The howl of a wolf

I was sitting in my office reading through my game guards’ reports when one of them knocked on my door. He came in, saluted and said: “Sir, your dogs he catched the kudu and killed it
Issue date: 26 September 2008

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I was sitting in my office reading through my game guards’ reports when one of them knocked on my door. He came in, saluted and said: “Sir, your dogs he catched the kudu and killed it.” “Are you crazy,” I barked “they’re hardly the size of mpunzi (a duiker), how can they catch a kudu?” “Lucas he see them.” “He must have been drinking! Come, show me,” said. We left the office, got onto the three-wheeled bike and drove to the game park. While driving, thought about the big male leopard that had caught a full-grown red hartebeest in the park a month before.

We arrived at a place where a dry river course came out of the hills and resembled a rock-strewn moonscape. The area consisted of bare granite surfaces, some polished smooth by many centuries of running water and pock-marked with potholes filled with the round stones that had formed them through the ages. O n a bare rock slab a young kudu bull, with horns about half a metre long lay dead. His neck had a big bulge and was twisted over his back. There were no wounds on him so the leopard was ruled out. Because of the rock surface, there were no tracks or indication of what had happened, but it was obvious that he had fallen and broken his neck. “Are you sure you chaps didn’t chase him?” In every reserve or game park had ever managed had caught some of my own guards poaching.

 “No sir, it’s the dogs. Lucas he see them!” couldn’t believe my two dogs had done it. ne was Karlinka, my well-trained white pointer bitch, so small she often slept on my lap. The other was a black Rottweiler/Dobermann cross male, still young enough that everything was just a game. Since getting the male, however, had noticed that they had formed a partnership and often wandered off together, but catching a kudu? No ways. A week later was called again. This time they had allegedly caught a big male ostrich, which they had apparently chased for more than a kilometre on a sandy road. This time there was no doubt, realised with surprise on examining the tracks. Karlinka had curious, large extra dewclaws on her hind legs and these showed clearly in the sand. S he had great stamina and at 30km/hour could stay ahead of my bike for 10km, but an ostrich can run at over 80km/hour. From where it was found, it seemed they only caught up with it after it entered the trees. It had bite marks on its thighs and was caught by the throat and killed.

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 After found a new home for the black male, Karlinka only had me as a hunting partner and her uncontrolled hunting forays stopped. D eep inside, all domestic dogs are hunters but some are either too small or too big and clumsy to hunt. By far the largest dogs alive today are some of the domesticated breeds that live like chickens on pellets or junk food and never taste anything raw. It’s not the Great Dane, but the English Mastiff that is the biggest of all. Top of the list in the Guinness Book of Records is Hercules, who tipped the scales at almost 128kg, but they grow even bigger, and the largest known was a giant Mastiff named Zorba, weighing over 155kg. Domestication has also suppressed many dogs’ hunting instincts. This ancient ability is largely genetic, but not entirely, because puppies from hunting breeds like pointers whose parents never hunted are almost useless, no matter how well you train them.

The harts of hunters
In the other hand, all wild dog species of the family Canidae must hunt to stay alive. None of them are very big and the smaller members like jackals and foxes that in the prey mostly in the wild on small creatures often hunt alone. They are also less social than the larger wild dogs, which live in packs that are highly efficient hunting units. T hese packs don’t depend on the power of an individual, but on cooperation and through combined effort they can bring down surprisingly large prey. Their social systems are extremely well-developed and individuals can’t hunt or survive alone. That’s why Karlinka stopped hunting when she lost her canine hunting partner. part from the wolf there are a few other pack-hunting wild dog species left in the world, and they are all endangered because the hand of man has for centuries been turned against them.

Typical is the African wild dog, Lycaon pictus, and the Indian wild dog or dhole, Cuon alpinus. e all know our local species, but not many people in this country are familiar with the dhole. Like the wolf, it’s an Ice Age survivor that once occurred over the whole of Eurasia and North America. Today only about 2 500 survive in the wild and are sporadically found in isolated populations over a huge area in Asia, from Siberia through parts of India to the Philippines. t is somewhat smaller than our wild dog, and a uniform reddish-brown with large rounded ears and a thick fox-like tail. It lives in small packs of only two or three females plus many males, who do the hunting while the females guard and care for the pups.

They are very social and hardly ever fight, they support each other and their hunting strategy is very similar to our wild dogs, which kill swiftly and devour their prey while it’s still alive. Compared to the dhole, the wolf is known all over the world. It’s the largest of all wild dogs and much stouter than any of the other species. Having coexisted with mankind in the northern hemisphere for thousands of years, it’s the forefather of all domestic dogs. And the mythical Romulus, the father of the Roman empire, and his twin brother were even raised by a she-wolf.

Man’s two-sided relationship with wolves exemplifies his eternal feud with all fellow predators. He exterminated wolves because of the threat to his livestock, but its domesticated descendent is almost a mirror image called a German shepherd. Among nations that lived as nomadic hunters, the wolf was always revered. Wolves had a special place in the culture of all Native Americans, for example. They were admired for their strength and powers of endurance, and according to myth taught the tribes many skills such as sharing, cooperative hunting, caring and looking after the young, and having pride in the tribe. These people never killed wolves, believing the spirit of the slain wolf would avenge its death. This reverence was widespread in many other cultures and in Japan the big wolf Okami was even a deity who acted as a messenger from the gods.

Misrepresented as a villain Among agricultural societies in Europe it was the exact opposite. There the wolf was regarded as the embodiment of evil and destroyed by all means possible. In the 13th century King Edward I ordered the total extermination of all wolves in his kingdom, but it took until the reign of Henry VII, 200 years later, before the last one was killed. And to this day in the rest of Europe – which always wants to tell us how to manage our wildlife – the killing continues. In 1988, just before the Soviet economy collapsed, professional hunters killed 16 000 wolves in Russia. In 2005 the Norwegian government also proposed a cull, with the intent of exterminating 25% of Norway’s wolf population. A recent study, however, concluded there were only 120 animals left at most, causing great concern about the genetic health of the population. Although long extinct in England, the wolves’ howl left an indelible mark on the British psyche and was even exploited by Adolf Hitler, who called his submarines wolf packs. Their influence is also reflected in English folklore and language that spread all over the world.

Dozens of ancient fables like Red Riding Hood and the wolf swallowing her grandmother abound and new ones are still created in modern times. As a child one of my favourite Afrikaans cartoons was Jakkals en Wolf by that excellent local cartoonist TO Honiball. Even Hollywood does its share to keep wolf myths alive. It created the Three Little Pigs, with the wolf, in 1933 and keep up levels of fear with regular werewolf films. However, it’s in language that the wolf has left the bigger and more lasting footprint than even the elephant. Think about numerous expressions like “the big bad wolf”, “the wolf at the door”, “thrown to the wolves”, “wolf down your food” or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, an idiom even used in the Bible.

If there’s one thing modern humanity can learn from the wolf it’s something locked up in an old Inuit saying from the Kivalliq region in northern Canada: “The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf that keeps the caribou strong.” All strands in the web of life are interconnected and each strand we break weakens the web until it collapses into a sticky mess from which we cannot escape. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected]. Skype name: abrejsteyn. |fw