Making peace in the Golan Heights—between humans and wolves

Rare wolves that live in this disputed, Israel-occupied territory are often shot on sight, but some work to make peace with the animals.

By Josh Adler
Published 17 Apr 2019, 10:25 BST
An alpha male Indian wolf, which like its kin survives amidst the minefields of the Golan ...
An alpha male Indian wolf, which like its kin survives amidst the minefields of the Golan Heights. This area, impassable to people, has become a home for these petite predators.
Photograph by Itamar Yairi

The Golan Heights remains one of the world’s most notorious disputed territories. Largely occupied by Israel, its eastern reaches are controlled by Syria and Syrian rebels—and it’s been fought over for at least the last 70-some years.

The landscape is notable for its militarily advantageous high grounds, supplies of oil and freshwater, and extraordinary natural habitat. There, mixed with surprising wildlife like jackals and gazelle on the verge of extinction, 25,000 cattle roam the grassy bluffs of Golan’s volcanic plateau. The herds are kept by Jewish and Druze farmers ranging from Mount Hermon south to the Sea of Galilee’s receding arms.

In recent months, skirmishes continue to erupt along the 1974 ceasefire line, near which Israeli and Syrian forces have planted hundreds of thousands of landmines. Amid this strife, an unlikely resident has moved in: a scarce breed of Indian wolves (Canis lupus pallipes). This petite wolf subspecies, weighing around 45 pounds, is not heavy enough to detonate the Golan’s explosives, and has made the war zone its home.

Ironically, when the wolves venture out of the conflict area to scavenge and hunt, they can be legally shot. The government rewards such killings, at 2,000 shekels (more than $500) a hide—and a quarter of that per wolf cub. Ranchers lose approximately 200 cattle and sheep each year to wolves, according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and most don’t want the predators on their land. Around 80 wolves making up eight or nine packs live in Golan’s north, and each year about 30 of them are killed or poisoned in retaliation for agricultural damages. Still, the animals breed enough to maintain an even, albeit vulnerable, population.

But a small number of researchers and locals in the region hope to improve the situation, in ways that could be beneficial to wolves and people, by introducing nonlethal predator controls that have worked in places like Europe and the Northern Rockies. More than 40 wildlife experts, conservationists, and even a few ranchers gathered at the Compassionate Conservation Middle East in December, at Golan Heights’ Shamir Research Institute, to work towards a ceasefire between people and carnivores.

Omer Weiner, a supportive and well-respected Golan rancher who’s lived and worked in the area since 1967, says the problem is a difficult one.

“In Israel, the ranchers learned by watching cowboy movies,” Weiner says, speaking figuratively. “He wants to use his gun. You have to persuade him with something that works.” And currently if a rancher’s cattle die, causing economic pain, there is no real recourse. Often times, this leads to anger, and to shootings and poisonings of wolves.

The Israel government actually pays people to shoot wolves when they stray outside of protected areas.
Photograph by Itamar Yairi

“When I call the Nature and Parks Authority,” Weiner continues, “the rangers don’t have expertise. They don’t know how to help. There is a gap there.”

It’s this gap that can lead Golan’s locals to hire out bounties, or sprinkle an inexpensive blood toxin, called 1080, onto carcasses to kill wolves (though it remains illegal). Also known as sodium fluoroacetate, the chemical kills non-target animals like critically endangered griffin vultures, other predators, and even other livestock.

Another challenge to coexistence is involving the Druze, whose communities are spread throughout Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and who herd about half of Golan’s livestock. Many of the conference attendees regretted the lack of Druze presence, vowing to begin outreach efforts in earnest. They understand how a unified Golan ranching community, could well strengthen relations across the Middle East. Yet for now, the Druze in Golan remain in protest of Israel’s control of the territory.

Israel’s chief predator ecologist for Golan, Alon Reichman, says that scientists and ranchers need to establish a certain level of rapport. Ranchers “don’t have enough trust to take the risk of implementing nonlethal wolf controls if they are uncertain it will succeed. It’s still easier for people who see a wolf to shoot it.”

Indeed, many of the conference’s presenters acknowledged an urgent need to seek better training for rangers and improve communications between NPA management teams and the ranching community.

New techniques

But they also need to implement proven strategies, like those put in place by conservationist Suzanne Stone, with Defenders of Wildlife. Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho, an initiative she helped found, brings together local scientists, public officials, and ranchers. The project has maintained the lowest loss rates in the sheep-crowded Sawtooth Mountains for the last decade––without killing any wolves.

One of Stone's primary techniques employs guardian dog teams to protect livestock and repel wolves. Weiner is also a fan of this approach and is one of the country’s only breeders of Akbash dogs. Elsewhere in Europe and the U.S., these types of dogs have been trained to fend off most wolf attacks.

Other techniques that have worked include quick removal of dead and sick livestock, electrified night corrals, and new gadgets—like specially programmed flashlights called “foxlights.” These lights mimic human presence with random flashes and colours, and can be placed around a herd at night to give herders a chance to sleep soundly.

A young wolf returning to his pack at sunrise. The carnivores live peacefully with the half-wild horses in the area, but not with ranchers, though many are trying to change that as it could benefit both sides.
Photograph by Itamar Yairi

In designing new ways to scare off wolves and protect herds without firing a shot, Stone explained to the crowd of researchers and wildlife officials, she’s learned that the key to predator conservation is to make ranching businesses more resilient. Operators she’s worked with in Oregon, Montana, and Idaho saw their depredations plummet after turning to nonlethal methods. The techniques Stone encourages also helped triple ranchers’ herd numbers in some areas and helped take their livestock to market at a heavier weight.

