The worldwide human impulses to annihilate wolves, steal their territory, and create wolf haters come together in the story of the organized eradication of wolves from Japan. And buried in that tragedy are important questions for wolf survival.
The story is told well by Brett Walker in his book, "The Lost Wolves of Japan," and begins around 1600 when the Japanese regarded wolves as deities and worshiped them at shrines. Farmers accepted the wolf as a partner that killed the boar and deer that ate grain crops, the cornerstone of Japanese agriculture. Japan had no large scale livestock industry.
During the 1700s, Japan's swelling population encroached on wolf territory. Rabid wolves killed some Japanese. Hatred stirred; a bounty was placed, but the Japanese still held the animal in high esteem.
All that began to change in 1868 when the new Japanese government vowed to modernize the economy. Walker writes that modernization was built into "the Japanese education system, workplace, political values, and attitudes about agriculture." Government policy demoted grain farming and promoted livestock production on huge new ranches carved from yet more wolf territory. The government used taxidermy - stuffed snarling specimens - to portray wolves as monstrous killers that preyed on almighty livestock.
In 1873 Japan hired Edwin Dun, an American rancher, to help build the livestock industry and destroy wolves. When he strode off the boat from the US, orchestrated wolf killing kicked into high gear. Dun knew about industrial poisoning with strychnine, and the government established a bounty system that provided financial incentive to kill animals that were once revered.
Walker reports that by 1905 wolves were extinct. It took only thirty-two years for the Japanese to go from worshiping wolves to wiping them out. The key was the government-sponsored campaign to shift the cultural perception of the wolf from deity to demon.
I think there are questions in this tragic tale that could help save wolves around the world.
If the Japanese government could create a culture of wolf hatred and kill wolves, couldn't a government create a culture of wolf respect and protect wolves? The Japanese used their education system, workplace, political values, and attitudes about agriculture to stoke wolf hatred. Couldn't a government use the same avenues to build wolf respect?
The Japanese created financial incentives to kill animals once revered. Couldn't a government come up with financial incentives that protect wolves?
There are wolf management plans around the world that define protecting wolves as keeping a certain number of wolves alive. Plans like those do nothing to reduce wolf hatred; they give the false impression that wolf survival is a biological issue, a matter of the number of surviving breeding pairs. But wolf survival, as Japan's story so clearly shows, is a cultural issue. To truly protect this endangered species, a country's culture must change from one of wolf hatred to one of respect.
Rick Lamplugh is a wolf advocate and author of the bestselling "In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter's Immersion in Wild Yellowstone." Available as eBook or paperback at Amazon online stores around the world. Or as a signed copy from the author.
(Top photo: Grey wolf)