Shepherds Despair as Wolves Thrive in Croatia
ZAGVOZD, Croatia - The state has made them a protected species, but shepherds say Croatia's wolves are living up to their storybook reputation as the bad guys.
Wolves roaming rural Croatia are preying on sheep and goats while enjoying more rights than livestock owners.
A simple example sums up the problem: If a shepherd kills a wolf, he faces a 40,000 kuna ($6,800) fine. But if the wolf kills a sheep from your flock, the state pays only 500 kuna, with some delay and only if a state-appointed expert confirms it was a case of lupine wrongdoing.
Shepherds in this remote village in the southern Dalmatia region, separated from the touristy Adriatic coast by Mount Biokovo, say they have had their fill of wolf attacks. The situation is the same in much of rural Croatia.
Hardly a day goes by without a newspaper report of wolves killing sheep, goats or dogs, almost literally before their owners' eyes, prompting demands for a reduction of their number.
Ivica Brnas owns 45 sheep and goats, four cows and a horse, guarded by two well-trained sheep dogs. He recently had a close encounter with wolves that swooped on his flock from nearby slopes.
"I yelled and threw rocks to chase them away. I have become frightened of going into the woods with the livestock. We only go when more of us get together," the 55-year-old said.
"In the old days, wolves came down only in the winter. They were afraid of cowbells and humans. Now they come all the time and are not afraid at all," he said.
Josip Kolak of the Zagreb Veterinarian Faculty, who oversees the national wolf management program, said gray wolves (Canis Lupus) had been exterminated in most of Western Europe. "Their only chance is if we preserve them."
But he said there were many conflicting interests at stake.
"The state and environmentalists are on one side, hunters and shepherds on the other. It is difficult to find a solution that would please everyone."
Kolak said the former Yugoslav republic -- where the wolf became a protected species in 1995 -- was home to up to 170 wolves, considerably more than before its 1991-95 war of independence.
"For some reason, the number of wolves always rises after a war, perhaps because people are too busy killing each other to pay attention to wolves," he said.
In addition, some wolves may have come from neighboring Bosnia, where they are still a prized target for hunters.
Croatia is actively engaged in several European wildlife projects aiming to protect big carnivores -- the wolf, brown bear and lynx -- all still found here.
Most wolves inhabit the rugged mountains and forests in central Croatia, reaching almost to the Adriatic coast. As part of the project, Kolak tries to tag them and monitor their behavior in the wild.
Ivica Buljubasic, a veteran hunter from Zagvozd, does the same in his own free time. He says he knows all wolf trails in the area, says he can think like a wolf and even howl like one.
He said the last wolf killed by hunters in the area was in 1975, when there were only one or two wolves on the prowl. Now there are three or four packs operating in the relatively small area of Mount Biokovo and around Zagvozd.
"This is way too much, but the fact that there are so many of them here means they know they are not in danger and there is enough food. However, they've become a threat and a nuisance."
A passionate student of nature and wildlife, Buljubasic said the wolves were more intelligent than humans might believe.
"They are perfect predators, always scouring their territory and knowing exactly where to find food. These wolves are also behaving differently, they are getting used to civilization and eat everything, dogs, cats, carcasses."
State veterinary expert Boris Sabic said part of the problem was in the traditional loose shepherding that still survives on the slopes of Mount Biokovo.
"A lot of livestock roam free, without supervision and out in the open and that is ideal easy prey for wolves. But a lot of farmers protect their cattle and have dogs, and yet they are attacked," Sabic said.
Despite all that, Kolak said the wolf never attacks humans and should be regarded as an asset, not a marauder.
"However, you cannot sell that line to shepherds," he said. "We must create a situation in which shepherds can also benefit from the wolf's presence, because of tourists coming to see the wolf in the wild."