A Wolf Named Asena

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Cagan H. Sekercioglu is one of those people who seem to have more hours in the day than you or I. A biologist who studies birds, mammals, butterflies and also has a sideline in wildlife photography, he divides his time between his native Turkey and the American West, where he is an professor at the University of Utah. 

In 2011, he and a team of collaborators became the first scientists to collar and track wolves and other carnivores in the rugged, arid landscapes of eastern Turkey. In 2014, I interviewed him about his work for the now defunct Beacon Reader

Q: Why are you collaring these wolves?

A: In Turkey, until this work was done, there wasn’t any home range size data on wolf, bears or lynx. We want to know what the home ranges are. In 2011, I produced a map that showed the size of the area so they would use it to convince Turkey’s government to create Turkey’s first wildlife corridor.

The wildlife corridor is 160 kilometers and the new protected area is 29,000 hectares, which will connect this national park of 23,000 hectares to the big forests of the Black Sea and Caucasus so the animals have more freedom to move and more habitat and hopefully more prey.

The native prey of wolves is extremely diminished. Red deer is extinct in the region; Roe deer is almost extinct. So the wolves and bears spend a lot of time at the local garbage dump scavenging livestock carcasses. And unfortunately they also occasionally hunt living animals. They also eat quite a few rodents and hares. They are opportunistic, smart, cover a huge area, and use any food source they can. They have learned to co-exist with people.

Q: Tell me about this wolf you made famous, Asena.

A: Last year our first female wolf with a collar was shot and killed by a poacher or by some random people passing by. We had happened to name it after a she-wolf from Turkish mythology that supposedly showed the way out of a mountain valley that Turks were shut in for decades.

And as luck would have it, that is also the name of a famous belly dancer that has been involved with the mafia a lot, and so some people thought the belly dancer had been killed!

A whole range of factors combined to perform a perfect media storm. It was shown on 20 television stations’ evening news. There were 200 stories on Google news stories in the Turkish media. It has created huge awareness.

It is not just a wolf being killed, it was Asena the wolf, an individual. We are finding that tracked animals that have names and stories—people relate to them a lot more than some random animal.

Q: How did you feel when you heard about Asena’s death?

A: I was very sad. I remembered the animal from collaring. It was our first female. We thought it was a breeding female. She had a lot of milk.

They sent me this photo and the photo made me more sad because she looked so innocent. She was just lying on her side looking totally harmless. We think she was next to the two-lane road when someone in a car just decided to take a shot. It wasn’t even a big bullet, but it just unfortunately hit her lung and that was that.

Q: Has the death of Asena changed attitudes towards wolves more generally in Turkey?

A: We have a chance of finding out a little more this fall, because one of my students, Mark Chynoweth, just won a grant to look at public attitudes towards human/carnivore conflict. Fortunately we did several hundred local surveys about four years ago, so we have a before and after.

Overall we sense that it has changed attitudes. I often get people mentioning that story. It really got people’s attention. This June, I was taking photos of some horses by the highway in this beautiful light and I asked the owner, without telling him who I am, “are your horses killed by wolves?” The guy says, “This December, just behind the city of Kars, I saw two old wolves feeding on a dead horse. I raised my gun to shoot them and I realized they were wearing collars and then I remembered Asena so I decided not to shoot and I lowered my gun.”

Q: What can be done to reduce conflict between Turkish people and wolves?

A:  I’ve been talking to the ministry about making a more serious push for increasing prey populations. There are red deer breeding and reintroduction programs, but they are reluctant to do this where I work. Basically they don’t want the red deer to be eaten. You don’t want to introduce 20 red deer and have the wolves eat them all in three years.

Red deer have big antlers and these wolves haven’t dealt with them in some time. I don’t know how they would react. The males, they may be reluctant to hunt. But you know how wolves are. They hunt in packs; they learn; they are smart. And in this region they regularly take down horses, cows and donkeys.

One thing we are trying to do is put highway overpasses and underpasses because we have data now of where the concentrations of wildlife crossings are. The forest is crossed by several roads. I almost hit three bear cubs in their second year this June.

Q: Do you think the wolf population in Turkey, which may number in the thousands, could or should increase?

A: Hmm. Initially, it could increase because people are abandoning parts of rural Turkey and moving to cities. The problem is, if this is not followed by a rebound of wild prey then this could ironically lead to a wolf population decline, because if there are no people there is not going to be garbage and carcasses for wolves to feed on. Where we are, due to few native prey, wolves are actually quite a bit dependent on humans.

Q: That’s not quite how I imagine wild wolves living.

A: I admire them because they manage to cling on by being smart and secretive. We are finding with camera traps and tracking that they use forests not for hunting very much but for cover. Then at night when people are in bed and inside they are a lot closer to population centers. It is pretty fascinating.

I saw three wolves in a field in 2004, and that was the first time I saw wolves in Turkey. I knew very little. I wondered: how do these animals live? Slowly, with camera traps and tracking and collecting scat, you build a picture of their lives and realize that even though wolves are wild animals, they have learned to live pretty close to people and survive and breed.

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