Between wild wolves and mighty mountains

Photos and text: Anskar and Lea

Lea and I, two wildlife ecology students and photographers from Germany, were the lucky winners of the Christmas contest carried out by the European Safari Company. What did we win? An exciting winter wolf tracking in the Abruzzo area of Italy. In February we made our way in this lesser known region which is located only one and a half hours east of Rome in search of some beautiful landscapes and wild animals.

Day 1 – Howling with the wolves

Around noon we arrived in our hotel in Pescasseroli, a peaceful little town in the very heart of the Abruzzo National Park. After settling in our guide Marco from Wildlife Adventure awaited us and the rest of the group. In total we were a group of seven, with participants from Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Marco quickly explained us the plan for the upcoming three days adventure and it didn’t take long until we hit the road to reach our fist destination: a promising valley close to Pescasseroli where wolves cross on a regular basis. 

 

 

Unfortunately, the odds were not in our favour for the upcoming weekend. Usually, in winter (especially around January and February) there is deep snow in the mountains forcing different ungulates into the valleys where food is still abundant and easy to access. Of course, the wolves would follow them and chances to observe them would strongly increase. But there was no snow. Not in the valleys, not in the forest and not on the mountains. Lucky for us, it didn’t take long after settling down on top of a hill to hear the howling of a lonely wolf. Marco explained that it could be a wolf of the neighbouring pack, checking if the rivalling pack is in hearing distance. But there was no answer coming from the other pack! Pretty soon it got dark and we headed back to our hotel to warm up by a fire and local food.

Day 2 – Italy’s rarest animal

The second day started early with the alarm set to 5 a.m. as animals are most active during dusk and dawn. Our goal for the day was the southern part of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise. Already on our way we saw plenty Red deer, some of them were males with impressive antlers. Just in time, before they lose and regrow them.

Further down the road Lea shouted “Wolf” from the back of the car. Quickly Marco stopped the car and turned around but the wolf was already gone. But after Lea gave a detailed description of the dog-like species she saw, there were no doubts that this was indeed a wolf. Two alert Pastore Abruzzese further supported the probable presence of a wolf in the area.

After seeing some more Red deers grazing at the side of a lake, we reached our parking lot and started our hike into the mountains. Once we passed through an old beech forest, we found ourselves standing on the open ridge of a mountain valley with a breath-taking view. Also in sight: a group of Chamois. But these weren’t just ordinary Chamois! This area is home to the rare Abruzzo Chamois, a subspecies of the Pyrenean chamois, a rather special and endemic species. Around 1900 the numbers were fallen down to less than 400 individuals due to intensive hunting, but conservation efforts are high and the population is slowly recovering. Still, the Abruzzo Chamois is one of Italy’s rarest mammals and if you ask us, also one of the most beautiful.

After our shooting we started our way down and were greeted by a friendly fox passing our path. The fox was approaching unusually close and seemed tame. Marco explained that tourists feed him on a regular basis which habituated him to humans. But wild animals should never be fed, for their own safety and health. The best thing you can do is to sit down, observe the animals and take your images without disturbing or intervening.

Once back in the hotel, the group had a delicious and traditional dinner together, made of pasta, local cheese and a mouth-watering dessert.

 

 

Day 3 – Ancient beech forests

The third (and last) day started early once again. We tried our luck in the promising valley again as a wolf has been recently seen there. But again, we only heard the howling in the distance but did not actually see any wolves. But we were not disappointed at all! Seeing wild animals is always difficult and with this “winter” odds just weren’t in our favours. Yet, Marco explained us a lot about their behaviour and we learned so much about the flora, fauna and nature of the National Park. After a rich and healthy breakfast back at the hotel, we drove to the northern part of the National Park. We were off to another hike, this time mainly through impressive beech forests which were hundreds of years old.

 

Some of these ancient beech forests are even recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage because of their exceptional naturalistic value and rich biodiversity. In fact, the ecosystems we’ve seen in the Abruzzo area were among the healthiest we’ve walked through in a long time. The rather traditional lifestyle of the locals and their general positive attitude towards wild animals certainly help a lot in achieving this.

Our hike ended in a mountain refugee where local wine and traditional food was served before heading back down. Once we reached the hotel it meant that our 3-day adventure was already over! Even if we didn’t see wolves (except Lea for a split-second) we really enjoyed our time in the Abruzzo National Park. We spent a great deal of our time in the outdoors, learned about the local life and nature and saw a variety of wild animals.

Unfortunately, the odds were not in our favour for the upcoming weekend. Usually, in winter (especially around January and February) there is deep snow in the mountains forcing different ungulates into the valleys where food is still abundant and easy to access. Of course, the wolves would follow them and chances to observe them would strongly increase. But there was no snow. Not in the valleys, not in the forest and not on the mountains. Lucky for us, it didn’t take long after settling down on top of a hill to hear the howling of a lonely wolf. Marco explained that it could be a wolf of the neighbouring pack, checking if the rivalling pack is in hearing distance. But there was no answer coming from the other pack! Pretty soon it got dark and we headed back to our hotel to warm up by a fire and local food.

Safari is definitely not just for Africa!