May 25, 2009

Protected Wolf Packs Create Problems For China’s Sheepherders

Sheepherders in northern China are dealing with once endangered wolf packs looking to feast on their flocks, and since the wolves are protected, there's currently very little they can do about it, AFP reported.

Delger, a 44 year-old sheep herder in northern China's Inner Mongolia region, has lost six of his 40 sheep in the past two years to stealthy attacks by the wolves that roam the area.

"They come at night, but you never hear them. When you do hear something, it is the sheep crying out, and by then it's too late," said Delger, who like many members of China's ethnic Mongolian minority goes by one name.

Communist leader Mao Zedong once encouraged the eradication of the wolves, which were viewed as a threat to his utopian efforts to increase agricultural and livestock production.

While they were once hunted to near extinction, they are now protected and mounting attacks on sheep farms, sparking calls by herders and some local governments to once again allow hunting of the predators.

Delger complained that there isn't enough protection for herders now.

"The wolves cannot be hunted. What about us?" he said.

Last June, authorities in the Alxa district of Inner Mongolia have even constructed a 62-mile fence near the border with the republic of Mongolia.

State media said Alxa herders had lost more than 600 sheep and 300 camels over the preceding two years and similar tolls have been reported across Inner Mongolia.

Chinese media even reported that a wolf was spotted along the Great Wall near Beijing in December, the first sighting in the area in a generation.

All the indicators show wolf populations are on the upswing thanks to environment-protection measures, according to government and state-controlled media reports.

However, the opposite may be true, said wolf expert Gao Zhongxin.

Gao, who has studied the issue for China's Northeast Forestry Institute, said wolves are attacking livestock because environmental degradation, expanding desertification, and human encroachment have reduced their natural prey.

He told AFP the number of wolves has probably stabilized but desertification and degeneration of the grassland is increasingly serious and a new threat to their livelihood.

And the powerful symbolism of wolves in traditional Mongol society creates a dilemma for the inhabitants of China's ethnic Mongolian border.

Genghis Khan, a famous and legendary Mongol conqueror, modeled his fierce and highly mobile cavalry on the wolf packs, eventually amassing the largest land empire ever.

But even while revering them as guardians of the grasslands, Mongol nomads have for centuries battled the wolves to protect their flocks.

Author Lu Jiamin told AFP the wolves are central to Mongol culture, but there are fewer of them now.

"Young Mongols today do not hear the old wolf stories anymore. That is dying out."

Lu detailed the animals' spiritual connection to the wolves in his acclaimed book "Wolf Totem," written under a pseudonym.

As an ethnic Han Chinese who lived with Mongol herders during China's Cultural Revolution, he agrees the stepped-up wolf attacks indicate the animals are under pressure, which he calls a bad sign for China's six million ethnic Mongols, many of whom claim their culture is rapidly dying out under Chinese rule.

Although Gao says illegal hunting is under way in some areas, most proposals to relax the hunting ban have gained no traction.

Delger is keeping his sheep closer to home than before and does not let them roam at night.

He said promised government compensation for lost sheep has yet come through and the recent plunge in mutton prices is beginning to take its toll.

"They used to prey on wild animals," he said of the wolves. "But now they are preying on us."