In January 2016, I visited Naliboki Forest together with my friends during a wildlife tour. The target species of this trip were lynx and wolf, and two of our group were lucky to see a lynx. Despite several signs of wolves, they were unfortunately not seen. We had the chance to see many other animals, though, and guided by Vadim, we learned a lot about the forest and its inhabitants.
Because I wanted to know more about wolves and had a great desire to work with them, Vadim invited me to join him later that year in May to assist him at searching for wolf pups, to study population dynamics. His understanding of wolf behaviour and his capacity to read their signs is impressive, I already learned in winter. I was determined to gather as much knowledge as I could, and maybe even see wolves for the first time in my life or their pups. Little did I know that everything I wished for would come true. I experienced the thrill of interpreting wolf tracks, following the signs and eventually finding denning areas, and wolf pups. Sadly, I also experienced more than once the cruelty of men against wolf.
Before I arrived at May 7th, Vadim had already searched the forest for signs of denning behaviour of the different wolf packs, alone or together with other volunteers. This way, the first day of my stay in Naliboki Forest, we followed the tracks of the alpha male of one of the packs and identified the location of the denning area. We found the den where the alpha female had given birth and a few other dens. However, we found no evidence of the presence of pups and everything indicated that there had been a rather small litter, but that the pups had died. Later in May, our assumption seemed to be correct, since we observed no more signs of denning behaviour and saw tracks of the alpha male far away from that area, re-establishing his territory. This was a rather disappointing finding, but I was satisfied to witness the knowledge of Vadim and to be introduced into the art of searching wolf pups, and was convinced we would find many more denning areas.
The next day we ranged the territory of another pack. While walking and interpreting the tracks, we narrowed the possible locations of the denning area down to two, and decided to check one of them. That particular area was unsuitable to be a hunting area for the pack, since it contained no, or only few, prey species, which makes it a good denning area. We arrived in a patch of open pine forest without much shrubbery, but interspersed with some spruce trees. While Vadim explained why this would be a good denning area, and that we should look out for signs of dens, one of the other volunteers shouted “Wolf! Wolf!” and we all looked up to see a wolf disappear behind the pine trees in the distance. Heavily impressed, and trying to see more of it, Vadim called us to him. He had walked a few paces from where we were standing, towards a spruce tree, and lifted the lower branches: wolf pups!
A litter of nine pups was lying in an open den under the spruce, and we could hardly believe our eyes. We did not handle them to avoid that the pups would be abandoned by their mother, the wolf that we had just seen running away. An exciting finding was that this litter indicated that there was multi-breeding in this pack. Camera trap images had already shown the alpha male walking together with the alpha female and their daughter, which was evidently pregnant. The wolf that we had seen running away seemed to be the alpha female, which means that both mother and daughter had mated with the alpha male, and that this was the litter of the alpha female. Only two days of my trip had passed, and I had located two denning areas, found wolf pups and seen an adult wolf… At this point I was already confident that during the two weeks that I would stay with Vadim, I would learn more about wolves than I had ever thought I would.
The next few days we tried to locate the denning areas of other packs and ranged the forest pathways looking for tracks. We ranged the territory of two different packs to eventually find out that both of them had most probably been exterminated only recently. The loss of a wolf pack, let alone two, is a great loss for the wolf population of Naliboki Forest, but still it seems to occur more and more frequently. After this disappointment we focussed our attention on one pack and decided to walk around in the area where most signs of denning behaviour accumulated, without having certainty of the location of the denning area. Our first quests didn’t provide more clarity but luckily Vadim knows the forest incredibly well and we went turned to some particular forest patches nearby, which he thought were excellent for denning. The closer we got to this area, the more the wolf tracks confirmed our assumption and not much long after finding the forest patch in question, we saw many fresh tracks and eventually found a well-hidden resting site. We split up and went looking for dens and burrows, and looked out for hidden pups. In one of the first dens, we discovered tracks of the pups in the earth, and Vadim determined the age of the pups to be already more than one month old, possibly even 6 weeks. This means that they were born as early as end of March. After spending several hours frantically searching the area, finding many dens and burrows and even a plastic bottle that the pups used as a toy, we found no trace of them. Our misfortune was that the pups were already quite big and mobile, and probably escaped by themselves when we approached. The signs of presence of the pups was so fresh that it was clear we were really close and only just missed them! But all the evidence let us to conclude we found a second successful litter.
We left this pack alone and concentrated on another breeding pack. More than once we returned from our walks without finding a denning area, but nevertheless each days we learned more about the activities of the pack and could narrow down the searching area. Through Vadim’s guidance, I learned how to read the signs of wolf presence and step by step came to understand wolves and their behaviour. It didn’t take long until we located the possible denning area of the next pack, and identified fresh tracks, scat and a resting site of the mother wolf. Again, we split up and searched the area more thoroughly. Our search around the resting site didn’t provide too much information about the exact location of the dens, and it appeared that a higher amount of tracks and dens was found a bit farther away. We decided to move our searching area a bit, and immediately discovered that the denning area, with many fresh tracks, was actually located in a treefall not far from where we were initially looking, but far enough for wolves to be there unnoticed. The signs of presence were so fresh that the pups couldn’t have been there so long ago. Intensively we searched around for possible dens but couldn’t locate the pups. It was clear that the mother was able to relocate the pups while we were looking around in the wrong patch. We had spent many hours there, the real denning area was several hundreds of metres away and the treefall provided enough cover for the wolf mother to walk around without being noticed. We regretted that we just missed the pups again but on the other hand we discovered another successful reproduction. Although searching for wolf pups is based on the knowledge of the behaviour and activities of wolves and follows a clear methodology and the process of elimination, some luck is still involved. This way for the second time we located the denning area of a pack, but again the litter escaped us, carried away by the mother this time since the signs taught us that the pups were still young. If we had spent less time in the first area, and that way found the denning area sooner, we would have probably found the pups.
After this we spent many days trying to locate the denning area of the pack that had their territory in a large sand dune area. The tracks were hard to interpret, and the extensive monotonous habitat made it difficult to indicate the exact denning area. After a long time, we saw many promising signs such as fresh scratching and tracks of the alpha male and they all indicated a few possible, smaller, areas that could be used for denning. Finally, we found badger outlier with pups inside. We decided do not disturb the wolf parents much and gone. In a week during the last day of my stay in Naliboki Forest we visited the den again and found it been extirpated by wardens.
There were seven deep holes revealing a six metres long burrow. This was the sign of men excavating the burrow to take the pups that were inside, most certainly just to kill them. We were devastated by this horrible finding, and for a long time I stood there not understanding how this could happen. I had experienced such an incredible adventure in an amazingly beautiful place, rich in nature, wildlife and culture. That this act of cruelty could happen in such a place full of potential, in these modern times, is hard to comprehend. The excavated burrow, moreover, was located in a nature reserve area, where hunting is prohibited. Digging for wolf pups is by all means prohibited, anywhere in the forest.
Hopefully one day people come to realize that there is more profit gained from wolves alive, instead of dead. For the forest and its inhabitants, but also economically. As top predators they are invaluable to sustain a healthy ecosystem and healthy ungulate species populations, which are a favourite target group for recreational hunters. But they are most importantly extremely interesting for wildlife tourism, a sector in the ecotourism business that is more and more of economic value. I thus sincerely hope that wolves will receive better protection and that many more people can experience the thrill and joy I’ve felt while staying in Naliboki Forest.