Laying Their Heads Where No Humans Tread
Wolves can withstand brutally cold temperatures and go weeks without food, making them a dab hand (or paw) at surviving in extreme conditions. But one pack near the Israel-Syria border makes its home in a different hostile environment. One where it’s humans, not wolves, who must tread carefully.
Amongst the Golan Heights’ 1,000 square kilometres of grassland, open woodland and extinct volcanoes, flash the occasional yellow warning signs of a minefield. Venturing beyond the barbed wire can be fatal for anything heavier than 60kg, as both people and livestock have discovered. But for a wolf pack the reverse is often true.
Most of the Golan is used for grazing, and there is a longstanding tension between the wolves and local ranchers. After a mass poisoning campaign in the 1960s, canines almost entirely vanished from the Golan grasses. Following a boom and cull of the jackal population in the early 1990s, wolves finally began to return, possibly due to less competition and more cattle and carcasses from human waste dumps. But not everyone welcomed them back, and in 1998 there was another mass poisoning, this time killing scores of rare griffon vultures and prompting the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to step in. Wolves have extensive legal protection in the Golan, which has helped their numbers recover from 8-10 in 1979 to 80-100 in 2005 and beyond, but, controversially, they may be shot or trapped in designated areas to limit their population and protect livestock.
Illegal poaching and poisoning still occur from time to time, as this particular pack discovered when they had a litter outside the fence. Poisoned bait was found in their empty den, and when the family finally returned they had lost their young pups and an adult male. Fortunately this was not the alpha, but the pack’s makeup is yet another curiosity. According to wildlife photographer Itamar Yairi, who has closely followed the group, it is the larger, more aggressive alpha female who may be the leader.
This is by no means unheard of. Doug Smith, an expert on the Yellowstone wolves, described she-wolves 40 and 7 of the Druid and Leopold packs as head of the family. Incidentally, Golan wolves are closer in size and colour to their North American relatives, and this seems to be a recent phenomenon. Until the 1960s, most wolves sighted in Israel and Syria were of the smaller desert subspecies canis lupus pallipes. After the mass poisoning, the wolves that returned were larger with only minor throwbacks to their desert forebears, such as the occasional fused toes.
Although the minefield is a sanctuary for these wolves, human deaths and injuries are all too recent memories in the Golan, and there have been global calls to clear the mines. So far this hasn’t happened, leaving us with the juxtaposition of, in the words of predator researcher Dr. Arian Wallach, “[something that] epitomises everything wrong with the world… [with]…some wild beauty running through it.”