Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: A Wolf at the Door

Desert wolves come into conflict with man as habitat damage and extreme cold drive them to take livestock.
By Salijon Abdurakmanov

Villagers in Uzbekistan’s arid northern regions are living in terror of being attacked by the wolves which prey on their flocks. Two people have died and around 20 injured after being mauled in the last five months.


Even in Muinak, the main town in the area, many residents won’t go out late at night for fear of meeting a wolf. Outside town, people are afraid to go out in the daytime. “Everyone is scared,” said college student Kuralbay Zinatdinov.


The animals are driven by desperation, as their natural habitat is less and less able to sustain them. The current winter has seen the most attacks in living memory, as freezing temperatures have forced the wolves into ever-closer contact with man.


Ecologists warn against indiscriminate killing of the wolves, but professional hunters don’t have enough bullets to make a dent in their numbers.


People say attacks on people have been known in Karakalpakstan, a region with the status of an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan, but no one can remember a time when they were so common.


Four people in the Muinak district were attacked at the beginning of February. They all survived, but two villagers have died from bite wounds and at least 15 others have been injured since September.


In November, 45-year-old Jaksibay Nurseitov went to the outskirts of his village, Uchsay, to gather logs for the coming winter. As he was chopping the wood, he failed to notice a wolf coming up behind him. The animal attacked, but Jaksibay fought back and eventually strangled it, slung it over his shoulder and strode home with his trophy.


But several days later, Jaksibay died, most likely from his untreated bite wounds, although a local vet who took samples from the dead animal found evidence of rabies.


This death came only two months after another man died in the same village.


Allayar Izimbetov, 28, was woken at one in the morning by the sound of dogs barking and went out to investigate. He assumed his neighbours’ dogs had got into the yard and were scrapping with his own watchdogs, and picked up a stick to drive them apart.


At this point he realised the intruder was a wolf, which sunk its teeth into his arm. He grappled with the creature until the neighbours came out and shot it.


But a few days later he too was dead, once again through lack of adequate medical attention.


To the south and east of Muinak, the authorities in Takhtakopir district are so worried that farmers will lose flocks of sheep on remote grazing land that they have appealed to the Uzbek government in Tashkent for help.


As well as taking animals put out to pasture, the wolves are so hungry that they even break into the sheds where livestock is kept over the winter.


“We’ve had to fight off wolves several times that came straight into the barns, and we’ve lost several lambs,” said a shepherd in the Muinak district.


Similar stories are heard in Kungrad district in the south of the Karakalpak republic, such as the village of Jaslik - made famous by the notorious prison camp located nearby.


“You can even see wolves stalking the streets here during the day,” said Askar Primbetov, who lives in Jaslik, heading an office that monitors the spread of plague, endemic in this region.


Karakalpakstan is a vast territory of desert and steppe lands bordering on the Aral Sea. Herds of saiga antelope used to roam the land, together with the sheep, cattle, camels and horses of the Karakalpak herdsmen.


In recent decades, though, the region has suffered massive environmental degradation as the Aral Sea has dried up, receding dozens of miles and leaving beds of salt to be whipped up by the wind and spread over a wide area, with destructive effects on soil fertility. The once-great delta of the Amu Darya river has shrunk to a fraction of its former self, causing further losses to human livelihood as well as nature.


Wolves are the biggest wild predator here, but in normal times they steer clear of human habitation.


Scientists attribute their behavioural change to the upset ecological balance and a decline in natural prey species. This winter, things have been made worse by conditions that are cold even for this desert zone where extremes of temperature are the norm.


The experts say the increasing incidence of attacks is no accident. As the wolves become bold - and hungry - enough to go after domestic animals even when they are penned in farm buildings, it is inevitable they will come into contact with people, with tragic consequences.


Zoologist Maksed Ahmetov says it’s “a battle for survival”, in which the wolves are simply trying to survive.


“Consider this: the Aral has dried up, and salt-marshes have formed in its place. The animals that predators feed on are decreasing in number every year. Livestock has been driven back into settled areas,” said Ahmetov.


Due to the exceptional cold of recent months, small animals such as mice, rats and gophers either hibernated or dug deep into the ground to escape the cold. The surface of the ground has frozen solid, and is covered in a thick layer of snow.


“This is why they go to find food in proximity with people,” explained Ahmetov. “The animals fully understand that it is their last chance, that it’s a matter of life and death.”


Paradoxically, while prey availability has been reduced, the wolf population of Karakalpakstan seems to have risen. Large numbers of domestic animals have died in recent years, for example in the drought of 2000-01, and the wolves, jackals and foxes thrived by feeding on the carcases.


No one really knows how many wolves there are. In Soviet times, the conservation authorities kept tabs on the number of predators. The institution – now the Karakalpakstan State Committee for Conservation – still exists, but lacks the resources it once had. Its deputy head Arenbay Karataev says no records have been kept for the last 15 years, “No one has counted the wolves for a long time; there just isn’t the money to do it.”


Local authorities recognise the scale of the problem but are powerless to deal with it.


The local government head in Muinak district, Jarilkap Tursinbekov, says teams of hunters are employed to keep the wolf numbers down.


“For every wolf killed, the district administration pays 20,000 sums [about 20 US dollars]. So far, two have been killed,” he explained, without saying what period the tally was for.


Nature experts are dubious that the bounty scheme can ever work.


Abdurashid Aizakov, who heads an association of hunters and fishermen, said, “We have 400 hunters registered in Muinak district, and 850 more in Kungrad district, but none of them has any ammunition.”


Aizakov explained that ever since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991, legal supplies of ammunition have been unavailable in Karakalpakstan, so licensed hunters have to wait for local customs and police officers to seize a smuggled consignment of cartridges, which are then handed out to them.


“There is not enough equipment or qualified hunters, not to mention ammunition,” added biology professor Ghafar Asanov.


Professor Asanov warns that it is both pointless and wrong simply to kill wolves at random, since they perform a useful role by picking off old, weak and injured animals in the wild. Instead, hunters should identify and eliminate those wolves identified as a danger to man.


“I am not in favour of ruthlessly shooting the first wolf that comes your way, as is currently the practice in Muinak,” he said.


“Only a handful of wolves actually attack people, and it’s wrong to shoot at all of them. We shouldn’t forget that spring will soon be coming, and the wolves, foxes and jackals will be needed for the ‘clean-up’.”


Salijon Abdurahmanov is an IWPR contributor in Karakalpakstan.


More IWPR's Global Voices