grey Wolf wolf pack Wolf howl


Introduction – Species description

The wolf is the largest member of the family Canidae, and is characterised by a high level of intelligence and well-developed social organisation. It acquired its present form one and a half million years ago. The colour of the Mediterranean wolf is predominantly brown and grey. It weighs 20–40 kilos and has a lifespan of 8–16 years.

The wolf is a carnivore and feeds mainly on wild herbivorous animals (ungulates) when these exist in sufficient numbers. But when its usual prey is unavailable or very scarce, the highly adaptable wolf turns to smaller vertebrates, livestock, or even anthropogenic sources of food, such as garbage or dead animals. The wolf has become an efficient hunter, even of animals much larger than itself, by developing co-operative methods in the pack, which are based on a strict and fixed social hierarchy. One characteristic common to wolf populations all over the world is their social organisation in groups or packs, both large and small. Usually, only one pair of wolves in the pack reproduces, the dominant pair.

The structure of its body and its hunting skills are adapted to enable it to immobilise its prey easily. It has a large head and powerful jaws (with a bite twice as strong as a dog’s), a narrow chest, long legs, and a light skeleton, enabling it to cover long distances and make its way through snow easily. Wolves have tremendous stamina, running or walking fast for eight to ten hours a day and covering many kilometres in the process.

Wolves use all their senses to locate and track down their prey. They can see moving objects over a long distance and their night vision is good. Their most highly developed senses are hearing and smell. Their nasal cavity is fourteen times greater, proportionately, than humans’.

Wolves communicate with each other with a variety of sounds, though they reveal their moods and intentions mainly through facial expressions and specific body postures. When they are very far apart, they communicate by howling: they can hear each other howling up to ten kilometres away. The members of a pack howl in order to locate one another, but also to drive an intruder from another pack out of their territory.

Each pack moves within a strictly defined area, its territory, which the dominant male marks out by urinating around the perimeter.

The nucleus of the pack is the dominant reproductive pair, which may stay together all their lives. The wolf reaches reproductive maturity at 22 months. The female produces a litter of 3–7 cubs once a year, in spring, after a pregnancy of about 63 days. While she is suckling them, the male feeds her. When they are weaned, the cubs are fed on food regurgitated by the adult members of the pack. Other pack-members, apart from the parents, help to rear the cubs, bringing them food and protecting them. Young wolves who are going to leave the pack start to do so at the age of about one year, gradually moving out of the area in which they were born in search of territory of their own.


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The wolf in Greece occupies a great variety of habitats, from degraded, hilly areas to densely forested mountains. The greater numbers are found in mountainous and semi-mountainous areas with low human population. Up until the 1930’s the species distribution extended to the whole of the mainland country. The wolf was exterminated from the region of Pelloponisos to the south prior to the 1940’s and from the Prefectures of Voiotia and southern Fokida (Central Greece) in the 1960’s. Re-establishment of wolf numbers begun in the 1980’s due to the abandonment of the bounty system and the use of poisoned baits. Population numbers seem to be stable in most parts of its range, with a possible increase in its southern distribution. Today, wolf distribution extends from Thrace in north-eastern Greece, to Voiotia in southern Central Greece. Although small gaps between wolf territories exist, there is no evidence of complete fragmentation between neighbouring wolf areas.

Potential fragmentation or lower genetic flow rate barriers include the Axios River and the Thessaloniki-Skopje highway in the north, as well as the construction of the Egnatia Highway running east-west from the Ionian Sea to the borders with Turkey.

For the most recent data on the distribution of large carnivores in Europe you can visit the website of EU, where you can find in pdf format the brochure of IEA/LCIE, for the research of which Callisto has also contributed.

You can also visit the official online database for the status of the 5 carnivore species in Europe and the Balkans, which comprises the result of IEA/LCIE project, in which Callisto had the responsibility for the Balkans.

Population status

In the past, wolf population estimates ranged from 3.000 (Min. of Agriculture, 1980) to 300 (Univ. of Athens, 1998) individuals. The LYCOS Project, which was implemented by ARCTUROS from 1998 to 2001 and used various field techniques as well as other available data, estimated the wolf population in the country at approx. 800 individuals or 91 wolf packs. Of those, 126-172 animals live in the region of Central Greece, which was a site of special focus in the project.

