WODCW Interview: Luca Anselmo monitors wolves in the Italian Alps

A Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin (WODCW) Interview by Brunella Pernigotti 

1.Luca Anselmo, thank you for answering some questions for Wolves Of Douglas County Wisconsin! First of all, will you tell us something about you and your work?
– I’m 32 years old and I live in Susa Valley, a wide valley in the West Alps. I have been working as a Naturalistic Guide for some years. My main activity is to lead school children and groups of people on naturalistic tours in many parks of the West Alps, but when I go monitoring wolves, I do it mostly in my valley, for my convenience and also for my attachment to some wolf packs.  Also, I move in other areas of Piedmont, when I’m engaged in other monitoring Wolf Projects.

  

Photo: Alps in Italay by Luca Anselmo


2. Why did you decide to do this kind of work? How many years have you been monitoring wolves?

– Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the animals in the wild. It was at the end of ‘90s, when the wolves came back to the Cottian Alps, that I started to devote myself completely to the study of this species. Long time passed, during which I could turn my mere curiosity into a deep passion and above all I could join and work with the teams of “Lupo Piemonte” and “Life Wolf Alps” projects. 

I’ve been working with them since 2007, but not continually. During my teamwork I met extraordinary people who have been studying these animals for ages, such as Elisa Avanzinelli and Francesca Marucco: they both contributed very much to my training. As a Naturalistic Guide, I conduct educational activities.  I concentrate especially on this great predator, as it is a perfect means to explain the difficult equilibrium of the alpine ecosystem and the impact that the humans make on it. This year I have been working for the “Life Wolf Alps Project” didactics in the Cottian Alps Parks.   These walking tours concerning wolves are offered to every school of the region that is interested in knowing something more about the presence of wolves packs in this area.

3. If I’m not wrong, Canis Lupus Italicus is the only native species of wolf in Italy; but, what do you think about some other subspecies settling in our peninsula?

– Despite the cruel persecution of the last centuries, a small population of the subspecies “Canis Lupus Italicus” was able to survive in the central Apennines untill 1976, and at last they became a protected species. From those wild woods they started to colonize again the Italian and French Alps; some of them ventured very far and we have recent reports about wolves that reached Germany and even Spain. 

Wolves are “champions” of dispersal, so it’s possible that other subspecies come to Italy; to tell the truth, some years ago, it already happened to some surviving Slovenian wolves and in 2013 two wolves, an Italian female and a Slovenian male formed the first mixed pack in the Alps of Veneto, in the Verona district. This event marked a very important change for the future destiny of the whole species!

  

Photo: Wolf tracked by Luca Anselmo


4. Can you take us through a day of wolf tracking?

– They are always exciting and exhausting days. Waking up at first sunlight is obligatory. It’s necessary even in midwinter because snow that has just fallen could melt very quickly after sunrise, so the precious tracks could vanish before we find them. 

We get to the starting point of our “snow tracking” by car, then we continue on foot or with snowshoes (we called them “ciaspole”) and usually we go along ways that have been pre-arranged by the previous monitoring sessions with the aim to cross every portion of the valleys where wolves are present in the hopes of finding the right tracks. Once we have found them and verified that they are really tracks of wolves because dog’s paws prints are very similar to those of wolves: it takes at least a 300 m. tracking to estimate and identify the walk and the behavior of the animals.  Then, we follow the trail first backwards, and forwards, in order to detect even the oldest prints to prevent any possible trouble the animals are experiencing. 

Sometimes we are able to follow them for many consecutive days and even coordinated with other operators.  More often the blanket of snow stops at a certain point and we lose the tracks after just few kilometers. Wolf tracking is a work requiring concentration because we need to pick up the dung for the genetic analysis. We examine the predations or the mere consumption of prey to map exactly each movement and every significant detail. 

  
Photo: gathered samples for genetic analysis by Luca Anselmo


I think  the greatest experience is the counting of the lone individuals.  Often wolves don’t move with the pack, but when they do it, it’s important to identify and to make a rough estimate of the tracked individuals. During tracking the wolf/wolves that have passed through I can see if they are moving fast, trotting, or sleeping or even eating.  
In any case, when we come back home we know that we had been able to follow only a little part of their displacements. Wolves usually move fast and cover dozens of kilometers every day. In our Alps the territory of a pack averages 250 square kilometers.

5. Do you have a story about an interesting wolf or wolf pack to tell our readers?

– Well, wolves are very amazing animals. Their ability to adjust to any environment is surprising.  A wolf can move like a real mountain climber even as a cub; in one word, their behavior is always very interesting. 

During my life I’ve been able to catch sight of 15 wolves and each time it was very exciting. For instance I remember what happened when I was with my friend, as well as researcher and scientific coordinator, Elisa Avanzinelli. We were in a beautiful place, at dusk, before starting the “Wolf Howling” (it’s a method we don’t often use, because it can disturb the animals), when two wolves appeared suddenly at few meters far from us. It was an adult female with a rather young male that probably was its new mate. I recognized the female that, until that moment, I had been able only to imagine by following its tracks.  It’s  old mate had died some months before. The experienced female, despite the strong wind that was blowing our smell far from them, perceived something and ran way almost at once. 

