Wolf research and conservation in Italy

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  • Biological Conservation 1992, 61, 125-132

    Wolf research and conservation in Italy

    Luigi Boitani Department of Animal and Human Biology, Universitft di Roma 'La Sapienza ; Viale dell'UniversiM 32, 00185 Rome, Italy

    The development of research and conservation activities for the wolf Canis lupus in Italy from 1972 to 1989 is described. Initial studies indicated that the Italian population was fragmented into a number of 'island' populations on mountain ranges with little interchange between them. Radio-tracking studies showed that groups were small (usually 2~1, maximum 7) with a home range of 200--400 km 2. Wolves were nocturnal, obtained 60-70% of their food from garbage dumps and avoided contact with man. The main conflicts between man and wolves are: livestock killing; competition and interbreeding with feral dogs; and availability of habitat and food.

    The wolf has been strictly protected since 1976 and has increased its range in Italy. Changes in agricultural practice have increased the risks of successful at- tacks on livestock, but compensation is paid for damage done by wolves. Natu- ral prey species are being reintroduced into key areas of the wolf's range to im- prove food availability. A national public awareness campaign has greatly improved the wolf's image.

    The greatest threat to long-term conservation of the wolf is interbreeding and, to a lesser extent, competition with Italy's population of 80 000 feral dogs. A captive breeding programme is being established with the goal of maintaining 90% of the Italian wolf's genetic variability for the next 200 years.


    Culturally, as well as ecologically, the wolf Canis lupus is one of the most prominent species in Italy. It is the second largest carnivore, after the brown bear Ursus arctos, and has played an ancient and important role in man's social environment. In- deed, the wolf is recurrent in every aspect of Ital- ian culture: from art to literature, from religious beliefs to medical remedies. Italian attitudes to- ward the animal are not entirely negative, as is the rule in central and northern European societies. Italians look upon the wolf with a special mixture of fear and respect, of hate and love. Wolf sur- vival in Italy is a product not only of geography and economy, but of quite influential human ecol- ogy factors (Boitani, 1986). Human population density in Italy is about 185 persons/km2 and there are no large wilderness areas. Large prey, such as ungulates, are extinct in central and south- ern Italy, with the limited exception of small pop- ulations of red Cervus elaphus and roe Capreolus capreolus deer and an increasing number of wild

    Biological Conservation 0006-3207/92/$05.00 1992 Elsevier Science Publishers Ltd, England. Printed in Great Britain

    boars Sus scrofa. Yet the wolf has survived and is now expanding its range and increasing its numbers.

    In 1921 an Italian zoologist published the de- scription of Canis lupus italicus (Altobello, 1921), establishing a distinct subspecies for the Italian peninsula. The scientific value of his description, however, cannot be accepted by today's standards and the subspecies should be disregarded. By being separated from the central European popu- lations for more than a century, the Italian wolf has acquired distinct behavioural adaptations to Italy's peculiar environment. These might well be sufficient to justify all efforts to maintain the genetic integrity and distinctness of our small population.

    The wolf has been extinct from the major part of the Alps since at least the end of the 1800s, and the last wolf in the Piemonte Alps was killed early this century. In Sicily, wolves were exterminated in the years after World War II and the remaining small group was killed in the 1950s. They never occurred in Sardinia.

    A long-term research and conservation project was initiated in 1972: its different phases are de- scribed below.


