Using “wolves” and “South Africa” in the same sentence appears somewhat contradictory. The natural distribution of wolves never reached as far south as to the southern tip of this continent. Here, their ecological niche is occupied by the African wild dog, which is incidentally also known as the “African painted wolf”. It is only distantly related to the wolves of the northern hemisphere, however.
Yet there are a few wolves in South Africa – in captivity. How they came here and for which reasons are questions nobody seems to have definite answers for. There are a few stories around, though, none of which could be proven beyond doubt so far. Besides those wolves that were inconspicuously imported by private individuals for whatever reasons, it is often heard that it was the South African Defence Force, or the Police, or both, that at one stage imported wolves from North America, probably Canada. They allegedly wanted them for crossbreeding with German Shepherds and other large dog breeds, hoping this would produce a powerful, fear-inspiring crowd control dog. The timespan quoted for when this supposedly happened is often given as “the seventies and/or eighties”. However, there is no evidence at present to substantiate such claims.
While, so it is said, the crossbreeding projects failed dismally and all crosses were eventually destroyed, some of the original wolves ended up in zoos or private hands. A few of these really found good homes, and reproduction took place in very small numbers, without any publicity whatsoever. Until today, private wolf owners in South Africa keep a very low profile, act in silence and mostly very responsibly.
However, most South Africans are real animal lovers, be it domestic or wild or both. TV programs on animals are a staple diet for them, wildlife clubs are abound, and the numbers of domestic dogs, cats, horses, birds etc. in this country probably exceed the number of people by far. In this light it is not surprising any more that an animal as magnificent and awe-inspiring as the wolf, exotic or not, enjoys a lot of interest amongst South Africans.
The number of wolves in South Africa is uncertain at present. The attempt of an anonymous survey revealed close to two dozen specimens, most of them Gray, but also a few European (“Russian”) and even a couple of Arctic ones. Considering that this might represent only the “tip of the iceberg” (an “icicle”, rather), it may be safe to presume there are many others around. As to the number of wolfdogs, it is anybody’s guess. And how are they doing here? Just fine! In regions with hot summers their thick winter coats protect them very effectively from overheating, while during the comparatively mild winters they enjoy romping around in a skimpy “summer dress”. Those living in the care of owners situated in more temperate climates, such as on the south coast or in the mountains, need to adjust even less. And generally speaking, most of their owners look after them very well indeed.
Still, these wolves are kept under circumstances different from those in their natural habitats. Therefore, some of them are better off than others. And although they are bred only in very small numbers, mostly just to keep bloodlines alive, they sometimes end up in the hands of private people who love them dearly, but still lack the huge amount of knowledge needed to give them proper care. We may not have to worry about wolves and their protection in the South African wild, but we still have to be responsible enough to worry about the well-being of captive wolves in our country. As with everything in life, education is the key to success, and it is one of our goals to help the wolves in our beloved South Africa by providing this education.
And if you have a wolfdog or wolf, and you realize that for whatever reason you cannot keep this animal than please do us one big favour – DO NOT abandon it in the next forest or on a street light, DO NOT ask your vet to have it euthanized, DO NOT just drop it off at the SPCA or sell it to some other inexperienced person! Check out one of the wolf and wolfdog Sanctuaries here in South Africa where you find experienced people who are able to handle wolves and wolfdogs, and who can house and care for them properly.