When Interactions between Humans and Wolves Take an Aggressive Turn
By Shmulik Yedvab, Director of SPNI’s Mammal Center
In recent months, there have been 12 reported cases of extreme incidents of interactions between humans and wolves. In order to completely eliminate such unnecessary danger to both humans and wolves, it is essential that the wolves' natural fear of humans be re-instated. What follows is an overview of Israel’s wolf population and the measures that must be taken by humans when encountering a wolf.
Israel’s wolf population
The wolf (Canis lupus) is the largest predator of the canine family. Although classified as a carnivore, the wolf’s nutrition also includes vegetarian food sources and leftovers dispensed by human activity.
Wolves around the world vary considerably in appearance and size, and this variance also exists among Israel's wolves. For example, wolves found in the Golan Heights are larger and significantly heavier (32 kg) than those of the Arava region (18-22 kg).
It is now common knowledge among researchers that Israel’s wolves are classified into two subspecies. Wolves of central and northern Israel are identified as a subspecies originating in India, while those dwelling in the arid Negev desert and the Arava region are identified with a subspecies originating in the Arabian Peninsula.
The breeding season for Israel’s wolves occurs during the winter months, with the southern region breeding season usually preceding that of the northern areas. Wolf pregnancies last two months, and the number of pups usually ranges between two and six. The whelping takes place in a burrow that the male and female dig together.
The pups will open their eyes 10-15 days after birth, and they are breastfed by the female for about one month. At that point, the pups begin to diversify their diet, adding half-digested food supplied by their parents. After three months, the pups join their parents and the rest of the pack, though they don’t blend in until they are eight months and reach the size of an adult wolf.
At the age of about one year, some wolves leave the pack, while others remains for another year to help foster the next generation.
Wolves are a social species with a clear hierarchical structure. This structure also has many variations. There are small packs that include only a few individuals as well as larger packs that include 12-17 individuals. In large packs, one can usually identify a breeding pair, leaders (alpha male and female) and supporting individuals, which are usually the descendants of the head couple.
Human impact on wolf habitats and numbers
In the past, wolves dwelled in all of Israel’s habitats, with the exception of cliffs and marshland. However, hunting and poisoning traps set by farmers has diminished their distribution, limiting it to remote and isolated areas. In the early 1990s, the wolf population was estimated at only 100 individuals in the Negev and the Arava region, and only 50 in the Mediterranean regions, mainly in the Golan Heights.
Since then, poor sanitary conditions and an abundance of accessible food originating from trash left by humans has caused a population spike, with wolf numbers rising in both the arid and Mediterranean regions of Israel. As a result, friction between wolves and farmers has increased dramatically, and cattle growers in the north of Israel have suffered great financial losses due to numerous wolf attacks on their herds. In order to reduce damage to farmers, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) has begun implementing measures to thin wolf populations in areas of increased friction. The INPA also employs others methods, including reducing the amount of food available to wolves by removing carcasses from the farms and protecting the herds with fencing.
Desert wolves becoming aggressive towards humans
The 12 recent incidents of extreme interactions between humans and wolves occurred in the Ein Gedi and Masada Nature Reserves, when lone wolves made contact with hikers and campers utilizing designated camp sites. These incidents were preceded by observations of a pair of wolves who preyed on cats at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, and other incidents in which wolves were documented preying on ibex and rock hyrax in broad daylight.
These incidents are especially troubling, as such aggression is uncommon for this species, which is usually fearful of contact and maintains a safe distance from humans. Some believe that this unusual behavior is the result of wolves becoming accustomed to human presence thanks to edible waste left at camping sites, open bins and food intentionally left over by residents and hikers to feed the wolves. As a result of this habituation process, wolves are no longer afraid of human presence, and humans become an optional prey.
In order to prevent unnecessary danger to residents and hikers, and also protect wolves from actions taken by vigilantes, the INPA captured two wolves "suspected" of this unusual behavior. While this may prevent wolf attacks in the near future, the only way to ensure the safety of both humans and wolves is to restore the wolves’ natural fear of humans. This can be achieved through a concerted public effort to properly dispose of food waste and avoid “friendly” contact with wolves.
"Do's and Don'ts" when visiting nature reserves, staying in camping sites and hiking trails
- Throw all food leftovers and waste into a neat and tightly closed bin. This rule also applies to fruits and vegetable.
- While camping, make sure that all food products are packed and stored in tents or vehicles.
- If an animal approaches you, scare it away using large gestures and loud noises.
- Don’t feed animals – neither direct feeding nor leaving food behind.
- Don’t leave waste in open areas, not even packed in bags.
- Don’t leave unpacked food for the morning. Most animals are nocturnal and unpacked food will tempt them to approach those sleeping at the camping site.
- Don’t encourage an animal to approach you – neither for observation nor the purpose of taking photos. The natural fear of humans maintained by wildlife is their most important asset for survival.