Biological Conservation 1992, 61, 125-132
Wolf research and conservation in Italy
Luigi Boitani Department of Animal and Human Biology, Universitft di Roma 'La Sapienza ; Viale dell'UniversiM 32, 00185 Rome, Italy
The development of research and conservation activities for the wolf Canis lupus in Italy from 1972 to 1989 is described. Initial studies indicated that the Italian population was fragmented into a number of 'island' populations on mountain ranges with little interchange between them. Radio-tracking studies showed that groups were small (usually 2~1, maximum 7) with a home range of 200--400 km 2. Wolves were nocturnal, obtained 60-70% of their food from garbage dumps and avoided contact with man. The main conflicts between man and wolves are: livestock killing; competition and interbreeding with feral dogs; and availability of habitat and food.
The wolf has been strictly protected since 1976 and has increased its range in Italy. Changes in agricultural practice have increased the risks of successful at- tacks on livestock, but compensation is paid for damage done by wolves. Natu- ral prey species are being reintroduced into key areas of the wolf's range to im- prove food availability. A national public awareness campaign has greatly improved the wolf's image.
The greatest threat to long-term conservation of the wolf is interbreeding and, to a lesser extent, competition with Italy's population of 80 000 feral dogs. A captive breeding programme is being established with the goal of maintaining 90% of the Italian wolf's genetic variability for the next 200 years.
Culturally, as well as ecologically, the wolf Canis lupus is one of the most prominent species in Italy. It is the second largest carnivore, after the brown bear Ursus arctos, and has played an ancient and important role in man's social environment. In- deed, the wolf is recurrent in every aspect of Ital- ian culture: from art to literature, from religious beliefs to medical remedies. Italian attitudes to- ward the animal are not entirely negative, as is the rule in central and northern European societies. Italians look upon the wolf with a special mixture of fear and respect, of hate and love. Wolf sur- vival in Italy is a product not only of geography and economy, but of quite influential human ecol- ogy factors (Boitani, 1986). Human population density in Italy is about 185 persons/km2 and there are no large wilderness areas. Large prey, such as ungulates, are extinct in central and south- ern Italy, with the limited exception of small pop- ulations of red Cervus elaphus and roe Capreolus capreolus deer and an increasing number of wild
Biological Conservation 0006-3207/92/$05.00 1992 Elsevier Science Publishers Ltd, England. Printed in Great Britain
boars Sus scrofa. Yet the wolf has survived and is now expanding its range and increasing its numbers.
In 1921 an Italian zoologist published the de- scription of Canis lupus italicus (Altobello, 1921), establishing a distinct subspecies for the Italian peninsula. The scientific value of his description, however, cannot be accepted by today's standards and the subspecies should be disregarded. By being separated from the central European popu- lations for more than a century, the Italian wolf has acquired distinct behavioural adaptations to Italy's peculiar environment. These might well be sufficient to justify all efforts to maintain the genetic integrity and distinctness of our small population.
The wolf has been extinct from the major part of the Alps since at least the end of the 1800s, and the last wolf in the Piemonte Alps was killed early this century. In Sicily, wolves were exterminated in the years after World War II and the remaining small group was killed in the 1950s. They never occurred in Sardinia.
A long-term research and conservation project was initiated in 1972: its different phases are de- scribed below.
126 L. Boitani
PHASE 1: HOW MANY AND WHERE?
