A wolf rescued from an icy river last week has reached Rapla County woods after it was nursed back to health and released, fitted with a GPS tracker.
“He is 70 kilometers from where he was released,” says Marko Kübarsepp, wolf monitoring specialist with the Estonian Environmental Board. Kübarsepp refuses to divulge any further details so as to spare the famous animal undue attention.
Kübarsepp has spent 20 years studying wolves and was the one who fitted the wolf with a GPS tracker when he was recovering at a Pärnu animal clinic. Now, the specialist is keeping an eye on the animal’s movements.
Before leaving the area a few dozen kilometers from the town of Sindi where he was released, the wolf took a few days to overcome shock in which time he only moved half a kilometer.
The animal’s GPS collar transmits the wolf’s location 24 times a day. It is difficult to say where the animal will settle. “His movements are quite peculiar, but it seems he’s heading north. He is going somewhere faster than a wolf normally would,” Kübarsepp explains.
The specialist adds that it is unknown where the animal is from. Whether he is a Sindi local, whether he wondered onto the icy Pärnu river from the north or south bank? These questions will not be answered any time soon. “Theoretically, he could be from Latvia,” Kübarsepp reasons.
It is also unclear whether the wolf had gotten separated from its pack, whether it had left the pack voluntarily or whether it had lost its parents.
Zoologist Aleksei Turovski and Kübarsepp’s colleague from the environmental agency Peep Männil are convinced the wolf was alone because its parents had been hunted. And that the one-year-old wolf got itself in trouble because his parents were not around to guide him.
Kübarsepp admits that could indeed be the case. There was a pack of wolves near Sindi, living north of the Pärnu river. Five pups were born there last summer. Hunting has caused the pack to fall apart by today.
“We have DNA samples from the area. We can compare them to that of our wonderer. We will learn whether we are dealing with brothers and sisters in time,” Kübarsepp says. He adds that the data will not be in before summer.
Complicated wolf hunt
It is not easy to organize a wolf hunt. “It is not about individuals, the hunters’ association is largely made up of great people,” Turovski says. Männil agrees.
The problem is that it is difficult to tell which member of the pack you’re shooting at. Split-second decisions have to be made, and random targets can easily get in the line of fire. If one of the parents is killed – or worse, both of them – pups are left to their own devices.
“This kind of lottery costs most wolf packs in Estonian woods dearly every year,” Männil says. The result is broken families and young pups left alone and without skills to feed themselves. “Anything can happen to them then,” Turovski adds.
Männil emphasizes that while wolf hunting is not a problem in itself as their numbers need to be kept in check, accidentally shooting the couple at the head of the pack has unpleasant consequences. It will also take much longer for the pups to become responsible wolves if that happens.
Executive manager of the Pärnu County hunters’ association Eero Nõmm believes the young wolf could not have been from a local pack that was broken up because the association filled its quota by January 6 and has not hunted wolf since.
Nõmm initially has difficulty explaining why the young animal might have ended up stranded on the Sindi dam. A little later he offers the following explanation: “Young wolves aren’t as wary of humans.”
Nõmm doesn’t rule out bad luck as the cause.
“Because it is mating season for wolves, older animals might be separated from the young,” he explains.
Still, lone wolves are created when packs fall apart naturally. Last summer’s pups gradually become more and more independent from January to March.
A pack of wolves needs to have at least three members. The average size of a wolf pack in Estonia is between five and eight animals. The mother wolf usually gives birth to four-five pups in early May.
The pack is led by the alpha couple. A female wolf Turovski characterizes as the teacher and a male who acts as a kind of strategic and tactical leader.
Kübarsepp says that all offspring leave their parents sooner or later. More enterprising young wolves start looking for their own territory in February-March, when they are approximately 10 months old. A few young wolves will stay with the alpha couple to help raise this spring’s pups so to speak. Their task is to help the older wolves bring up the next generation. These babysitters usually leave their parents’ side the next fall-winter.
The number of wolves in Estonia differs greatly by year, season and region. Numbers are always greatest in summer and fall and lowest in spring-winter after the hunting season. Last winter’s observations suggest there were at least 18 packs that had offspring in the previous summer before the hunting season began.
The average life expectancy for a wolf in Estonia is 1.2-1.5 years. “Hunting above all, coupled with intraspecific competition,” Kübarsepp says as to the causes. The specialist adds that those few who make it trough become real wolves so to speak. “If an animal has managed to survive for three years, they have likely become experienced enough to survive for another three.”
Luck not a factor
The animal, pulled from the river last Thursday, was suffering from hypothermia and shock when it reached the clinic. The wolf did not resist the people trying to help it and didn’t even bare its teeth at them.
“Luck had nothing to do with it. The men did good and the animal was exhausted,” Turovski summarizes.
Wolves are cunning animals and not likely to be aggressive in situations where they realize they are in a bad way and could benefit from outside help. But like with people, every animal has a different temper.
However, an animal who has just discovered it’s in trouble is still strong, enraged and terrified. Turovski says that rescuing them requires alertness and caution then. “The first rule of helping someone is to ensure your own safety, as otherwise you are of no use,” the zoologist says.