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China's herders plea for help as wolf packs rampage

by Staff Writers
Siziwangqi, China (AFP) May 25, 2009
Scanning the vast northern China steppe surrounding him, Delger leans on a wooden staff that is his herd's only protection against a lethal enemy that is out there, somewhere.

"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," he said.

Delger, 44, has lost six of his 40 sheep in the past two years to stealthy attacks by the wolf packs that roam northern China's Inner Mongolia region.

The wolves were hunted to near extinction in China as Communist leader Mao Zedong encouraged the eradication of an animal viewed as a threat to his utopian efforts to increase agricultural and livestock production.

But mounting attacks by the wolves -- now protected -- have sparked calls by herders and some local governments for resumed hunting of the predator.

"There is not enough protection for us herders now. The wolves cannot be hunted. What about us?" complained Delger, who like many members of China's ethnic Mongolian minority goes by one name.

The attacks have become so frequent that desperate authorities in the Alxa district of Inner Mongolia constructed a 100-kilometre (62-mile) fence last June near the border with the republic of Mongolia.

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

In December, a wolf was spotted along the Great Wall just 50 kilometres from Beijing, the first sighting there in a generation, according to Chinese media.

What remains unclear is the reason for the wolves' boldness.

Government reports and state-controlled media have said all the indicators show wolf populations are on the upswing thanks to environment-protection measures.

But wolf expert Gao Zhongxin said the opposite is likely true.

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

"The number of wolves has probably stabilised but desertification and degeneration of the grassland is increasingly serious and a new threat to the wolves," he told AFP.

The issue is an emotional one in China's ethnic Mongolian border areas due to the powerful symbolism of wolves in traditional Mongol society.

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

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

"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," author Lu Jiamin told AFP.

Lu, an ethnic Han Chinese who lived with Mongol herders during China's Cultural Revolution, detailed the animals' spiritual connection to the wolves in his acclaimed book "Wolf Totem," written under a pseudonym.

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.

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

For now, Delger keeps his sheep closer to home than before and does not let them roam at night.

He was already under pressure from a recent plunge in mutton prices and says promised government compensation for lost sheep has not come through.

"They used to prey on wild animals," he said of the wolves.

"But now they are preying on us."

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