  • 126 L. Boitani


    In 1970, the Italian wolf had not yet been studied scientifically. Only a few articles in popular maga- zines were available, warning of the possibility of extinction for a species which was still heavily hunted and was surviving only in mountain areas. The same sources were guessing the total number at 200-300 animals (Simonetta, 1971; Tassi, 1971), and a survey by questioning hunters had just been completed on the species' recent distribution (Cagnolaro et al., 1974). In 1972, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, under pres- sure from its Italian branch, launched a project with the goal of understanding the real status of the wolf in Italy and the means to ensure its con- servation. The first year's objective was to pin- point as accurately as possible the location and number of the last surviving wolves. Responsibil- ity for the project was given to myself, with the cooperation of the Swedish ethologist Erik Zimen, who was studying a captive pack of wolves in Germany for the Max Planck Institute. The task was not an easy one, as wolves were reported over the entire Appennine range south of Bologna and the reliability of the information was clearly very low. We decided to proceed with a method which appeared to be the best compromise between a quick result and a reliable technique (Zimen & Boitani, 1975). I travelled to all areas where wolves were reported: 10 Italian regions, from Emilia and Tuscany, southward to Calabria. All available information was collected on wolf killings, sightings and on reported damage done by wolves to livestock. I interviewed more than 300 people with quite diverse life-styles, including shepherds, forest wardens, hunters, and hikers. An overall evaluation of the ecological conditions I encountered was attempted. Its aim was to compare the information I was gathering with the environment's actual ability to support such reported wolf activity. And the more long-term goal was to establish a personal estimation of the wolf numbers in the areas I was visiting.

    One of the areas studied--a portion of Abruzzo Region including the Abruzzo National Park--- was then searched for wolf tracks and signs on fresh snow by a team of 18persons. Over a 1500 km 2 area we found direct evidence which led to our estimate of a total of 18-21 wolves. This figure compared rather well with my previous subjective estimate of 22, so we accepted the estimates for the rest of the wolf range. The total

    for the entire range of 8500 km 2 was about 100 wolves (Zimen & Boitani, 1975). We were aware that this was only a preliminary indication of the size of the wolf population, and it was by no means a true census. However, we at least had a figure upon which to base our work and a map of the areas where the species was consistently pre- sent. Dispersing animals were later found outside those areas, but they were not considered to con- stitute part of a stable population.

    After our first year of study, it appeared that the wolf range was fragmented into several moun- tain 'islands' with few connections between them. We believed that the total population was actually divided into small groups which had difficulties moving from one area to another (Zimen & Boi- tani, 1975). But our data were clearly insufficient for any conservation action and we moved a step further into a more comprehensive programme.


    At the end of 1973 a more ambitious project was launched with three major goals: (a) an intensive field study of the wolves' biology; (b) the re- introduction of the red and roe deer--former wild prey of the wolf--in selected areas of its range; and (c) a wide array of education, information and public relation activities to change public per- ception of the wolf. All these activities required firm political lobbying to obtain the necessary legal and institutional support. The wolf was pro- tected in Italy by an annual decree which was inadequate to ensure the long-term protection of the species.

    With strong support by the late D. H. Pimlott, Canadian biologist-conservationist and then Chairman of the newly formed IUCN Wolf Group, project funding was obtained from WWF International and continued for the next 10 years. It was one of the WWF's longest continually funded projects.

    Wolf biology studies

    Observations from snowtracking showed a con- stant presence of wolves near villages and dumps, at least in winter, and the majority of tracks were of single animals or pairs. The ecology o f the Ital- ian wolf range was clearly very different from that of wolves in North America, where most prior

  • Wolf research and conservation in Italy 127

    scientific studies had been carried out (as general references see Mech, 1970; Harrington & Paquet, 1982; Carbyn, 1983). It was therefore justifiable to expect dramatic behavioural adaptations of the wolf to Italy's peculiar conditions.

    As the wolf population was endangered and each animal too precious to risk unproven new re- search methods and equipment, radiotelemetry was selected as the only suitable technique for our studies. We asked David L. Mech, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, for his assistance during the initial stages of our field work. Mech brought to our project his expertise as the world's foremost expert on wolves, he provided his complete set of research tools--including traps, anaesthetics, radiocollars, and receivers--plus his instruction on their use and the tricky trapping technique.

