IN DEFENCE OF WOLVES
D.I. Bibikov. The failed attempt at wolf rehabilitation in the Soviet Union
V. E. Borejko, Kiev Ecological and Cultural Centre, Kiev.
Translating Hannah Clifford.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union began an experiment unparalleled in its daring and scale: the rehabilitation of the wolf, traditionally seen as a pest and a danger
to communities even today. This incredible work was begun by a group of Russian scientists, headed by the famous zoologist and Doctor of biological sciences Dmitry Ivanovič Bibikov. It’s worth noting that twenty years ago this kind of rehabilitation was done successfully in the USSR with birds of prey, which have also long been branded pests. (6)
No one was better suited to this difficult task than Bibikov. A respected academic, Doctor of science and famous researcher, he graduated from the Faculty of Biology at Moscow State University with a classical university education, rather than one specialising in wildlife management. In the 1970s, he worked at the Central Laboratory for Nature Conservation of the USSR Ministry of Agriculture and was a member of the Wolf Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which provided him with the opportunity to learn about the latest ecological research on wolves from abroad.
Bibikov became interested in wolves during the time he spent working in Alma-Ata. In 1972, the chairman of the IUCN Wolf Specialist Group, D. Mič, approached the Head of the Department for Nature Conservation at the Ministry of Agriculture with an invitation to join the group of specialists. Bibikov was chosen, and he immediately became co-chairman of the Wolf Specialist Group.
Scientists began defending wolves during the early 1970s. In 1974, the first scientific article was published on the need for a regional approach to management of the wolf population, co-authored by A. Filimonov. Having become the chief opponent of the official ideology decreeing the wolf’s total destruction, Bibikov was among the organisers of the 1978 debate on wolves in the journal Ohota i ohotnič’e hozâjstvo. Following the zoologist’s initiative, Russia’s first scientific seminar on wolves was held in December 1979. An abridged version of the materials for the seminar were published in Sweden in 1980.
It should be added that in the 1970s a great number of newspaper stories defending wolves were published in the USSR, which actively contributed to Bibikov’s success.
Through Bibikov’s initiative at the Russian Theriological Society of the USSR Academy of Sciences, the Working Commission on Wolves was set up in 1983. Bibikov became its chairman, and the Society included many famous mammalogists and representatives from hunting divisions across the Soviet Republics.
“Being a broad-minded ecologist, Bibikov easily saw the absurdity in the one-sided, negative attitude towards wolves held by the official Soviet game-keeping and agricultural ideology,” his colleagues recall. He did a great deal “for the formulation of a reasonable and balanced view of the wolf’s role in nature and agriculture, and for the promotion of rational ideas based on objective knowledge about the wolf rather than on speculation and narrow-mindedness” (11).
The IUCN Wolf Specialist Group met with a multitude of problems from its very beginning.
A. The lack of research on wolves in the USSR
“At the moment we do not have a single integrated programme for the study of wolves at any agency or in any region of the country”, wrote Bibikov and N.G. Ovsânnikov (4). On the one hand, there is a great number of amateur books and brochures on the destruction of wolves, and on the other there is a total absence of any serious scientific data. The sole report on wolves in existence was written in 1877 by L.P. Sabaneev.
“It’s sad to admit that we are still in the prelimenary stages of solving the wolf problem – specifically, the hunting administration’s simplified approach to a problem requiring a multifaceted solution, especially in a place as vast as the USSR”, wrote Bibikov and Ovsânnikov (4). No one can say with any certainty how many wolves have even been killed in the USSR.
B. The sabotage of the Commission’s work with hunting agencies
According to Ovsânnikov and Bibikov, “the work in Kazakhstan is particularly problematic. After several years we still cannot secure a chairman from this Republic in our Commission, though time and again we have appealed to the Kazakh Department for the Management of Nature Reserves and the Kazakh Republic’s Academy of Sciences given that there are more wolves there than in Russia (4).
“As a result of yearly increases in more specific developments and recommendations from the Commission and growing criticism of the ‘spontaneous’ campaign against wolves, the main leaders of the hunting industry become anxious and withdraw from active support of the Russian Theriological Society […] On the whole, there are yet to be any amendments to the approach to solving the wolf problem, nor are there any signs of movement towards a new approach”, wrote Bibikov (2).
Led by Bibikov, members of the Working Commission on Wolves published two very important works: the study Volki. Proishoždenie, sistematika, morfologia, ékologia (1985), including a German version, and the collection of academic works Ékologia, povedenie i upravlenie populâtsiâmi volka (1989).
The data collected by scientists and zoologists naturally did not please hunters, given that they completely disproved the countless foolish myths about wolves.
Money given by the State to the campaign against wolves did not achieve the desired results (4).
The assessment of the damage done by wolves to the wildlife population was based on incorrect assumptions. The killing of an animal by a predator was classed as material damage to the hunting industry. Such an assessment would be justified in the context of domestic livestock, but not in the context of the wildlife population at large inasmuch as predation is just one cause of death (4). “Wolves were regularly blamed for poor management, theft (cattle and reindeer breeding in particular) and medical neglect, leading to approved poaching, the squandering of public money and were used as a source of rewards and incentives” (1).
“The effect the wolf has on wild animal populations, though doubted by hunters, has been documented on a number of occasions in both Ukraine and Canada (…). Wolves may not only kill the sick elk and wild boar, but most people are perfectly content with the situation as it prevents overpopulation of cattle and the onset of epidemics” (1).
