Once upon a time, there were no wolves in Germany. For over a century, the species was totally extinct across the country, having been driven out in the 1800s by hunting and the eruption of human civilisation. But since the turn of the millenia, wolves have begun to recolonise Germany’s forested landscape. Now, high-tech tools from radio collars to genetic testing are painting an intimate picture of the wolves’ comeback.
Around the world, the wolf has a chequered reputation. For some, they're the dark villains of fairy tales, while for others, they embody the awesome mystique of the natural world.
Contrary to the wishes of many livestock farmers, wolves are now strictly protected under an EU-wide directive. This has led to an unprecedented resurgence in wolf populations across mainland Europe, including in Germany.
Speaking to Felix Böcker, an expert who monitors wolves in Germany, he directs me to an interactive online map that visualises the remarkable spread of the animals. In the year 2000, there was a lone dot on the Polish border: now, there are dense clusters across the country, particularly in the Northeast. According to estimates, there are now over 100 wolf packs settled in Germany.
This wealth of information is made possible by a range of tools: radio collars, camera traps, genetic testing, and even dogs who are specially trained to detect traces of wolves.
"If we have wolves with a radio collar, then of course it gives you a lot of information that you otherwise don't get,” says Ilka Reinhardt, a wolf expert and co-founder of the LUPUS Institut. “You can see the location, the activity data. You really see what habitats they prefer or avoid.”
These devices, permanently worn by the animal, allow us to see with precision how wolves make incredible cross-country journeys, regularly clocking hundreds of kilometres.
“A couple of years ago, we radio collared two brothers in the same week,” Reinhardt says. “One set up … a territory close to his neighbour territory. The other one moved all the way to Russia. It was more than 1500 kilometres.”
Of course, collaring wolves is no easy feat. It means catching a live wolf, which is not only a costly endeavour, but a stressful experience for the animal, if only for a short window of time. Until now, about 20 wolves have been collared in Germany. "We would like to have more… but it’s just, they are so smart," says Reinhardt.
Genetic testing also plays a huge role in gathering data. Urine and feces are routinely analysed, while the bodies of all wolves who die in Germany are sent to the lab for testing. Analyses of carcasses, carried out using advanced tomographic machinery, can reveal extensive information about the wolves’ genetics and cause of death, such as whether they died by gunshot or natural causes.
Intriguing revelations have arisen from such analyses, including three instances of hybridisation with pet dogs.
In one controversial case, Böcker tells me, the authorities identified a litter of hybrid pups and killed them. "It's not a pure wolf," Böcker explains. "The government doesn't want hybrids.”
While some might see the eradication of hybrids as a necessary evil, others will undoubtedly view it as an act of cruelty.
"On the other side, it can be seen as a form of evolution. I don't know. It's a very hard decision,” says Böcker.
While the directive that protects wolves seems to have been largely successful in restoring wolf populations across the continent, wolves are still shot illegally from time to time. In Germany, the animal has become highly politicised, with many farmers fearing for the safety of their herds. Some even claim that the wolf population is being purposely underestimated in order to ward off controversy.
Of course, for these socio-political issues, technology simply can’t be a panacea. “The dream of many politicians is to have, in each pack, a radio-collared wolf. This is just not feasible,” says Reinhardt.
“Some of them have the impression it gives them a way to control [the wolves],” she says. “But you only know afterwards where it's been – you don't track them online.”
Even though it has divided opinion, it’s hard not to see the wolf’s return to Germany as something of a success story for wildlife conservation and biodiversity. In an era of mass extinctions, there’s something heartening about a once-extinct species flourishing again. In the case of the wolf, its symbolic effect can be powerful.
“The imagination, the psychological load on the wolf... it's incomparable,” says Reinhardt. “It's so emotional. Everyone has a meaning, either positive or negative.”