In northern Greece wolf numbers seem to be stable during the last ten years, although in certain regions, such as Epirus and Halkidiki, a decline in numbers has been reported, possibly due to the illegal and indiscriminate use of poisoned baits. In areas of the southern range of its distribution, wolf presence has changed from periodical to regular during the last 10-15 years. There is no evidence, however, that this positive trend corresponds with an overall increase of wolf densities. Short-term number fluctuations have been reported all over Greece, but these are mostly due to periodic cycles of extermination and decolonisation processes. Overall wolf range expansion is not evident in areas where the species has been absent for a long period of time.

Conflicts with humans

Wolves cause considerable damage to livestock in Greece. For the year 1998, about 1503 cases of damages caused by wolves and/or dogs were compensated from the national farmers’ insurance authority (ELGA). From the analysis of the data derived from the same source and for the years 1996-1998, it follows that the areas with no wolf presence have seven (7) times less damage (measured at attacks per 1000 sq.km) compared to areas with regular use presence. Stray/ferral dogs probably cause damages to livestock in the former areas. 

Confirmed attacks to small livestock (sheep and goats) amount to 48% of the total attacks.  The percentage of attacks to cattle and calves is about 47%, while about 5% of the attacks concern mules, horses and donkeys. Wolf attacks to dogs are also common in certain areas and seem to be a local habit/adaptation of specific wolf packs.

wolf attacks

Surplus killing its also common in all wolf-occupied areas, but the total percentage of these cases is low. The total amount of money that was paid as compensation for Canidae damage to livestock in the municipalities were wolves exist, is approx. 205 million GDR (about 603.000 US$) per year (mean value for the period 1996-1998).  For the year 1998, 880 cattle of all age classes were compensated (245.000$), 2908 goats (150.700$) and 2986 sheep (170.455$). There is a minimum level of damage to livestock below which no compensation is given. This is four sheep/goats or one calf with more than one year of age. Thus, many small attacks are left uncompensated, which when added over a year can result in a serious loss of animals and income.

The most common preventive methods include nighttime enclosures, restriction of young animals from free-grazing, attendance of the flocks by the shepherds and use of guarding dogs. The last practice has been a tradition for thousands of years that is nowadays declining, mostly due to the changing methods of grazing. Furthermore, the traditional breed of the Greek Sheepdog, which is ideally adapted for that role, is almost extinct due to crossbreeding with stray dogs and neglect by shepherds and State alike.


Wolf is classified as a vulnerable species according to the red data book of Greek Fauna. It is protected since 1991, but law enforcement is rare. Local forestry services usually "accept" illegal killing of wolves by shepherds or poachers, which is very widespread and common in the whole wolf range. This situation is accepted by local forest services usually due to the high rates of wolf damage. Illegal killing of wolves is considered a way not only to reduce damages to livestock, but also mainly to reduce tensions. Moreover, as the existing compensation system does not cover the majority of wolf depredation events and official involvement in damage prevention activities is negligible, there is nothing left to do than allowing illegal wolf control. Even in the few cases where legal wolf control takes place, this is not based on biological or other well-defined criteria. Most local inhabitants, including local forestry service personnel, consider the total protection of the wolf controversial and undesirable.

Only in cases where persecution of wolves becomes widely known through media (TV), are competent authorities forced to enforce the relevant legislation.

Special issues

  • Hybridisation: There is no evidence of wolf hybridisation with stray/feral dogs in Greece. DNA analysis performed in 1999 in 33 wolf samples showed that genetic differentiation between Greek wolf and dog populations was significant, which suggest that there is very limited gene flow. If hybridisation between wolves and dogs is ongoing in Greece it is very rare. Only one wolf sample has been assigned to the dog population and was the only sample, which was collected from a not well-preserved and recognizable animal. Scull characteristics indicate that this sample was probably a dog that was mistakenly considered as a wolf.
  • Stray/feral dogs: Their presence is a common occurrence in most rural areas investigated (60%). Stray/feral dogs can be found in or near villages, in garbage dumps, near slaughterhouses or even high on the mountains. They may cause considerable damage to livestock, as is evidence in areas without wolves, but reports rarely differentiate between damages by wolves or dogs, as they are both being compensated. Thus, in many cases wolves are blamed for these damages as well. In areas where both wolves and stray dogs exist, the latter often become prey for the wolves.
  • Wild ungulates: Four species of wild ungulates exist in Greece. Wild boar (Sus scrofa) is widespread in Continental Greece where locally can reach high densities.

Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) is also widespread in continental Greece but it does not seem to exist in substantial densities although its hunting is not permitted outside the few controlled hunting reserves.

In the contrary wild boar is heavily hunted all over its distribution.

Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) population does not exceed a total number of 600 animals forming small and isolated groups in remote mountain areas. Chamois is a protected species in Greece, but local poaching persists.

Red deer (Cervus elaphus) is actually extinct in Greece. Only one re-introduced small population of 130 animals lives near Athens (NP of Parnitha). Sporadic appearances have been also recorded in Rhodope Mountains in the borders with Bulgaria.

From the 91 wolf territories defined through the dissemination of the questionnaire in a percentage of 65% of them, both wild boar and roe deer presence was also recorded. In a percentage of 18% only presence of wild boar was recorded. In the rest of wolf occupied areas (17%) neither of the two species was present.

Threats to the species

Human-caused mortality appears to be one of the main threats for the wolf, as the species is extremely well adapted to the degradation and constant changes of its habitat. Although the wolf is a protected species in Greece since 1991, official control is rare and only in cases where confirmed damages to livestock are reported. Actually, this kind of control rarely occurs. During the period 1995-1997 only 17 wolves were killed by authorized permission and all were in the same controlled hunting reserve. Thus, official hunting data cannot contribute to an estimation of the numbers of wolves killed each year.

From the analysis of 415 cases of of human-caused wolf fatalities reported by local people (direct evidence) during years 1990-1998, a total of 555 killed animals were found. 448 of these where adult and/or yearlings and 107 were pups. Since the killing of wolves is prohibited by the Greek legislation, many people are afraid to give data for dead wolves, so it is not possible to make an accurate estimation..


The methods presented at the graph are the following:

  1. Accidental meeting with wolf (0.2%).
  2. Accidental death of wolf after collision with automobile ( 3.5% ).
  3. Death of wolf after ingesting poisoned bait ( 7.2 % ).
  4. Killing of wolf pups at / or near wolf dens after accidental or by purpose discovery ( 8.5% ).
  5. Killing of wolf with rifle after an ambush near a wolf- killed livestock carcass ( 10.6% ).
  6. Killing of wolf with rifle during hunting season for other game species - especially during wild boar hunting (14.2 %).
  7. Killing of wolf with rifle with or without shepherd dog assistance, during or soon after wolf attack to livestock (23.5%).
  8. Killing of wolfs with rifle after organized drive hunts especially for wolves (32.4%).

The most common methods used to kill wolves are shotguns and poisoned baits. Although the latter method has been officially completely banned since 1993, it is still widely practiced in rural areas for predator control. Together with wolves, other wildlife species die from the baits (bears, birds of prey), as well as domestic animals (shepherd and hunting dogs). A small percentage (3.5%) of wolf deaths is attributed to road accidents.

Habitat fragmentation mainly due to the construction of large-scale works presents another danger for the wolf population. High-speed motorways without “green bridges” or wildlife under-passages are an unsurpassable obstacle that isolate sub-populations and prohibit gene flow between neighbouring packs. In some cases this can lead to extensive in-breeding and genetic deterioration of the sub-population.

Conservation Measures.

A number of conservation measures need to be taken in order to ensure the viability of the species in the future. These may include:

  • Improved wild ungulate population management in order to ensure a natural prey basis for the wolf.
  • Prevent wolf habitat fragmentation by enforcing Environmental Impact Assessment studies prior to the construction of large-scale public works.
  • Adoption of a National Management Plan for the wolf.
  • Enforcement of existing legislation in order to minimize poaching and use of poisoned baits.
  • Control of stray/feral dogs in rural areas with wolf presence so as to minimize damages to livestock.
  • Promote preventive measures to reduce human-wolf conflicts.
  • Maintain and improve the national livestock compensation system.
  • Implement informational and educational campaigns, especially in areas with wolf populations.

Source: “Draft Action Plan for the conservation of wolves in Europe”. LIFE Project “LYCOS: Conservation of the wolf (Canis lupus L.) and its habitats in Greece”. ARCTUROS, unpublished report prepared by Yorgos Iliopoulos (in Greek).