Lost Wolves of Japan

27 September 2010 by Anne-Marie Hodge, posted in conservation, zoology

Although the gray wolf, Canis lupus, has managed to escape extinction within the United States and Europe, thanks to extensive conservation efforts, and currently appears to be experiencing a population comeback, many are unaware that some highly distinctive populations and subspecies of wolf have indeed been lost over the past 100-200 years. Two of these subspecies, sometimes lumped together as the Japanese wolf and sometimes designated the Hokkaido wolf ( C. l. hattai ) and Honsho wolf ( C. l. hodophilax ), are noteworthy for the fact that many people are unaware that they ever existed, much less the fact that they have been totally lost. Both of these vanished subspecies, however, have lessons to teach us about the perils facing carnivores in a rapidly developing world.

The larger of the Japanese subspecies, C. l. hattai, inhabited the Hokkaido and Sakhalin islands of Japan, as well as the southern Kuril islands and parts of the Kamchatka peninsula. The Hokkaido wolf (sometimes also called the Ezo wolf) was approximately the size of American and European subspecies.
hokkaido wolf.jpg
This population’s precipitous decline began during the Meiji Restoration period in the late nineteenth century (Walker 2004). During this time, imperial rule was restored to Japan after a shogunate period, and industrialization and centralized development became utmost priorities of the new leadership regime.

On Hokkaido, this series of events resulted in the establishment of a new agricultural college, with an emphasis on livestock production. As has been seen across the globe, livestock managers and wolves share a tempestuous relationship at best.

The zealous boom in obsession with livestock on in late 1800s involved massive hunting of deer populations and clearing of forest in order to create pasture for domestics, especially horses. Thus, the wolves’ natural prey was decimated and replaced with much beefier and less wary foodstuffs.

In addition, the winters of 1878 and 1879 were notably harsh, putting further pressure on the local wildlife (the local venison canneries were forced to lay dormant for two years due to the winters’ devastating effects on the remaining deer populations), making the pampered livestock even more tempting for the starving wolves.

I would imagine everyone can see the direction this story is leading. As wolves began causing livestock mortalities, ranchers were infuriated, and before long the government was sanctioning bounties on wolves, as well as deliberate poisoning with strychnine and other chemical baits. Various cryptozoology enthusiasists claim native wolves are still spotted around Hokkaido (often the same people that believe Bigfoot, the Loch Ness, and the Tasmanian wolf are kicking around just out of our sight), but it is highly likely that these sightings are of domestic dogs, as favored breeds tend to have wolf-like, erect-eared profiles in Japan. The commonly accepted extinction date for the Hokkaido wolf is 1889.
The disappearance of C. l. hodophilax , the Honshu wolf, while equally tragic, came about by somewhat different means. This population was the most petite known wild subspecies of Canis lupus, measuring only about 35 inches long and barely over 12 inches at the shoulder.

The Honshu wolf inhabited mountainous areas on the islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, preying on a variety of small mammals, including monkeys (Hayashi 1969). During the nineteenth century, the Honshu wolf, like its Hokkaido relative, also became increasingly persecuted by humans.

In the fateful year of 1732, rabies first appeared in the region, and proceeded to sweep through wolf populations in the nineteenth century. It is possible that the disease was conveyed via local populations of domestic dogs. However the virus arrived, it worked as a very effective partner in human attempts at removing wolves from the area, and by 1905 the last Honshu wolf had died.
So, why are these stories relevant today? The story of the Hokkaido wolf has direct parallels to the experiences of Canis lupus in North America, when the Great Plains were converted into vast pasture lands and wolves were extensively persecuted in the name of protecting livestock. Even today, you can buy a permit to shoot a wolf in Idaho for little more than the cost of a movie ticket. The Hokkaido wolf, being restricted to an island system, could not disperse into marginal habitat to avoid bounty hunters or search more widely for prey when native herbivores were decimated, and thus were more pinned to their than wolves in the northern United States, Canada, and Europe. That bit of biogeographical luck may be one of the few factors that kept northern populations of wolves from falling to the same fate as their Japanese relatives.

The Honsho wolf’s fate also has a highly important lesson to teach. Rabies, distemper, and other infectious diseases contracted from domestic dogs are a critical issue threatening the existence of the Ethiopian wolf, Canis simensis (Laurenson et al. 2006). In fact, the conservation efforts to save this unique mountain species have included programs to vaccinate and sterilize domestic dogs in local villages, to reduce the incidence of disease in areas frequented by the remaining wolves. Once a population has been brought down to critical levels by hunting and habitat destruction, even a single epidemic may bring it to its knees before the vagaries of stochasticity, and further stresses, such as harsh climatic patterns or unfavorable demographic issues could signal the end for the species as a whole.

History does indeed have a place in science, and hopefully examples such as those from the Japanese wolves will serve as lessons for common and significant factors that threaten today’s remaining carnivore populations.

Sources and Further Reading:

Hayashi, K. 1969. Utilization of ledges by Japanese monkey sin Hakusan National Park.
Primates 10: 189-191.

Laurenson, K., C. Sillero-Zubiri, H. Thompson, F. Shiferaw, S. Thirgood, and J. Malcolm. 2006. Disease as a threat to endangered species: Ethiopian wolves, domestic dogs and canine pathogens. Animal Conservation 1: 273-280.

Quammen, David. 1996. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Walker, B. 2004. Meiji modernizatoin, scientific agriculture, and the destruction of Japan’s Hokkaido wolf. Environmental History 9: 248-274.

(Both photos obtained from WikiCommons)

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