New life for wolves bred to hunt apartheid's foes

Wolves have long haunted the dreams of humans in cold northern climates, but it was in Africa, where they do not occur naturally, that these animals fulfilled the nightmare of becoming manhunters.

Today in a sanctuary in the forests of Tsitsikamma, on the edge of the South Africa's Indian Ocean coast, lies a sanctuary for wolves that were once part of a bizarre scheme to train these cold-weather carnivores into manhunters on an African battlefield.

Around 40 wolves live in roomy pens that allow them to live as close to a natural life as is possible in a region where daily temperatures can soar to 30 degrees Celsius.

'They have adapted to the climate by moulting twice a year,' says Antonique Simmons, a guide at the Tsitsikamma Wolf Sanctuary. 'In the north they only moult with the arrival of spring.'

The origins of the wolf packs lie in a scheme to breed superdogs to hunt guerillas fighting South Africa's apartheid regime during the 1980s.

Guerillas would lay ambushes for South African troops, place landmines on strategic roads, and attack isolated outposts. With the attack sprung, the insurgents would lose the element of surprise and would flee northwards, on foot, to the safety of their camps in the Angolan bush.

'They [the guerillas] would carry vials of adrenalin with them, and amphetamines,' recalls Johan Pretorius, a former dog handler who took part in the hot-pursuit operations. 'When they knew we were on the way they would inject this stuff into themselves and run. They would run for two days at a stretch to try to stay ahead of us.'

Dogs were used to follow the scent of the guerillas, at the head of troops - usually special forces detachments - whose mission was to intercept the insurgents before they were out of reach.

'Sometimes they outran us, and sometimes not,' Mr Pretorius says.

For guerilla soldiers who did not outrun their pursuers, the result was usually death. Dogs are not natural runners, however, and would sometimes collapse from exhaustion, bringing the pursuers to a halt in frustration as their quarry fled into the distance.

An apartheid front company, Roodeplaat Breeding Enterprises - which specialised in chemical warfare - was asked to find a solution. It came up with the idea of creating a superdog that had the strength of a wolf but the trainability of a German shepherd.

Scientists at Roodeplaat imported half a dozen wolves from North America and began cross-breeding them with dogs. The results were disappointing. Tougher than their domestic cousins, the wolf-dogs proved hard to train.

'Wolves have an impatient nature,' Ms Simmons says. 'They obey the leader of the pack through submissive behaviour, but in time they will want to challenge the alpha male. They just don't take to training.'

The alpha male - in the case of military animals this would have been the human trainer - would eventually lose his ability to control his hybrid creature.

The project was abandoned when the bush war came to an end in 1988. The remaining wolves and their hybrid offspring were dispersed, many ending up with breeders taken with the idea of owning a superdog.

Like the military, however, private owners and breeders quickly found the creatures hard to train, unpredictable and, ultimately, a danger to humans. They attack and kill domestic dogs because they read playfulness as a challenge and will, sooner or later, want to test the authority of their human owners.

About 200 wolves and wolf dogs now exist in South Africa. Slowly, many of these animals are finding their way into sanctuaries like the one in the Tsitsikamma forest.

'They come here to retire,' Ms Simmons says. 'They can live like wolves should and won't have to work.' Or hunt men.