“And they’re doing it by working with nature,” Stone adds, “which is much easier to do than trying to work against nature.”

Stone’s work is inspiring to Dror Ben-Ami, an Israeli zoologist and one of the conference organizers. He sees how proactive ranchers in Golan could turn nonlethal controls into a win-win for their bottom lines. Similar mutual gains are already being realized across the Middle East through Israeli ornithologist Yossi Leshem’s use of barn owls to replace pesticides.

Toward coexistence

Meanwhile, not a single study in the U.S. has shown that killing wolves reduces depredation, says Francisco Santiago-Ávila, a Ph.D. student at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Carnivore Coexistence Lab. If anything, it’s the opposite. The deaths of a pack’s more experienced alphas can fragment its social structure enough to disrupt hunting, breeding, rearing, and territory defense. The result is desperate wolves that are less adept at hunting wild game and more likely to go for livestock.

Arian Wallach, with University of Technology, Sydney, who researches how to sustain peaceful coexistence between cattle and dingos in the Australian outback, says keeping elderly cows around can help.

“There’s a tendency by farmers to sell off the cows that aren’t breeding,” Wallach says. “Those old cows are the ones on our ranch that know when a water point is drying out where to go, that know how to handle the predators, that know to teach that information to the young. They became our most important cattle managers..”

Stone says keeping around defensive mother cows—which are often removed from herds in the U.S. because they’re considered commercially infeasible—can also help.

“That mother cow is the best defence you have,” Stone says. “When the cows stand their ground, and stand together the wolves don’t stand much of a chance.”

“Wolves taking cattle should be a very uncommon thing,” she adds.

A new 'Yellowstone'

Wallach also floated the idea of re-envisioning the Golan as a “Yellowstone of the Middle East,” where wildlife would be prioritized and protected, and wolves would be admired as a cause for unity rather than discord. Such an initiative could lead to fresh collaborations between Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and other international allies, Wallach says.

The Golan is actually a hotspot for biodiversity. Situated along the Asiatic and African continental divide, it’s the world’s second largest avian migration corridor, through which 500 million birds trek each year. It’s also home to charismatic creatures like otters, caracal, rock hyrax (a rodent-sized critter with surprisingly close relations to elephants); rare birds like collared pratincole, eagle owls, long-billed pipit, and a diversity of praying mantises, dragonflies, and salamanders.

While it’s a promising idea, there are obvious geopolitical obstacles, such as Israel’s controversial renewed push to assert sovereignty over the area, which has been backed by the Trump administration but staunchly opposed by others, including the United Nations.

Conservationist Harvey Locke finds inspiration in Wallach’s ideas. “We need to heal our relationship with nature. When we heal our relations with nature we heal each other,” Locke says. “Carnivores help us go beyond the individual needs of humanity, and a [wilderness] corridor in one of the most politically challenging places in the world could help that.”

In prized landscapes like Yellowstone, research repeatedly signals that the ecosystem begins to degrade as soon as keystone predators are removed. Famously, in Yellowstone the return of wolves has rebalanced years of overgrazing in the park by reigning in elk and mule deer numbers. Without wolf pressure, vegetation had less chance to mature and the herds’ ranks also became more susceptible to chronic wasting disease.

As discriminating hunters of their territories’ stragglers, wolves actually keep herds healthy, and structure food webs with wide-reaching ripple effects, called trophic cascades. These cascades impact the behavior of mammals from foxes to groundhogs, birds, insects, and even water quality and soil health.

Wolf recovery in Yellowstone has produced real economic benefits too, says Ben-Ami. The packs there bring the park over $35 million in annual ecotourism revenues.

Shared values

The conference itself was a step toward such international collaboration, featuring participants from Jordan’s top conservation programs, a new Palestinian NGO, agents from Italy and Portugal’s successful MEDwolf program, the European Union’s LIFE Euro Large Carnivores, and the Israeli-led This is My Earth. Members of NPA and the Arava Science Center were also well-represented.

The researchers are well aware of the huge challenges involved in helping Golan’s ranchers, and farmer-wolf conflict remains problematic around the world.

“Ninety percent of managing wildlife is managing people,” quips German researcher, Tanja Straka. Her home country now counts 73 packs since reintroductions began in 2000. The German government generally doesn’t allow wolf killings except under special circumstances, and the country has seen depredation attacks almost completely resolve through effective guardian dog use. Campaigns to inform the public how to handle wolf encounters have been crucial to the success of their programs.

As a result of the conference, the first attempt to take on wolf conflicts in Golan, Stone, Ben-Ami, and Wallach have agreed to seek additional training and resources for the region’s wildlife experts and farmers, as part of a campaign to organize and more closely align all its inhabitants into a common goal: preventing cattle depredations while also sparing wolves.

The team dreams of a day when Golan’s wolves are no longer seen as a problem, but rather a draw and something to celebrate, as they are in a growing number of places in the world.

Santiago-Ávila says our connection with wolves runs deeper than we might think. A community he works with, the Ojibwe tribe of Wisconsin, have shared their lands with wolves since ancient times. For them, Santiago-Ávila says “the return of wolves in Golan and elsewhere is seen as an important sign of ecological balance being restored overall. When it comes to wolves and humans, the Ojibwe believe that what happens to one happens to the other.”

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