In 1970, the Italian wolf had not yet been studied scientifically. Only a few articles in popular maga- zines were available, warning of the possibility of extinction for a species which was still heavily hunted and was surviving only in mountain areas. The same sources were guessing the total number at 200-300 animals (Simonetta, 1971; Tassi, 1971), and a survey by questioning hunters had just been completed on the species' recent distribution (Cagnolaro et al., 1974). In 1972, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, under pres- sure from its Italian branch, launched a project with the goal of understanding the real status of the wolf in Italy and the means to ensure its con- servation. The first year's objective was to pin- point as accurately as possible the location and number of the last surviving wolves. Responsibil- ity for the project was given to myself, with the cooperation of the Swedish ethologist Erik Zimen, who was studying a captive pack of wolves in Germany for the Max Planck Institute. The task was not an easy one, as wolves were reported over the entire Appennine range south of Bologna and the reliability of the information was clearly very low. We decided to proceed with a method which appeared to be the best compromise between a quick result and a reliable technique (Zimen & Boitani, 1975). I travelled to all areas where wolves were reported: 10 Italian regions, from Emilia and Tuscany, southward to Calabria. All available information was collected on wolf killings, sightings and on reported damage done by wolves to livestock. I interviewed more than 300 people with quite diverse life-styles, including shepherds, forest wardens, hunters, and hikers. An overall evaluation of the ecological conditions I encountered was attempted. Its aim was to compare the information I was gathering with the environment's actual ability to support such reported wolf activity. And the more long-term goal was to establish a personal estimation of the wolf numbers in the areas I was visiting.
One of the areas studied--a portion of Abruzzo Region including the Abruzzo National Park--- was then searched for wolf tracks and signs on fresh snow by a team of 18persons. Over a 1500 km 2 area we found direct evidence which led to our estimate of a total of 18-21 wolves. This figure compared rather well with my previous subjective estimate of 22, so we accepted the estimates for the rest of the wolf range. The total
for the entire range of 8500 km 2 was about 100 wolves (Zimen & Boitani, 1975). We were aware that this was only a preliminary indication of the size of the wolf population, and it was by no means a true census. However, we at least had a figure upon which to base our work and a map of the areas where the species was consistently pre- sent. Dispersing animals were later found outside those areas, but they were not considered to con- stitute part of a stable population.
After our first year of study, it appeared that the wolf range was fragmented into several moun- tain 'islands' with few connections between them. We believed that the total population was actually divided into small groups which had difficulties moving from one area to another (Zimen & Boi- tani, 1975). But our data were clearly insufficient for any conservation action and we moved a step further into a more comprehensive programme.
PHASE 2: STUDYING THE WOLF AND IMPLEMENTING ITS CONSERVATION
At the end of 1973 a more ambitious project was launched with three major goals: (a) an intensive field study of the wolves' biology; (b) the re- introduction of the red and roe deer--former wild prey of the wolf--in selected areas of its range; and (c) a wide array of education, information and public relation activities to change public per- ception of the wolf. All these activities required firm political lobbying to obtain the necessary legal and institutional support. The wolf was pro- tected in Italy by an annual decree which was inadequate to ensure the long-term protection of the species.
With strong support by the late D. H. Pimlott, Canadian biologist-conservationist and then Chairman of the newly formed IUCN Wolf Group, project funding was obtained from WWF International and continued for the next 10 years. It was one of the WWF's longest continually funded projects.
Wolf biology studies
Observations from snowtracking showed a con- stant presence of wolves near villages and dumps, at least in winter, and the majority of tracks were of single animals or pairs. The ecology o f the Ital- ian wolf range was clearly very different from that of wolves in North America, where most prior
Wolf research and conservation in Italy 127
scientific studies had been carried out (as general references see Mech, 1970; Harrington & Paquet, 1982; Carbyn, 1983). It was therefore justifiable to expect dramatic behavioural adaptations of the wolf to Italy's peculiar conditions.
As the wolf population was endangered and each animal too precious to risk unproven new re- search methods and equipment, radiotelemetry was selected as the only suitable technique for our studies. We asked David L. Mech, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, for his assistance during the initial stages of our field work. Mech brought to our project his expertise as the world's foremost expert on wolves, he provided his complete set of research tools--including traps, anaesthetics, radiocollars, and receivers--plus his instruction on their use and the tricky trapping technique.
Field work was originally planned to be carried out in two areas; one within the Abruzzo National Park to study wolves in a fully protected area where some prey were still present, and the other in the mountain area of Maiella where the conditions were comparable with the rest of the wolf range. Only three wolves in the park had been captured and radio-tagged when permission to continue the programme was withdrawn by the Park Author- ity. It was our opinion that they did not grasp the aim and needs of the research, being content with the publicity they received with our field work. Field work continued in neighbouring Maiella where a total of eight animals were captured and radio-tagged. Admittedly, this was a small num- ber, but these animals represented the majority of the two packs then present in the area.
