Vacation is over and I am slowly biking down the hot asphalt street. The forests, rivers, mountains and silence on my mind. And the traffic light before my eyes. I arrive at the office and face a flood of unanswered e-mails. But one particular e-mail catches my eye. It contains the word howling – howling with wolves in Slovenia. A few e-mails and phone calls later, I am admiring the green landscape through the open window of an old train. I wonder if the wolves whose howling I am looking forward to are roaming these hills.
In Ljubljana, I am welcomed by Maja Sever, a biologist from the Slovenian Forestry Institute. We grab a quick lunch, bursting with excitement about tonight's events. She has already participated in wolf monitoring with howling several times and tells me this will be a unique experience, seeing as how we have the privilege of riding with professor Hubert Potočnik, an expert on large carnivores (wolves, bears and lynx) from the University of Ljubljana. “You can never really know if you're going to hear the wolves, but we have a better chance with him present,” Maja tells me with a smile.
The first wolf monitoring with howling in Slovenia was organized in 2010 as part of a European project, and for the last four years it has been sponsored by the state. Currently there are about 100 wolves in thirteen packs in Slovenia.
Soon we get into the car and head out towards the Littoral-Karst region, more accurately, the Slavnik mountain. Professor Hubert tells us that yesterday a group of researchers-volunteers noticed and heard certain howling, but were not sure whether they were jackal or wolf cubs. It is up to us to investigate. On the way there, they tell me the first wolf monitoring with howling in Slovenia was organized in 2010 as part of a European project, and for the last four years it has been sponsored by the state. The number of wolves is on the rise and currently there are about 100 wolves in thirteen packs in Slovenia. Monitoring with howling still hasn’t been organized in Croatia, but each year the wolves from the Croatian side respond and howl at the Slovenian researchers. We jokingly conclude that, apparently, the Croatian wolves understand Slovenian better than me, a Dalmatian with a new Zagreb address.
We make a stop at the first location. I am instructed to be as quiet as possible, so I awkwardly attempt to close the car door without making a sound. We have to turn off any screen light, but, luckily, the moon casts a bright light on our path. Hubert's son, a high school student following in his father's footsteps, hands me night vision binoculars which make body heat visible in red light. The dark forest and binoculars in my hands make me feel like a mix of a cyborg and Indiana Jones.
The howling starts. Professor Hubert bends over and his voice and movement mimic those of a wolf so faithfully that the dogs in the distance immediately respond with loud barking. Owoooooo... He howls four times in all cardinal directions and then takes a roughly three-minute break. If there is no response from the wolves after three series of howling, it is common to head out for a new location. We listen… but there’s nothing. Hubert enters data in a test application on his cell phone, and we are ready for the next destination.
The full moon and howling are in no way correlated; the moonlight enhances the camera shot, which is why a wolf howling under a full moon has become such a recognizable image.
On our way there, I can’t stop asking questions. I am told wolves howl to mark territory and to communicate with other pack members. The younglings also howl when they wander off or reunite with their parents. It dawns on me that I too have been tricked by Hollywood imagery. It turns out that the full moon and howling are in no way correlated; the moonlight enhances the camera shot, which is why a wolf howling under a full moon has become such a recognizable image. Even though the full moon might not play a role in howling, calendar-wise, wolves are the most vocal during August and September, and in January before the mating season.
At the next location, Maja is the one that howls; hers is a different style but equally convincing. The wind swirls all of the sounds together, and for a moment we are convinced we can hear the wolves, but then, a little disappointed, we realize those are just cars in the distance. Professor Hubert tells us this exact location is perfect because numerous wolves, bears and wild boars have been spotted here. I feel as if we are being observed from the dark woods by a curious bunch of creatures. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude for being a part of this wondrous nature.
We drive further down the forest paths which, I believe, are familiar only to the professor. At one point, he breaks the silence and, with nostalgia and pride in his voice, says “Here, it was right here where we caught Slavc and put a GPS collar on him! Have you heard the story about him?”. It turns out that professor Hubert is in charge of tracking the world’s most romantic love story between two wolves. Slavc the wolf, named after the Slavnik mountain where we were standing, walked a thousand miles through dangerous terrains, swam across the Drava River, climbed the snowy Alps, crossed the borders, ski slopes and highways until he finally settled with a she-wolf in the Italian Lessinia park. A park near Verona and the first wolf couple in love of the area in a 100 years were reason enough to name the she-wolf Julija. “Slavc and Julija are doing well, until now they have had 27 cubs,” says the professor laughing. “Some wolves have stayed with them in the pack, and some have formed new packs”.
Throughout the evening we made a stop at four other locations. A series of howling, a series of listening and constant admiration and respect for the wilderness around us. Unfortunately, this time I wasn’t lucky enough and the only howling I heard was a human one. That's the way it goes; you can't force anything on nature. But you can always learn: patience, presence, gratitude. I can't wait to go again!