Text and photos by Sven Johne
A Walk in Lusatia
1.) I first stumbled across a photograph in the spring of 2005 whilst surfing on the Internet. I made further investigations and found out that it had first been published in the Sächsische Zeitung on May 2, 2002, in the local section for the district of Weißwasser, with the following caption: On Tuesday morning, at 6 am, the shepherd Frank Neumann made a gruesome discovery – he found about 20 sheep lying around in a meadow near the old railway line next to Mühlrose. Certainly not recommended viewing for anyone with a sensitive disposition. The animals’ throats had been torn open, and one of them had been almost completely eaten away. The sheep were all females; some of them were pregnant. The local authorities provided a tractor for the removal of the corpses.
2.) The case aroused my interest, and I looked it up in all the regional newspapers appearing around that time. On May 3, 2002, anxious inhabitants of Mühlrose and Weißwasser voiced their opinions: I always used to go and feed the wild animals in the woods around there. But I wouldn’t dare go there again now. Or: I shall tell my grandson not to go out on his own any more in the evenings. On May 6, 2002 three sheep disappear in the woods and the Dresdner Morgenpost gives as its headline “Whole Village in Terror!” On the same day, the newspaper Bild advises its readers to hunt down the attackers with rubber bullets.
3.) Continuing with my research, I found a press release by the Saxon Ministry of the Environment dated June 13, 2001, which was repeated more or less word for word on June 14 in the Lausitzer Rundschau: It appears that a pack of wolves has settled in an area covering approximately 700 square kilometers, stretching from the Polish border to Weißwasser. The adult animals followed an old wolves’ route leading from Rumania through Poland into Lusatia. One day later, the Sachsische Zeitung announced: The last wolf in Germany was killed in Lusatia in 1850. Now, 150 years later, the nocturnal animals have returned to their ancestral territory.
4.) At some point while I was going through all the press material, I noticed that there is not a single photograph of a German wolf (Bild) on the prowl at night. Newspaper articles are usually illustrated with pictures of animals living in captivity. So in December 2005 I made some enquires at the Wolf Office of the Free State of Saxony. Here it was officially confirmed that the movements of the pack of wolves and their hunting behavior in Lusatia had been reconstructed solely on the evidence of the tracks they had left behind – trails, droppings, and the remains of their prey. Of course, there are no historical photographs of wolves on the prowl, as the animals had been wiped out by the time photography was invented.
5.) I was fascinated. In January 2006 I decided to walk along the wolves’ route. I read up on all the relevant specialist literature and had a Lusatian forest warden teach me how to read tracks. He advised me to imitate the wolves’ howl in order to attract the animals.
6.) At the end of May 2006 I got myself an infrared camera. And on June 12, 2006, I set off walking from a place called Podrosche on the Polish border. On June 17, after walking for five nights, I reached Zosel near Weißwasser, 80 kilometers to the west, where in the meantime a second pack was said to have settled.
The wolves’ route is a sandy path, mostly leading through pine forests and birch woods. I began walking at dusk, using the viewfinder on the camera as orientation. I decided where I was heading for each night with the help of a map, usually choosing a crossroads where there was a small settlement, or at least a few buildings.
7.) To come straight to the point: it was very quiet in the forest. On my nightly walks, I saw nothing but deer, a herd of wild boars, and a small fox. And yet I did have a rather strange experience – every time I had reached my destination, I heard noises in the dark. I took photographs in the general direction the sounds were coming from, hoping to find something later when I blew up the pictures. I could have imagined it all, of course, but the next morning I always found the typical, straight wolves’ tracks in exactly the same area, like some kind of proof. Today I believe that I only came really close to the wolves at these places. They almost seem to have been waiting for me there. In an attempt to discover why, I looked for more information on my five nightly destinations.