Radio-tracking was used in a rather different way from other wolf projects in North America. Our wolves were not travelling great distances and there were regular patterns to their inter-territorial movements. We monitored each wolfs position and activity at least once a day (often 3-4 times), and each night an animal and its eventual associ- ates were followed in 'continued observation' ses- sions lasting the whole activity period. Typically, these would start at sunset and end near sunrise; often the sessions were extended for 24, 48 or up to 120 h. During these observation periods the wolfs position and activity were monitored every 10 min. During winter, when the ground was snow-covered, daytime print-tracking confirmed and complemented night-time data. Howling was often used as a source to check radiotelemetry data and to gather further information on pack size and composition (adults/pups). These tech-
niques and their intensive utilization allowed us to be very close to our wolves and to understand their behaviour amid the various human activity situations in the area (Zimen, 1978; Zimen & Boi- tani, 1979). Shepherds with their sheep, woodcut- ters and their mules, hikers and tourists, skiers, hunters, roads and vehicles, free-ranging cattle and horses: all have to be learned by the wolves and all have to be coped with.
The basic biology of the Italian wolf was slowly unveiled and it was clearly very different from that of the North American wolf (Zimen, 1978; Boi- tani, in prep.). Territories are of the order of 200-400 km2. Activity is strictly nocturnal and its duration will fluctuate depending upon the num- ber of hours of daylight. The wolfs daily move- ments are basically restricted to back and forth travel from a retreat area in a quiet forest hide- out to the open garbage dumps in nearby villages, from which it obtains 60-70% of its food. En- counters with humans are carefully avoided, al- though every night, winter and summer, the wolves come close to the houses in the area and often even walk along the main streets of the vil- lages. Wolves usually travel alone or in pairs; they rejoin the rest of their pack upon return from night wanderings. From the evidence we obtained, the largest pack in our study comprised seven wolves; the usual number is two to four animals. In conclusion the data depicted an ani- mal perfectly integrated into a special 'humanized' environment, where it learned how to move rather safely with the least direct conflict with human interests (Zimen, 1978; Zimen & Boitani, 1979; Boitani, 1982).
From the conservation point of view, we were able better to understand the terms of the main conflicts between wolves and this environment (Boitani, 1982): livestock killings, dog-wolf com- petition and interbreeding, habitat and food re- source availability.
In Abruzzo grazing sheep are always attended by shepherds and shepherd dogs (guard dogs rather than working ones), and at night the sheep are always brought back into temporary (in sum- mer) or permanent pens. Often, wolves visit these pens to test the situation. In our study, they would typically approach the place downwind, silently watch the whole area while standing still, or quietly testing a few other positions. Shepherd dogs would often not even bark, probably un- aware of the wolfs presence. Most of the time, the wolves would leave silently, often after hours of
128 L. Boitani
waiting. Only rarely would they try to attack. The outcome of these incidents was variable, from merely a great deal of dog barking to the killing of only a few or as many as 200 sheep. Large-scale slaughter would happen only when the sheep es- caped from the pens and allowed the wolves to chase them individually in a frenzied surplus- killing sequence. Shepherds would then arrive on the scene, chase the wolves away and bury the bodies of the dead, as the sanitary laws dictate. In the long run, meat from livestock directly killed by wolves makes up only a small, irregular per- centage of their diet. Traditional shepherds of Abruzzo know the wolf and its behaviour and they have developed the necessary methods to control wolf damage (Boitani, 1986). Their flocks do not exceed 300 sheep, they always have at least two or three shepherd dogs, and they never allow sheep out in the fields at night or during foggy weather. In this way they keep damage to an affordable minimum, and they can co-exist with the wolf, as they have done for centuries (Boitani, 1982). Industrial sheep-keeping has changed the rules--large flocks of 1000-2000 sheep are led out for summer grazing by inexperienced shepherds and without efficient guard...