Ecologist: leave them alone
Wolves make the best forest rangers
It’s a Sunday morning. Common cranes fly by, calling loudly. Annelies van Ginkel is on the alert, as she always is in this giant Polish forest. Having the time of her life, she looks to her left and suddenly, spots three wolves walking together.
‘That was so great, I was totally hyper!’ the ecologist recalls. But wasn’t it dangerous to be so close to wolves? ‘I got an adrenaline boost. I just want to tell everyone that I saw the wolves.’
She definitely didn’t feel the need to chase the animals for a picture. She knows wolves should be left alone, just like trees. That’s what her thesis is about: Wolves, tree logs and tree regeneration. She’ll be defending it on Friday.
Van Ginkel did her research in the Białowieża forest, on the border with Belarus. Every year, she went there from April to July, returning in November. By studying the behaviour of red deer, she figured out how wolves influence the growth of new trees. Red deer eat the leaves of new trees, but the wolves eat the red deer.
Van Ginkel planted acorns and other seedlings in different locations in the immense forest. Some of them, she planted in places where the deer could eat them in peace. Others, she placed next to containers with a height of a metre, blocking the deer from spotting any wolves checking them out.
We should allow trees to grow old
It turned out that in the locations where the deer couldn’t see the wolves, they didn’t allow themselves a lot of time to eat the young maple, linden, or hornbeam leaves they love so much. So in these sheltered locations, the trees were able to keep growing until they were taller than the red deer themselves.
This means that wolves indirectly affect the diversity of trees in the forest. However, this only happens under ideal circumstances: a sufficient amount of seeds, nutrients, water, and thick fallen tree trunks. Thin trees rot away too quickly, so the trunks have to be at least a metre in diameter. ‘We should allow trees to grow old’, says Van Ginkel. When they fall down, we should leave them where they are.
A year after Van Ginkel started her research in Poland, the first wolf was officially spotted in the Netherlands Wolf lovers rejoiced: they said nature would benefit from the animal’s presence. Correct, says Van Ginkel, ‘but we shouldn’t expect miracles’.
She refers to a video about Yellowstone National Park in the US. ‘It says that the return of the wolf actually changed the course of a river in the park.’ The willows along the riverbank allegedly had more time to grow, since the deer no longer went to the river because they were afraid of the wolves.
‘It’s a great video’, she says, ‘but it doesn’t show that before the wolves were reintroduced, it was a very dry period.’ Willows happen to need a lot of water. ‘It’s not as clear cut as the video makes it out to be. We should expect the Dutch landscape to change because of the wolves.’
Nevertheless, she predicts the wolves will definitely have an effect. ‘If only because a predator has returned to the ecosystem.’
That’s good news for scavengers, who benefit more from wolves than from human hunters, who take their prey home with them. ‘On top of that, prey doesn’t learn from hunters’, says Van Ginkel. ‘Hunters hit their target 100 percent of the time and the shot comes out of nowhere; there are no prior signs. But wolves have a success rate of 10 to 50 percent. In at least half of the cases, the prey escapes. They learn from that.’
If you happen to run into a wolf, don’t do anything and just enjoy the encounter
Wolves also impact all kinds of other animals’ behaviour, she says. Not just that of red deer, but also smaller prey animals, like foxes and martens. That in turn impacts things in nature.
The researcher does warn us to leave the animal alone. She’s mainly concerned that people will start to seek out the wolves. ‘We have to leave the wolves alone. If you do happen to run into one, don’t do anything and just enjoy the encounter. Don’t actively go looking for them.’
People should definitely not try feeding wolves. ‘If wolves start associating people with food, they’ll become a danger to themselves’, says Van Ginkel. A wolf who thinks people have food runs the risk of being shot.
The wolves in Poland didn’t pose a danger to Van Ginkel, but her research was interrupted by a cycling accident. At first, she thought she was fine; she just had a bit of a headache. ‘I thought I had a concussion. But I don’t give up easily. I only had four months left and I had a lot to do in that time, so I couldn’t afford to get ill.’
She kept going for another month, propped up by painkillers, until her colleagues officially called her in sick and her sister came to pick her up. Back in the Netherlands, she collapsed, both physically and mentally.
I wondered if a PhD was worth working so hard for
‘I couldn’t stand light, couldn’t stand noises. My social life was dead, and I couldn’t work out. All I could do was sit there’, she says. Then came the news that her father had cancer.
‘I wondered if a PhD was worth working so hard for. Maybe I should just quit and find a different job.’ It wasn’t until she realised that her illness meant her deadline would be postponed that she took the time she needed to recuperate.
A year after her accident, she was back on the horse. Her father is also doing better. ‘I’m really glad that I kept going and that I wrote this great thesis’, says Van Ginkel. On the back of the book, there’s a photo of the Polish forest and a haiku written by her father. ‘A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought that possible.’