His name was Chkhinka — Georgian for “skinny” — which he really was. At the moment of his entrapping a young male wolf living in the spreads of Georgian Vashlovani National Park probably lacked food and was all skin and bone. When scientists from bio-conservation organization NACRES caught him in August 2010, the sheep, wolves’ easy meat, was entirely in the mountain pasturelands.
Chkhinka at the moment of his entrapping. Photo courtesy of NACRES.
Chkhinka’s entrapping and GPS-tagging was a part of the Georgia Carnivore Conservation Project, which aims at conserving the biodiversity of Georgia’s semi-arid landscapes and improving the coexistence of people and wildlife.
Bejan, senior biologist at NACRES, who GPS-collared Chkhinka, logged the event: “It was very hot … and we were concerned for the animals well-being as there was a real risk that it could overheat. We managed to keep its’ temperature down at a safe level by using wet tissues Finally, we collared the animal. When he woke up, we could tell that he was in good condition and so we let him go to the forest. Soon after that we received the first signal on the VHF receiver.”
Bejan GPS-tracked Chkhinka and another collared wolf Kora for two months roughly. The two trails moved nearly parallel to each other and adhered to the boundaries of the national park. Sheep herds were returning from the mountains for winter to their winter quarters around the park, and wolves follow them, while being based in relative safety on the territory of Vashlovani protect area.
On November 12 the last piece of data came. Since Chkhinka’s GPS collar used cell-phone connection to send data in SMS messages, this gap was most likely caused by the wolf hiding in some low place, with no access to cellphone connection there. Being in Vashlovani a couple of weeks later to set new wolf traps Bejan tried to locate Chkhinka by radio direction finding (GPS collars emit radio pulses as well). I was there too.
It was a foggy day. Bejan checked on a line of traps he set a day before and decided to locate either Chkhinka or Kora, or both. Sitting in a Land Rover’s passenger seat (his assistant Vano driving it) and riding around the valleys of Vashlovani Bejan listened attentively to the white noise in his headset for a weak beep. The idea was to get anywhere near, within 200m roughly to a wolf, and then the car antenna could receive signal. Then Bejan would come out of the car, unfold a directional antenna, and try to estimate the direction of a signal. Then using the triangulation method (that is getting three signal directions from three different places, plotting them on a map and locating the intersection point) he would try to estimate wolf’s location. Given the clear weather he would try to approach the wolf to observe him from distance.
On that foggy day we managed to get to Chkhinka as close as a hundred meters (estimated by strength of the signal). We went around the place taking three directions. Taking into account short distance of view, Bejan decided not to approach Chkhinka that day. Wolves are extremely cautious creatures and Chkhinka would definitely sense us at such a short distance and run away.
On the next day the weather was fine. We went to the same fields as the day before hoping to see Chkhinka. Soon enough the antenna detected the same direction as yesterday. It was a little strange. It meant that Chkhinka didn’t move much since yesterday. Was it because he was scared of something and was hiding or something else needed some clarification and we started approaching it, hoping to see him from the hills as he would run away from us. As we took the direction the radio signal strengthened. 50m. 30m. 20m. Strange, no one shows up. 10 meters. 5… The grass was trampled down within 5 meters. In the center of this clearing lay Chkhinka. Or whatever has left of him.
His fell was all torn up and covered with numerous small holes – bite marks. “Oh no. Anything but this,” mumbled someone of us. Bejan was silent. He remained so for some time crouched near the carcass. Then he put on rubber gloves and started examining the dead wolf and the area. Chkhinka’s skin didn’t have any bullet marks, only bites, bites and bites. He must have approached a sheep herd trying to hunt some sheep down. The dogs attacked back and chased Chkhinka. Normally wolfs are faster than dogs and have no trouble escaping the chase. However, for some reason, being encircled or just young, Chkhinka accepted the battle. He had no chance against 6-7 Caucasian shepherd dogs.
“Actually he gained some fat since we caught him,” sadly commented Bejan’s assistant Vano looking at the remains of Chkhinka, who still looked very skinny to me. The whole expedition crew was unusually reticent till the end of the day.
P.S. Actually, do we ever notice the power of the names? Why do we tend to name whatever becomes close to us? And when do we start naming things, objects, people or pets around? What happens when the name bearer is gone? Even objects seem to become animated when given a name. I call my car The Donkey. First of all it’s grey. Second, I’m Kakhetian (well, my ancestors are. I was born in Tbilisi), and there is a whole set of obscene jokes about a Kakhetian and a donkey. Taking in account that off the road I often do to my car the same as those jokes say Kakhetians do to donkeys, the name suits it perfectly. But after two years of driving The Donkey I look at it as something living, especially after a couple cases when it dragged me through very unpleasant roads. Before driving to Svaneti recently I even vowed in front of my car to repair it if it gets me to and back from the mountains. A name leads to the attachment and vice versa.