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Tuesday, 25 April, 2000, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Wolves find haven in Italy
wolves in snow
Italy's wolves could soon be crossing its borders
(Photo WWF-Canon/Roger Leguen)

By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The European wolf is making a comeback in Italy, where numbers are growing at about 7% annually.

Centuries of persecution have wiped out the animals across much of western Europe, and Italy nearly went the same way.

By the 1970s, only about 100 wolves survived in ten isolated areas of the Apennine mountains.

But the advent of protection in 1976 changed everything, and Italy's wolves are now estimated to number about 400.

If they continue to thrive, researchers believe, the wolves could recolonise the Alps and extend their range into neighbouring countries.

Ettore Randi, of the Italian Institute of Wildlife Biology, is one of the authors of an article in Conservation Biology. He says wolves are recovering faster in Italy than anywhere else in Europe.

Yet they do face threats. Hunters and farmers shoot and poison up to 20% of the total population every year, targeting dispersing juveniles and small, newly-founded packs.

Interbreeding

Another problem is competition between wolves and feral dogs for food and living space.

The wolves also tend to interbreed with the dogs. Researchers have found evidence of hybridisation between the two species in Romania and western Russia.

Dr Randi and his colleagues wanted to see whether Italian wolves were also interbreeding with feral dogs.


wolf
The line remains pure (Photo WWF/Chris Martin Bahr)
So they compared the mitochondrial DNA of samples from 101 Italian wolves, 29 Bulgarian wolves, 20 wolves from elsewhere in Europe, and 50 dogs (nine feral dogs from Italian wolf habitat, and 41 domestic dogs).

They found one DNA sequence that was unique to Italian wolves, six that were unique to Bulgarian wolves, and seven unique to Italian feral dogs.

The Bulgarian wolves did have feral dog sequences, but the Italian ones did not.

The researchers say the results show that while some east European wolves have hybridised with dogs, the Italian wolves have so far remained pure.

Fear still strong

To prevent them interbreeding with dogs, the researchers recommend controlling feral dog packs living in the Italian wolves' range.

There is often opposition to the conservation or reintroduction of wolves from farmers and from people who fear that other species may be put at risk.

Eastern Europe remains the stronghold of the continent's wolves, with an estimated 2,500 animals in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine, Romania and Slovakia.

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See also:

11 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Campaign for Europe's carnivores
17 Sep 99 | Sheffield 99
Call for return of Scottish wolves
24 Feb 00 | Europe
Bringing wolves back to Sweden
02 Apr 00 | Europe
French wolf worries
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