Since summer 2019, a wolf family is roaming in the Veluwe National Park, the Netherlands. The presence of the wolf in a high-densely populated country such as the Netherlands compels us to consider one question: is the wolf dangerous for people?
Although the risk of people being attacked by wolves is incredibly low in the modern world, the risk is not zero. In their research about myth and realities about wolves’ attacks, Linnell and Alleau (2016), from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, highlight that wolves may attack in very particular and rare circumstances but that a healthy wolf is very unlikely to approach humans. There are currently more than 17,000 wolves in Europe, many of which are living in proximity to millions of humans, and yet we only find evidence for a handful of attacks in recent decades. From the small number of documented attacks, it can be concluded that the vast majority of wolves do not pose any threat to human safety. A person living country with wolves has a greater chance of being killed by a dog, lightning, a bee sting or a car collision with a deer than being injured by a wolf.
If they do not represent a risk for humans, why do we fear wolves?
For centuries, western religion and culture associated the wolf with barbaric and heretic symbols. Since middle age, evil and ferocious wolves were the negative protagonist of countless stories and fables. The most famous is probably ‘Little red Riding Hood’, a folklore storey told already by French peasants in the 10th century and later revisited in 1697 by Charles Perrault and in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm. Misconceptions rooted in myth and folklore, along with concern over competition between wolves and people for wild game and livestock, contributed to create a negative attitude toward wolves.
Nonetheless, when looking at the past centuries, it is possible to find several documented attacks of wolves towards humans (especially children) until the 20th Century, whether they are reported by old church archives or newspapers. It is important to look at these data with a critical mindset and put the facts into perspective: in the past, the majority of attacks were caused by wolf-dog hybrids and by wolves with rabid, a disease which is no longer widespread in Europe nowadays. Also, in the past, children were commonly employed as farmworkers and shepherds, which brought them alone into wolf habitats, making them extremely vulnerable to wolf’s attacks.
Humans are dangerous for wolves.
The wolf is at the top of a food chain, with no natural predators. Nonetheless, the life of a wolf is full of dangers. The natural causes of wolf mortality are primarily starvation, which kills mostly pups, and death from other wolves because of territory fights. Lynxes are also responsible for killing pups and lone wolves which enters their territory. Adults wolves mostly die because of territorial fights with wolves from other packs or because of the food competition with bears and other predators. However, humans are the main threat to the survival of the wolf species. The collision with vehicles is one of the major factors of wolf mortality, together with (illegal) hunting and regulation management of the species. In this perspective, it is in the interest of the wolf not to engage with humans.
Wild fauna: better keep distance!
In conclusion, even though the chances of being attacked by a wolf are very remote in Europe nowadays, wolves are instinctive, wild predators and it is better to keep at a respectful distance from them.
You can read this article also in Dutch on the website of the National Park Zuid Kennemerland
The information for this article has been collected from the following papers:
- Fritts, S.H., Stephenson, R.O., Hayes, R.D. and Boitani, L., 2003. Wolves and humans.
- International Wolf Center 2003 (www.wolf.org)
- Linnell, J.D. and Alleau, J., 2016. Predators that kill humans: myth, reality, context and the politics of wolf attacks on people.In Problematic Wildlife (pp. 357-371). Springer, Cham.
- Linnell, J.D., Solberg, E.J., Brainerd, S., Liberg, O., Sand, H., Wabakken, P. and Kojola, I., 2003. Is the fear of wolves justified? A Fennoscandian perspective. Acta Zoologica Lituanica, 13(1), pp.34-40