Wölfe in der Mongolei/Wolves in Mongolia (II): Wolves as Predators

Once, there was an old rich man who had a son and owned 1,000 horses. One day, they wanted to move on to other pastures. When the man led his horses to a nearby river he came across a dshelbege (a female ‚evil spirit‘). She was going to kill him unless he gave her either his son or his 1,000 horses. The old man decided to stay alive and to give his son to her. So he promised the dshelbege to leave his son’s bow and arrows behind so that his son had to ride back to the old ail to fetch them, and there the dshelbege could seize him. And so it happened. The son rode back and met the waiting dshelbege. When he realized who she was, he rode off as fast as his horse could go, chased by the evil spirit. She eventually managed to kill the horse, but with a last effort the horse threw the boy into a nearby tree. The dshelbege now began to saw at the tree. The boy begged some birds who flew by to fetch his dogs Geser and Basar to help him. But they all refused because he had shot and laughed at them before. Finally, an eagle took pity on him and went to fetch the dogs. As the dshelbege saw the two dogs approaching, she dived into water close by. Geser and Basar followed her and killed her at long last. However, Geser was badly injured in the fight and could not manage the way back to the family. Not knowing what to do, the boy left him behind. Embittered, Geser swore to come back as a wolf and to prey on humans and their animals to take revenge on people for leaving him to die after he had risked his own life to save theirs.

Chinagiin Galsan once told me that I cannot understand the Tuva’s relationship with wolves unless I understand this story. For him, as a shaman, there are certain rules which everybody must obey. While everybody is free to break these rules, people nevertheless have to live with the consequences of their actions. This is especially true for breaking the rules of interaction with ’nature‘ or dangerous animals such as wolves. Wolves are sometimes referred to as ‚Bad Heads‘ (tuv. gokii) because of their bad thoughts of killing, and people can be criticised for being „as sly as wolves“. However, I rarely heard somebody actually blaming wolves for their actions. For example, when trying to find answers as to why wolves killed a particular human (this is often discussed among the Tuva) they often put the blame on the human. According to mythology, wolves only kill evil persons with negative karma and/or they kill in order to execute a godly order. Sometimes they also punish people who have acted against tradition, as illustrated by the following quote:

So it is tradition in our lives that we don’t bring any milk products out of the yurt on the ’nine-days‘, that is on the 9th, the 19th and 29th of each month. If one does that, it is likely that one’s animals will be attacked by wolves in the night or some other bad thing happens.[i]

Furthermore, wolves punish bad behaviour against wolves (see the story of Geser and Baser). Wolf hunters especially are afraid of wolves taking revenge. There is more than one story about famous wolf hunters who were killed by wolves in the end. For example, I was told of a cruel wolf hunter who once found nine cubs in a den. But instead of killing them, he severed their sinews at the knee and left them to die. But they managed to survive and some years later, the hunter came across them again. His horse suddenly stumbled, he fell into their midst and was devoured.

So much for the reasons why wolves kill. But how exactly do they hunt? The narratives often told about wolves on the hunt express the awe and respect the nomads have for these animals, although their cunning and endurance make them even worse enemies:

One winter, a pack of wolves chased a herd of snow goats up a cliff. The wolves waited at the bottom while the goats were slowly freezing to death at the top of the cliff. One after the other, the dead goats fell off the cliff and landed among the waiting wolves who devoured them. Where the wolves had lain the ice had melted away. Wolves are good at enduring the cold and besides, they are hardier than the goats. That’s why they were able to kill the goats (A., pastoralist and wolf hunter).

When wolves hunt horses, they wag their tails like dogs. The foals become curious and come closer. Then the wolves pretend to flee and when the foals follow them, retreating from their herd, they attack.

Wolves sometimes hunt bears in a clever way when they can’t find anything else to eat. One sly wolf attacks with a jump, rips open the bear’s belly, and withdraws immediately. When the bear backs away, the other wolves attack from behind and pull out the bear’s entrails until the wounded bear with his open belly loses his strength and surrenders (A., pastoralist and wolf hunter).

However, it is not the occasional attack on a single animal that the pastoralists fear. Far worse is wolves‘ capability of surplus killing. „The wolf is never so much wolf as in the moment of killing“, I was told by Chinagiin Galsan. Although it is extremely rare that wolves kill dozens of animals at a time, almost everybody amongst the Tuva knows someone who experienced such an attack. As wolves are capable of killing a large part of a pastoralists‘ livestock in one night, they can destroy the pastoralists‘ basis of livelihood in an instant.

According to myth, Tenger [the God of Heaven in the Mongolian Buddhist and Shamanistic pantheon] once told the wolf that he is allowed to kill one out of thousand sheep, but the wolf understood that he is allowed to kill all but one out of thousand sheep. The wolf was running too fast as Tenger spoke to him and simply misunderstood the godly order. This is why the wolf, so we say, is a dangerous four-legged animal who can destroy the life of nomads in an instant (S., former school teacher, now pastoralist).

Others blame their own animals for being too stupid to run away when wolves attack. So here again the fault is usually not attributed to the wolves.

[i] See also Humphrey, Mongush and Telengid (1993:51) for their description of the ethical behaviour towards ’nature‘ (mong. baigal).