Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Hokkaido Wolf

If you want to see wolves in Japan, you'll have to visit the zoo.  But this wasn't always the case; 125 years ago, the nation was home to two unique subspecies.  The first was the Honshu Wolf, a diminutive creature extinct since 1905.  Once common, their populations were ravaged by disease starting in the 1700s.  Human persecution finished off the species for good.  The othe Japanese wolf disappeared even earlier.  This was the Hokkaido Wolf, a larger and rarer breed found in the north.

European tradition has long featured murderous wolves.  But Japanese folklore portrayed them differently.  Wolves, to the Japanese, were noble and spiritual animals.  They were guardians of the mountains, and protectors of those in need.  They had supernatural powers, according to some stories, and were always treated with great respect.  When it became a threat, an individual wolf might be killed -- but when this happened, its spirit was appeased with great ceremony.

Overall, Japanese wolves were seen in a very positive light.  There are various theories which attempt to explain this -- some more likely than others.  One hypothesis is that Japanese wolves were actually helpful to farmers.  Yes, they took occasional livestock -- but they also hunted crop-stealing deer and rabbits.  Sometimes, wolves would even leave part of their prey behind.  On the whole, they increased the productivity of farms, and their benefits outweighed their dangers.

Unfortunately for the wolves, this changed during the 1800s.  After the Meiji Restoration, Japanese agriculturalists put tremendous emphasis on livestock.  And in an effort to "catch up" with western nations, the nation kicked its economy into overdrive.  Rapid industrialization followed, along with increased agricultural land use.  This had several effects on wolf populations.  First of all, it reduced their habitat, bringing them into frequent conflict with humans.  Second of all, it killed off their natural prey -- forcing them to hunt livestock

No longer were wolves seen as beneficial.  Now, they were common farm pests to be killed at every opportunity.  Farmers slaughtered the animals with guns and poison; eventually, this was incentivized by the government.  It issued formal bounties, awarding prize money for every wolf killed.  Dog-spread diseases further reduced populations.  The Hokkaido Wolf disappeared with tremendous speed -- and by 1889, it was extinct.

Or so it is said.  Sightings of the animal have never ceased, and dozens have been reported in the past decades.  Locals report hearing wolf howls, finding wolf dung, seeing wolf footprints and even encountering the animals.  Many of these stories are dubious, but the sheer volume of sightings gives one pause.  There are still plenty of wild places in Japan, and plenty of large prey.  The animals once hunted by wolves -- the deer and the serow -- are still present, and could support a small population.  Perhaps someday, like other "Lazarus species", the Hokkaido Wolf will be rediscovered.

Read more about the Hokkaido Wolf:
Image (public domain) from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/40/%E3%82%A8%E3%82%BE%E3%82%AA%E3%82%AA%E3%82%AB%E3%83%9F%E5%89%A5%E8%A3%BD%E3%83%BB%E9%96%8B%E6%8B%93%E8%A8%98%E5%BF%B5%E9%A4%A8%EF%BC%91%EF%BC%99%EF%BC%98%EF%BC%94%EF%BC%90%EF%BC%99%EF%BC%91%EF%BC%94.jpg

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