    Field work was originally planned to be carried out in two areas; one within the Abruzzo National Park to study wolves in a fully protected area where some prey were still present, and the other in the mountain area of Maiella where the conditions were comparable with the rest of the wolf range. Only three wolves in the park had been captured and radio-tagged when permission to continue the programme was withdrawn by the Park Author- ity. It was our opinion that they did not grasp the aim and needs of the research, being content with the publicity they received with our field work. Field work continued in neighbouring Maiella where a total of eight animals were captured and radio-tagged. Admittedly, this was a small num- ber, but these animals represented the majority of the two packs then present in the area.

    Radio-tracking was used in a rather different way from other wolf projects in North America. Our wolves were not travelling great distances and there were regular patterns to their inter-territorial movements. We monitored each wolfs position and activity at least once a day (often 3-4 times), and each night an animal and its eventual associ- ates were followed in 'continued observation' ses- sions lasting the whole activity period. Typically, these would start at sunset and end near sunrise; often the sessions were extended for 24, 48 or up to 120 h. During these observation periods the wolfs position and activity were monitored every 10 min. During winter, when the ground was snow-covered, daytime print-tracking confirmed and complemented night-time data. Howling was often used as a source to check radiotelemetry data and to gather further information on pack size and composition (adults/pups). These tech-

    niques and their intensive utilization allowed us to be very close to our wolves and to understand their behaviour amid the various human activity situations in the area (Zimen, 1978; Zimen & Boi- tani, 1979). Shepherds with their sheep, woodcut- ters and their mules, hikers and tourists, skiers, hunters, roads and vehicles, free-ranging cattle and horses: all have to be learned by the wolves and all have to be coped with.

    The basic biology of the Italian wolf was slowly unveiled and it was clearly very different from that of the North American wolf (Zimen, 1978; Boi- tani, in prep.). Territories are of the order of 200-400 km2. Activity is strictly nocturnal and its duration will fluctuate depending upon the num- ber of hours of daylight. The wolfs daily move- ments are basically restricted to back and forth travel from a retreat area in a quiet forest hide- out to the open garbage dumps in nearby villages, from which it obtains 60-70% of its food. En- counters with humans are carefully avoided, al- though every night, winter and summer, the wolves come close to the houses in the area and often even walk along the main streets of the vil- lages. Wolves usually travel alone or in pairs; they rejoin the rest of their pack upon return from night wanderings. From the evidence we obtained, the largest pack in our study comprised seven wolves; the usual number is two to four animals. In conclusion the data depicted an ani- mal perfectly integrated into a special 'humanized' environment, where it learned how to move rather safely with the least direct conflict with human interests (Zimen, 1978; Zimen & Boitani, 1979; Boitani, 1982).

    From the conservation point of view, we were able better to understand the terms of the main conflicts between wolves and this environment (Boitani, 1982): livestock killings, dog-wolf com- petition and interbreeding, habitat and food re- source availability.

    In Abruzzo grazing sheep are always attended by shepherds and shepherd dogs (guard dogs rather than working ones), and at night the sheep are always brought back into temporary (in sum- mer) or permanent pens. Often, wolves visit these pens to test the situation. In our study, they would typically approach the place downwind, silently watch the whole area while standing still, or quietly testing a few other positions. Shepherd dogs would often not even bark, probably un- aware of the wolfs presence. Most of the time, the wolves would leave silently, often after hours of

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    waiting. Only rarely would they try to attack. The outcome of these incidents was variable, from merely a great deal of dog barking to the killing of only a few or as many as 200 sheep. Large-scale slaughter would happen only when the sheep es- caped from the pens and allowed the wolves to chase them individually in a frenzied surplus- killing sequence. Shepherds would then arrive on the scene, chase the wolves away and bury the bodies of the dead, as the sanitary laws dictate. In the long run, meat from livestock directly killed by wolves makes up only a small, irregular per- centage of their diet. Traditional shepherds of Abruzzo know the wolf and its behaviour and they have developed the necessary methods to control wolf damage (Boitani, 1986). Their flocks do not exceed 300 sheep, they always have at least two or three shepherd dogs, and they never allow sheep out in the fields at night or during foggy weather. In this way they keep damage to an affordable minimum, and they can co-exist with the wolf, as they have done for centuries (Boitani, 1982). Industrial sheep-keeping has changed the rules--large flocks of 1000-2000 sheep are led out for summer grazing by inexperienced shepherds and without efficient guard dogs. In these condi- tions a wolf attack can be both very destructive and expensive.

