaan Riis thought that the badger and lynx were also strong candidates. “However, looking at folklore, the wolf is clearly the most prominent: it has a lot of euphemisms and stories about it, both good and bad. It is the most interesting animal,” he said.

Chairman of the board of the Estonian National Conservation Society Vootele Hansen and executive manager of the Estonian Hunters Society Tõnis Korts were also in the camp of the wolf.

Hunters bewildered

An online poll held by the hunters’ society got as heated as the election itself.

Initially, the matter was discussed in the society’s board, but no clear preference emerged. “Some wanted the badger for his hardworking nature, while the wolf also had its fan club. Hunters have great respect for the wolf,” said executive manager Tõnis Korts.

The society was reluctant to suggest the wolf, however, in fears that it would result in hunting restrictions. “Those questions were answered early on. Besides, people still eat the national fish (Baltic herring) and build using limestone, despite its national status,” he explained.

Nevertheless, the society decided to ask other hunters for their opinion using an online poll. The candidates were the beaver, badger, fox, hedgehog, wolf, and roe deer. People were also free to propose their own candidates.

The wolf and the hedgehog pulled away right from the start. However, the number of votes cast suddenly grew enough to make moderators suspicious.

Even though it was only allowed to cast a single vote from a single IP-address within 72 hours, someone had managed to bypass the restriction and cast hundreds of votes from the same IP-address in just a short time.

In the end, the poll had to be closed, and the opinion of hunters was never ascertained. “It came as a shock. We never thought the poll could create such a storm,” Korts said. The society plans to find out in which candidate’s favor the illegal votes were cast. “But it seems it’s the wolf that is raising pulses.”

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