BY SARAH KEARTES
The Arabian wolf is usually just a shadowy presence in the rugged landscape of Israel’s Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. Recently, however, the area’s unique, desert-adapted hunters have been getting some more attention – for the wrong reasons.
A string of attacks on visitors by wolves living within the park has caused alarm among park rangers and the public alike. According to wildlife officials, the wolves appear to be associating tourists with food. This dangerous situation has been evolving for some time, they say, and it could have been prevented.
Between 100 and 150 Arabian wolves live in Israel, but the cautious canids tend to stay far out of sight. The animals typically hunt under the cover of night, when prey can be chased down without the threat of overheating under the blazing sun. For this reason, spotting an Arabian wolf in the wild is considered a rare and lucky sighting by many locals.
In recent months, however, the wolfish inhabitants of Ein Gedi have become much less elusive, with reports coming in of animals approaching tourists and raiding camp sites. Back in May, reserve staff were prompted to issue a warning after one visitor’s particularly harrowing encounter: during a family camping trip in the park, the woman’s one-year-old daughter was attacked by wolves at dusk. The child suffered only minor scratches and bite marks, but the close call alarmed both visitors and staff.
At the time, biologists with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) suspected that the wolves’ growing interest in humans could be traced to an unsurprising source: visitors’ garbage and improperly contained food. Several tourists had even been observed attempting to feed the predators. Such irresponsible behaviour, the INPA team feared, would only make the situation worse – and it seems those fears were well founded.
“It is rare that foxes, jackals or wolves attack humans,” park officials noted in a recent statement [translated from Hebrew]. ” …[T]hese wild animals are [usually] afraid of humans, and there’s rarely any danger of aggressive contact.”
Like their kin in other parts of the world, Arabian wolves are decidedly unfussy eaters. While they typically feed on rodents and other mammals, birds, reptiles and even berries are also on the menu when food is scarce. Extreme temperatures in Israel’s arid desert can sometimes prevent local wolves from hunting for several days, so opportunistic foraging gives the canids a leg-up in the survival department. That dietary flexibility, though, also means human trash is an appealing dining option.
“Popular hiking trails and overnight camps are now an abundant food source for the wolves,” says the team. “Intentionally, or accidentally, they are becoming garbage dumps filled with waste left by travellers.”
Though the wolves’ elusive nature makes their numbers hard to pin down, it’s thought that about 20 individuals currently den within the Ein Gedi reserve – and the caloric requirements of those packs reach a peak during summer, when the year’s pups begin to wean.
The demands of a growing family can be strenuous, and this possibly helps to explain the rare daytime hunting behaviour witnessed in the park in late June. Nature and Parks supervisor Matan Bogomolsky managed to film a predation on a Nubian ibex (a wild mountain goat) from one of the reserve’s rocky plateaus:
“It probably indicates that the wolves at this time of the year have a new generation of offspring and therefore require a great deal of food,” park staff said at the time, while stressing once again that visitors should dispose of their waste responsibly, and never attempt to feed the predators.
Despite those precautions, ten attacks of varying severity have been documented in and around the park since Bogomolsky’s clip went viral online. Earlier this month, two children were bitten at the Ein Gedi field school and a third was injured by wolves at a nearby desert spring.
Ecologist Dr Haim Berger, who specialises in wolf behaviour, has been reviewing these cases – and because many of them involve small children, he believes we’re seeing the next stage of a predictable progression.
“Imagine a wolf that can’t find food for a few days,” he told Haaretz. “Suddenly people arrive and do a barbecue, and the smell spreads. [The wolf] connects people with food, and slowly the suspicion [of humans] goes away. There is a process of adaptation. It is clear that 50 or 100 years ago no wolf would dare to go near the Bedouins who passed through the desert.”
As the predators become emboldened, they also become more inquisitive – and they may begin to see humans, particularly smaller children, as potential prey.
Back in July, Berger himself had a close encounter with Ein Gedi’s wolves when one of the animals entered his camp site. The wolf seemed undeterred by Berger’s presence, though the interaction ended without incident.
In the months since the first attack was reported, reserve staff have been criticised for failing to promote public awareness of the situation. In an interview with The Guardian, Berger noted that visitors were now being cautioned about potentially risky wolf behaviour, though he himself was not given any warning when a ranger visited his camp site the day before his own wolf encounter.
This classic story of human-wildlife conflict is playing out in many other parts of the world, too. Decades of research have shown that predators of all shapes and sizes can easily become habituated to human presence and the food we leave behind – from polar bears in the snow-covered Arctic and sharks in tropical waters to the bin-raiding coyotes roaming the urban sprawl.
The string of attacks in Ein Gedi, meanwhile, has led to public outcry, with some locals calling for the park’s wolf population to be eradicated. Berger and other experts, however, emphasise that non-lethal measures can significantly improve the situation, if implemented well. Wildlife officials suspect the recent aggressive encounters have all involved just one or two wolves, so measures designed to reinstill a fear of humans in the rest of the wolf population could help to prevent future conflict.
So far, two wolves have been captured by the INPA for relocation, and rangers armed with paintball guns have been routinely patrolling the area. Park visitors who spot wolves, even from afar, are encouraged to shout loudly and wave their arms.
In the wake of these encounters, the INPA team has also been at pains to plead the wolves’ case. Human encroachment, they note, often forces wildlife to adapt to a rapidly changing habitat, and the biodiversity of the region’s remaining wild spaces must be protected. Arabian wolves remain a vital component of that wilderness, and play an important role in the Ein Gedi ecosystem by keeping grazers like ibex in check.
“In the realm of nature we are guests and wild animals are at home,” says the team. “It is important that we preserve their coexistence. There is a direct connection between humans feeding predators and the predators’ sometimes aggressive behaviour towards humans. Our actions can change their behaviour – and that change can harm them for generations.”