    The incursions and the livestock killings are the principal aspects of the wolf's existence which shape its relationship with man. Any conservation action must face this problem; finding a workable solution has been one of our main concerns (Boi- tani, 1982; Boitani & Fabbri, 1983b). When trap- ping wolves, we accidentally captured a few dogs, strays or those freely wandering outside villages. There were several of these animals around, their ecology still not clear, but we first faced their tremendous impact on wolves when we found evi- dence of a radioed she-wolf which had mated with a shepherd dog from a village (Zimen, 1978). The wolf had been leading a solitary life, after quitting her pack of origin, and mating with the dog oc- curred without any durable pair formation. The litter were monitored and four out of six juveniles were captured and radioed. Their ecology and be- haviour were exactly those of the wolves, and they could exploit an important advantage: four out of six were black with a whitish front leg, the other two were more wolf-like. When the four came close to houses and villages, they appeared to be dogs and were immune from human reaction. That was the first of several occasions in the fol-

    lowing years when we found evidence of inter- breeding between dogs and wolves. To date, we still consider this as the major threat .to wolf sur- vival (Boitani, 1983; Boitani & Fabbri, 1983b).

    Dogs and wolves also compete for food--as dogs have easier access to dumps and village refuse--and for range, because solitary-dispersing wolves do not enter areas where a group of dogs has its home range. Dog groups have no social structure of the kind known for wolves, and there is no birth control as that ensured by the domi- nant pair of a wolf pack. With such advantages, dogs could easily outnumber wolves (Boitani, 1983). With the aim of obtaining basic data on dog numbers and biology, the wolf project branched into a feral-dog project (see phase 3).

    As for habitat and food resources, our data showed that the wolves developed a highly skilled way of coping with the ecology of the human en- vironment, by adapting to move and feed even in high human density areas. Habitat deterioration is the least harmful event and dependence upon human refuse for food is more a potential than an immediate danger (by narrowing the distance be- tween wolves and humans and causing the reac- tion of the latter) (Boitani, 1982).

    Our wolf biology studies were carried out on an intensive basis until 1977 when the radiotelemetry was discontinued. Research was then limited to field census in selected areas and to the regular monitoring and collection of all data on wolf sightings, damage, and killing throughout Italy. An important aspect has been the collection of all wolves killed or found dead. We estimate the mor- tality at about 15% of the total population per annum (Boitani & Fabbri, 1983b)

    Reintroduction of herbivores

    Since the beginning of the project it was evident that the natural prey of the wolf was a major missing element in the species' ecology. Although Italian wolves are generally in rather good shape and never starve, we felt it was important to start a reintroduction programme. Ecologically, this would once again allow the wolf a choice of natu- ral preys, and, politically, such measures would show that wolf conservation is a dynamic process and not merely a passive protection defence. Large herbivores such as red and roe deer were exterminated in the second half of the last century when forests were cleared for grazing and agricul- ture. The Abruzzo National Park had just started

  • Wolf research and conservation in Italy 129

    a reintroduction programme and our project augmented this effort by providing the animals, the know-how and all technical support to expand the reintroduction. Today, several hundred red deer inhabit the National Park and the wolves again prey on them regularly.

    Our most important goal, however, was to ex- pand the reintroduction programme to areas out- side the Park's protection regime (Boitani & Fab- bri, 1983b). In cooperation with the Forestry Service, we began this lengthy process by creating a 200-ha enclosure where an initial group of red deer were released and allowed to breed. In the meantime, we were trying to secure a partial pro- tection regime on the Maiella area where we wanted to establish the new colony. It took almost ten years to overcome opposition by local hunters and administrators who feared that such action would lead to the beginning of a new park and a series of other constraints. Eventually, the pro- gramme developed and today a thriving popula- tion of red and roe deer are once again luring wolves back to Maiella. A similar programme has been developed in Basilicat in southern Italy, al- though the deer have not yet been released.

