In July 2011 deep in a Slovenian forest, Hubert Potočnik unknowingly penned the first lines of one of the most epic animal journeys to find love ever recorded. Now you will be glad to hear that it wasn’t Hubert looking for love in the forest, but a young male wolf, a wolf that the biologists named Slavc.
As part of an ongoing monitoring initiative, every year a small number of wolves are captured and fitted with GPS collars by biologists from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. In 2011 Slavc was one of these wolves. The collars aren’t to help confuse them when trying to navigate complex inner city road networks though, they are so the biologists can learn more about the movements of these mysterious and highly secretive animals. The collars transmit GPS coordinates via a GSM modem every three hours, and if the collar can’t get a signal, then it stores the coordinates and they are relayed in a batch once a signal is possible again. It is quite common to lose the signal for days on end, given the terrain these animals travel in.
What happened over the following eight months amazed and transfixed everyone involved, and provided an insight in to the remarkable life, endurance and instincts of these mythical animals.
For the next five months, nothing very spectacular occurred, infact Slavc behaved in a typical wolf like manner, hanging around with his pack (known as the Slavnik pack) roaming around their territory on the Slovenian/Croatian border eating and sniffing stuff. Then on December 19th 2011 Slavc suddenly struck out, and moved far outside his natal territory, significantly he had managed to cross two large motorways which generally act as massive barriers to most wildlife as they tend to be fenced along their entire lengths. Slavc continued to make his way North through Slovenia and in to Austria, with the GPS coordinates showing that on New Year’s eve 2011 he swam across the 280 metre wide Drava River (possibly doing doggy paddle*). In Austria Slavc continued North, and then switched direction West and traversed along the rugged Austrian Alps. We don’t know what heights Slavc ultimately climbed, but we do know that some of the passes were over 2600ft in height, and with this being in the midst of winter he would have encountered snow up to six metres in depth. Slavc followed the Austrian Alps, and crossed South across the Italian border sometime in February. Slavc continued South through Italy as far down as the Valpolicella region just north of Verona, and was the first wolf recorded in this region for nearly 150 years. After putting in his guest appearance near Verona, Slavc headed back North where he eventually seemed to settle in a place called Lessinia Natural Park during April. The Slovenian biologists having the exact GPS coordinates got in touch with the Italian park rangers, and asked them to go and check the GPS location. There was still snow on the ground, and spotting the tracks to confirm Slavc’s presence would be easier. However the rangers found not just one set of wolf tracks, but two. Slavc had met a female, and with such a powerful love story set so close to Verona, it was inevitable that the Italian media would name the female Juliet. Juliet had only recently arrived in Lessinia herself having travelled from a French Alpine population, and together her and Slavc have possibly had two litters of pups (these have been caught on remote camera) in the two years following, and with this formed the first wolf family in this area for over 100 years. The GPS collar had a battery life of one year, and on ethical grounds was programmed to fall off in August 2012.
Slavc’s journey ended 2000 km from where it started, with Slavc travelling over 200km a week at some points. Despite this massive distance covered, there was only one credible sighting of Slavc along this journey, which is testament to the secretive world these animals inhabit. No one will know what determined Slavc’s path along this epic journey, or what it was that eventually drew him to Lessinia which had been devoid of any wolves for the past 100 years, to eventually find his mate. Most would probably attribute it to chance, but then we would just be guessing at something we don’t yet understand. Nature still has a magic, a magic that humans have to the most extent lost on our journey towards civilisation and our never ending pursuit of the mighty dollar. There is still much we need to learn from nature, and hopefully we learn our lessons before we destroy it, humans have a habit of burning the library without first reading the books. As romantic and epic as Slavc’s story is, wolves and other large carnivores continue to fight for their survival in a human dominated world, they fight persecution, intolerance, habitat destruction and ignorance in an unequal battle. However given the space, and if left alone they will fulfil their duties within the rich tapestry of life which leads to a healthier and richer world for us all. For now at least, there is a new chorus of howls ringing out through the valleys of Lessinia for those lucky enough to hear them.
* Unconfirmed, merely hypothesised as I’ve never heard of wolfie paddle.