“The fact is, wolf attacks on humans only occur in special circumstances, such as during war when the animals grow accustomed to corpses, during calving, and if for some reason they are no longer afraid of humans, have been bred in captivity, or are feral.” (1)
“Damage to livestock by wolves, something really only seen in Russia during the 19th century (…), pales in comparison with other areas of social and economic order in today’s world” (1).
The wolf’s role in the spread of rabies is exaggerated. “The eradication of wolves causes increased population density in smaller predators such as foxes and raccoon dogs, the density of which is much higher than that of wolves. In nature, these are the primary sources and transmitters of diseases such as rabies” (4).
A huge number of other species die from poisoned bait laid out for wolves, including some listed in the Red Book. In the Čukotka tundra alone, around 150 kilograms of the poison fluoroacetate was distributed from the beginning of the 1960s to the end of the 1980s. The damage to nature is immeasurable” (3).
These and other facts identified by members of the Working Commission on Wolves, and also experiments from abroad, have radically changed the attitudes of many zoologists toward this grey predator. It is now clear that the practice of total eradication of the wolf throughout the USSR did not have ecological, economic, or moral justification.
The Commission, therefore, suggested two revolutionary steps concerning wolves. The first, to change its status from a danger to predator; the second, to “divide the country’s territories into four categories and give each of them a set of regulations for the hunting of wolves, from population control in the central regions to complete absence of regulation in the sparsely inhabited and hard to reach areas” (1.9).
Members of the Commission also criticised the use of poisons in the campaign against wolves (9, 10), opposed the shooting of wolves in game reserves, and developed measures for the conservation of certain wolf packs even in regions densely populated by humans. Their views were, of course, met with radical opposition by the hunting industry. Agropromizdat added fuel to the fire by publishing game management specialist and wolf-hater M.P. Pavlov’s Volk in great quantity in 1982, with a second edition in 1990. The works of Bibikov and his fellow zoologists shed a rather different light on the matter.
For his work Bibikov was ‘repeatedly subjected to abuse from traditionally-minded hunters and various officials, going as far as accusations that harm was done to the Soviet hunting industry and agriculture, but he stood by his beliefs. To his dying day, Bibikov did not take a back seat as an apathetic observer of what went on regarding wolves and the hunting industry; he sharply responded to speculation and ideas, wrote letters and recommendations to the government and sought their implementation, published sharply worded articles in newspapers and journals, corresponded with experts and gave interviews’, colleagues said (11). ‘Every species has the right to live’, Bibikov wrote (9), which was a subversive idea in those days.
The rehabilitation of the wolf in the USSR and former Soviet republics gradually ground to a halt during the 1990s. The reasons behind this are both objective and personal. In 1990, the Working Commission on Wolves at the Russian Theriological Society was reorganised as the Commission on Large Carnivores. As a result it was no longer possible to concentrate solely on solving the wolf question. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russian Theriological Society, which had united zoologists from various Soviet republics, ceased to exist. It was the beginning of a difficult time for scientists, and the wolf simply could not take priority anymore. The wolf’s chief rehabilitator in the USSR, Dmitry Ivanovič Bibikov, died in 1997 at the age of 81.
The negative role played by various hunting organisations, which are unwilling to heed the advice of zoologists, and traditional public attitudes toward wolves means that practically every environmental and animal protection organisation in Russia and other former Soviet republics are reluctant to protect wolves. It must be said, however, that the work of Bibikov and his colleagues was not without results. They were the first in the USSR to create and publish in the Russian language crucially important materials on wolf ecology and to compose practical recommendations to change wolf management, which would be used by their successors and are currently used by us in Ukraine in the organisation’s campaign to protect wolves.
Bibikov, D., and Štilmark, P. 1993. ‘“Vrag naroda” ili pušnoj zver’?’ in Zeleny mir, Vol.12.
Bibikov, D.I. 1989. ‘O rabočei komissii po volku Vsesoûznogo teriologičeskogo obŝestva AN SSSR’ in Ékologia, povedenie i upravlenie popultsiâmi volka, (Moscow: Academy of Sciences of the USSR), pp. 5-8
Zheleznov, N.K. 1989. ‘Ékologičeskie posledstviâ primeneniâ âdov protiv volkov’ in Ékologia, povedenie i upravlenie populâtsiâmi, (Moscow: Academy of Sciences of the USSR), pp. 61-70
Ovsânnikov, N.G., Bibikov, D.I. 1989. ‘Ékologičesky podhod k probleme volka’ in Ékologia, povedenie i upravlenie populâtsiâmi, (Moscow: Academy of Sciences of the USSR), pp. 115-130
Interview with D.I. Bibikov. ‘Čto delat’ s volkom?’ [www.kindvolk.ru]
Borejko, V.E. 2010. ‘Kak byl zapreŝen otstrel hiŝnik ptic v Rossii’ in Vidovy terror (Kiev: Kiev Ecological and Cultural Centre), pp. 102-111
Bibikov, D.I. 1996. ‘Čelovek i volk na rubeže vekov’ in Ohotnič’I prostory, No. 3, pp. 162-172
Pavlov, M.P. 1990. Volk (Moscow: Agropomizdat)
Bibikov, D.I. 1985. Volk. Proŝoždenie, sistematika, morfologia, ékologia (Moscow: Nauka)
Bibikov, D.I. 1991. ‘Volk (vzglâd ékologa)’ in Ohotnič’ i prostory, Vol. 48, pp. 70-79
Formozov, N.A., Ovsânnikov, N.G., Bolotov, V.P. 1998. ‘Dmitry Ivanovič (1916-1997) – žizn’ i tvorčestvo zoologa’ in ‘Bulletin of the Moscow Society of Naturalists’, Vol. 103, No. 6, pp. 62-64