    Information, education and legal protection

    Even in the early 1970s the wolf suffered from a very negative public image. It was normal to read fearsome newspaper accounts of their attacking men and killing sheep. On the other hand, the wolf has historically had an extremely powerful image which we felt could be exploited in order to attract public attention to the species. We also hoped that our research programme, with its spec- tacular allure of radiotelemetry, mountain areas, wolf trapping, etc., would be an important attrac- tion in itself (Boitani & Zimen, 1979).

    A long series of activities was launched in an at- tempt to spread the truth about the biology of the wolf and the important role it has long played cul- turally and ecologically. My colleagues and I wrote scores of articles for the popular press. We gave hundreds of lectures, conferences, talks to all sorts of audiences--from university professors to first-grade schoolchildren, from shepherds to hunters, for radio and television. An audiovisual teaching kit containing slides, booklets, and other educa- tional tools was prepared and distributed in schools.

    The Italian national television company pro- duced a full-length documentary on our project, and soon interest hit the international press. Many

    articles--including a full-page feature in the New York Times--were published about the Italian wolf and the effort to save it.

    Our campaign has paid off: in the last few years no negatively slanted newspaper articles have been published with viewpoints projecting a false ag- gressive image of the wolf. Positive results from our educational efforts were the necessary support to our strong political lobbying. The wolf was ini- tially protected by annual ministerial decree, then finally in November 1976 the protection became permanent, and in 1977 a national Parliamentary law included the wolf among the strictly protected species. Most important--and most difficult--was obtaining a complete ban on the use of poison baits, which was accomplished in 1977.

    In our attempt to ease acceptance of the protec- tion law, we felt it was important to obtain a pro- vision to refund the damage done by wolves. At that point, in 1976, our lobbying was at the re- gional government level. The Abruzzo Region was the first to issue such a law; over subsequent years another six regions have followed suit. Implemen- tation of these laws has been quite difficult due to many false damage claims and a lack of compe- tency on the part of the forest wardens charged with verifying the damage. Within our project we provided free training to all forest wardens in Abruzzo and certain other regions on wolf biol- ogy, examination of carcasses, etc.

    Educational and lobbying activities have been in progress for 15 years. They have been funda- mental in positively reshaping the wolf's image in the public eye. And, such acceptance by the public is a mandatory step towards both overcoming the resistance of local people and achieving the full support of any nationwide conservation action (Boitani, 1986).


    Wolf survival in Italy appears to be the result of a process of continuous local extinctions and the eventual establishment of small groups. As long as wolves kept a low profile toward human activities such as livestock raising, man would generally tol- erate their presence (Boitani, 1986). This is possi- ble for a pair or a very small family unit of wolves in average food availability conditions in the Ap- pennine mountains. But, as soon as the pair bred and raised their first litter, the unit would become

  • 130 L. Boitani

    a six- to eight-member pack and would make its presence known by killing livestock to a notable level. Human reaction, although illegal, would succeed in killing some or all animals. Before this process is accomplished, however, the pack has usually had three to four years of life in the area --sufficient time to raise pups to the age when they leave the family for new territories. Our evi- dence of dispersal and emigration confirm basic data for the species; juveniles one-and-a-half to two years old leave their family, moving in a straight line in random directions for 50-80 km. Such distances in Italy would bring the animal to many suitable new areas. With a new partner, a new unit is formed in an empty area and the cycle begins again. This predictable process is possible as long as the area is not inhabited by a powerful group of stray or feral dogs (Boitani, 1983). In this dangerous equilibrium of extinctions and re- building of new packs, the wolf survives at the edge of complete extinction (Boitani & Fabbri, 1983b).

    Before being forbidden by the new law, poison baits were spread by hunters' organizations in foolish attempts to control fox populations. Thou- sands of baits with cyanide and strychnine were spread, with a heavy toll on all wildlife. Despite the 1977 ban, poison baits are still being used ille- gally, although to a much lesser extent.