 

Photo: Wolf tracks by  Luca Anselmo

On the contrary the young male kept still for a moment scanning around without seeing us, then it vanished swiftly with its tail between its legs. It was a wonderful sight. That night no wolf answered our howling: probably they had become suspicious after our encounter.

6. What do you see as the most prominent obstacles in monitoring wolves in our Alps?
– For many years the greatest obstacle was to get the right coordination between the involved Regions and States, but now this problem is working out for the best. However there is still the great risk that there isn’t a regular yearly monitoring.  Sometimes it’s not possible to raise the needed funds to gather and analyze all the data. So, when it this happens we have the so-called “hole”, which doesn’t allow us to refute the aberrant public claims and false information from people who make propaganda against wolves.  If important scientific data monitoring is not regular, we must begin all over again each time!

7. What do you see as the most significant obstacle between wolves and people for coexisting in the Alps?

– I will tell you my personal opinion. I think that spreading of disinformation on the whole causes ignorance about wolves is at the root of the question. Moreover some political lobbies often use the wolf item to take the shepherds away from their real and greater problems related to their important work.  That is to say the strong economic crisis of the sheep market which the State doesn’t support enough. In reality fewer and fewer assaults on the livestock are recordered thanks to the more frequent use of the deterrent methods. But for many people it’s easier to blame the wolves and all those researchers who work hard in order to find the correct strategies for humans & wolves coexistence. As I said before, the real problems of shepherds are not related to the wolves and they are not easily solved.

8. Have you witnessed illegal hunting of wolves?

– No, I’ve never, because these are mean acts made covertly by poachers. I know some people who have had their dogs killed by poisoned baits meant for wolves, spread in the woods. I don’t think hunters are involved, as luckily many of them are for wolves. Most hunters know the ecological importance of these big predators that keep the populations of wild ungulates healthy. However it can’t be denied that there are some hunters who, for ignorance and old prejudices, are helping to spread a lot of dangerous misinformation.

9. From your experience which predator abatement or deterrent has worked the best?

– According to several studies I think that the best solution is to get out of the habit of leaving sheep out to free pasture without safekeeping.   it was a not onerous activity for the shepherds in the past, when there were no predators.  Today things have changed and it exposes sheep to the risk of easy assaults. On the contrary the presence of a shepherd, the use of watchdogs and the habit of keeping flocks inside electrified fences during the night are proving to be the best solutions. 

In the province of Turin about 90% of the mountain pastures that risk a predation use these systems. As a matter of fact, the number of wolves packs is increasing, but the number of their assaults is even decreasing. 

I know there are also other methods that are being tested positively, such as sound and light deterrents. In conclusion the best strategy seems to be to change these precautionary measures at regular intervals, but there is always room for improvement.

10. What do you think about organizing a sort of “wolf watching” tourism in the Italian environment? What would be the pros and cons?

– I’ve noticed that, of all animals, the wolf  is of interest and excites the the curiosity of the groups of people I lead into the wild. However I know that a sort of tourism focused on the search for a direct contact with this species is somewhat an utopia in Italy.  Because wolves are extremely fearful, nocturnal and tend to hide very well. But most of all I think it’s ethically wrong. It’s already too easy to disturb them because we do not have enough wilderness spaces and often wolves are forced to live in close contact with humans. 

In the last few years photographers and video makers have caused enough problems as it is, without adding anything else to the scientific research. We must understand that there is a very high risk of interfering with these complex animals that need quiet places where they can breed and hide from human encroachment.

11. How humans damage most the wolf habitat and, particularly, what kind of risks could result if they will really bore the long tunnel through the mountains for the high-speed railway Turin-Lyon (the so-called TAV)?

– The wolves are the most widespread carnivores in the world and they have the greatest ability to adapt thanks to their opportunist diet. They can live wherever there is enough food and a possibility to escape humans. People who don’t know the Alps should imagine a very interesting natural environment but greatly transformed to meet human needs. At a low altitude there are many railway and road communications that not only cross several territories of the wolves packs but they are also barriers which many other wild animals find hard or impossible to get past. 

Speaking about the Alps, it’s right in Susa Valley that there is the greatest concentration of wolves killed by cars or trains every years. And in Susa Valley there the plan to make a new high speed railway (TAV) that would add to this illogical consumption of the valley floor. That’s why people living there are opposing and obstructing this plan.

12. Is there anything else you could tell readers?

Yes, of course! I want to send my regards to all the wolf fans from these mountains, with my wish that wolves will be allowed to come back and settle every place where they usually lived before humans arrived and that they can teach us how to coexist, not to predominate!  ~Luca Anselmo


  

Photo: Luca Anselmo 

  

Image: Lupo appenninico – Italian Appennine wolf 

~~~

Interview of Luca Anselmo by Brunella Pernigotti

About Brunella

Brunella Pernigotti lives in Turin, Italy. She is a teacher, a writer and a photographer. She published a novel and a book of tales and has to her credit about ten one-man exhibitions of photos. She is member of the board of a non-profit association of Turin, “Tribù del Badnightcafè”, that organizes cultural and artistic events. 

More work by Brunella: Italian Documentary Film: Storie di uomini e lupi – Stories of men and wolves – reviewed by Brunella Pernigotti


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