    The wolf population, free from one of its major constraints, began to increase and to expand its range. Slowly but consistently, wolves were sighted (and killed) in new areas where they had been extinct for decades. This caused two difficult problems: (1) local residents did not accept the bio- logical explanation of a natural dispersal of the wolf and complained that 'wolf protectionists' were releasing wolves throughout Italy; and (2) sheep grazing in these areas was no longer carried out by traditional anti-wolf methods, and the damage caused by wolves was (and still is) signifi- cantly higher than before. From the conservation point of view, these are two very difficult prob- lems. It is always very difficult to control a ru- mour once it spreads, and, once shepherds realize the reduction in labour which accompanies free- ranging sheep, it is impossible to expect them to resume traditional methods.

    To overcome these problems we prepared a national conservation strategy for the wolf (Boitani & Fabbri, 1983b), proposing the zoning of Italy into sectors with differential protection statuses. It was intended as a technical tool to be used by national and regional governments in the event of

    their agreeing to proceed with revision of the full protection status of the species.

    The total range of the wolf has doubled since 1973 and the total population is estimated to be triple that of the same year. In certain parts of the range, such as Tuscany and Liguria, the issue of protectional status is currently causing bitter conflict. My opinion is that full protection will soon be difficult to sustain, unless we agree to re- scind the hypocritical position of not bringing legal action against wolf hunts and killings orga- nized by the local residents.

    Expansion of the range is not yet completed; the wolf can still recolonize large areas of central and northern Italy, plus the Alps. Theoretically, however, even if all of Italy were to be recolonized by the wolf, the total population would not yet be safe from extinction on a long-term evolutionary basis. Its total number would still be below the minimum suggested by conservation biology's theory for long-term survival (Boitani, 1984).

    A second factor has perhaps played an impor- tant role in boosting the wolf population: inter- breeding with dogs may have given lone wolves bound for extinction the chance to reproduce (Boitani, 1984). This may have given a genetic boost to the wolf population. In an attempt to understand the terms of the interrelationship between wolves and dogs, a new phase of our project was launched.


    There were no reliable data on feral and stray dogs in Italy, not even a rough national census. We started from scratch sending a questionnaire to the Ministry of Agriculture and its c. 1500 Forestry Service offices across Italy (Boitani & Fabbri, 1983a). Dogs were divided into four cate- gories: (a) those with an owner who took constant care of them by keeping them under control (en- closure, leash, house, etc.); (b) those which had an owner but which were left free to roam (the most common way to keep dogs in mountain villages of central and southern Italy); (c) stray dogs which hung around villages and houses, in search of a new master or for human company; and (d) feral dogs, those which lived wild and avoided contact with humans.

    The results were appalling: out of a total 3-5 million dogs in Italy, some 600 000 were consid- ered to be free-ranging, 200 000 were stray and

  • Wolf research and conservation in Italy 131

    about 80 000 were feral. These figures could only be taken as a mere indication of the order of the problem, but were certainly enough to justify our research efforts (Boitani & Fabbri, 1983a).

    An intensive radiotelemetry study was carried out for five years on a group of 23 feral dogs liv- ing in a mountainous area in Abruzzo, directly in the centre of wolf country. Techniques and meth- ods were the same as for wolf studies, and funding was secured by Italy's National Institute for Wildlife Biology. The results showed that the ecol- ogy of these animals is very similar to that of wolves (Boitani et al., in prep.): they are noctur- nal; they have retreat areas and territories; they feed mainly at garbage dumps; they avoid humans and it is, in fact, very difficult to spot them. Re- productive behaviour of the dogs, however, is diff- erent: females are on heat and breed twice a year; pairs are formed for the brief mating season, but then pup raising is a female matter. Mortality of young feral dogs is very high, especially at the stage when they are weaned and start to follow the mother. The lack of group-c0operation has a direct bearing on pup survival.

    The connections between feral and stray dogs are of paramount importance to the eventual con- trol of these populations. Stray dogs leave villages to join the feral ones and thereby help boost the feral populations. Contacts between dogs and wolves were difficult to monitor, but we had indi- cations that they avoided each other's respective territories.

    Feral dogs were not responsible for any signifi- cant damage on livestock, which was rather surprising. In marked contrast, we have gathered adequate evidence to demonstrate that stray and owned dogs are often responsible for serious damage.

    A national census was repeated in 1987, and it confirmed the dramatic figures of the previous cen- sus of 1982 with only minor changes. The num- bers of feral and stray dogs have increased in cen- tral Italy and are highest in the southern regions.

    Information on the dog issue was disseminated to the public via the same channels utilized for the wolves, but the results were the opposite. Italian animal protection societies have continued to op- pose stray dog control on the basis that they would be killed or trapped with painful tech- niques. A country with little love for animals, Italy confirms how true animal love can be misun- derstood when the emotional approach overcomes rational evaluation of the facts.

    Beside its contribution to wolf conservation, dog control could be justified by economic, sani- tary and ecological considerations. However, it is difficult to enforce, and requires some crucial changes in the life-style of rural people. Many years might pass before there is any significant alleviation of the problem.

    It might be argued that the problem of stray and feral dogs has always existed. On the con- trary, it is a recent one, having developed in the late 1950s when urban rabies was eradicated from Italy. The efficient national system of stray dog control slowly lost power and finally collapsed. Our efforts to reinstate effective local and regional management of the problem are necessarily long- term, and only recently have we begun to see the first slight signs of significant changes in public opinion.

    During this phase of our project, which began in 1980, the wolf population has been closely monitored, especially in the newly colonized areas. Field censuses, snowtracking in winter and the regular collection of all available information (in- cluding all dead animals) have allowed us to fol- low the build-up of the population.


    The conclusion of our 18 years of research and conservation efforts can be summarized as fol- lows:

    (a) the Italian wolf population has doubled its range and is now three times its former size, al- though this may have occurred at the expense of genetic purity due to interbreeding with dogs;

    (b) the major threat to long-term conservation of the wolf is Italy's stray and feral dog popula- tion. Adequate control of these animals may take more time than the wolf population can afford.

    Therefore the last phase of the project, recently started, is being carried out on two levels. The first is a continuation of our basic programme on wolves and dogs: monitoring, public information, lobbying for law enforcement and policy adjust- ments and, most important, a renewed field study aimed at gathering more data on the ecology of wolves in areas where wild prey (deer and mouflon) are increasingly available, i.e. the Appennines ranges in Tuscany and Emilia. The second is the initiation of a captive breeding

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    colony for long-term wolf con-servation. Our ap- proach to this conservation tool follows the guide- lines set by the Captive Breeding Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN): in addi- tion, the detailed theoretical and technical back- ground for this phase of the project has been pub- lished and discussed at national level (Ciucci & Boitani, 1991). The site has been selected and the first enclosures have been built. The State Forestry Service has taken over the responsibility for the care of the colony; direct governmental in- volvement is mandatory to ensure long-term con- tinuation of the programme.

    Our project will provide the necessary technical and scientific backup and an international com- mittee of leading scientists has been formed to support the programme. Captive breeding is not a popular conservation technique, as people are not very keen on thinking in terms of projects cover- ing one or two centuries. In addition, the concept of keeping about 70-100 animals permanently captive will undoubtedly raise more than a few eyebrows. Captive animals may of course be used for reintroductions, for boosting local populations, or for genetic manipulation of local populations, but, they are basically kept to provide a genetic backup and to preserve the species from events such as epidemics (i.e. wild rabies) or to slow changes in the genetic pool by interbreeding with dogs. Considering these perspectives the captive animals may well be born and die in captivity.

    Conservation of the wolf in the wild will con- tinue to be the first priority of our programme, but after 18 years of success and failures we all feel safer if we also have a reserve card to throw into the game.


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