Wolves once had the widest distribution of any nonhuman mammal. On every inhabited continent and a surprising number of islands, the wolf was established as either the apex predator or an important link in the chain of predators and prey. They outcompeted or held their niche against bears, big cats, and a variety of predatory mammals that have gone extinct while the wolf has survived. The species even outlasted its larger, more powerful cousin, the dire wolf. A fascinating footnote is that some cryptozoologists are not certain the dire wolf is gone: there are scattered accounts from across the Arctic regions of the waheela, a larger, more heavily built, and more powerful “super-wolf.” Occasionally such reports emerge further south, as with a spate of frightening encounters with an unknown predator in Arkansas in 2006. Native Americans in Montana and the Dakotas spoke of the Shunka warak'in, a strange-looking wolf with a hyena-like appearance. In this case, there is actually a mounted specimen, not especially large but very strange-looking, killed in 1886 and now being tested after being lost for decades.
There are many creatures, inside and outside the genus Canis, called wolves. We all know the grey wolf, but few know of the long-legged maned wolf of South America or its extinct relation the Falklands wolf. Fewer still know of the ghostlike Andean maned wolf, also known as Hagenbeck’s mountain dog, an uncertain species described from skins that indicate a dark-furred animal with shorter legs but a larger mane and a more powerful, fearsome appearance than the “fox on stilts” look of the known maned wolf.
In North America, a relentless campaign of extermination has resulted in the demise of at least six subspecies of Canis lupus. Not surprisingly, two of the most spectacular types were among the first to depart this planet. The Newfoundland wolf, often a solid white in color and weighing well over 100 pounds, became extinct about 1911. The even larger Kenai wolf probably vanished from its Alaskan range about 1915. Today, we know very little about either species except the simple fact that we will never see them again. The smaller red wolf, Canis rufus, almost disappeared as well. Weighing 40 to 70 pounds and clad in a tawny and cinnamon coat with black or gray markings, this species was restricted to the southeastern U.S. The Texas subspecies is extinct after having survived into the early 1970s. The Mississippi red wolf, driven into the most miserable swamps of Texas and Louisiana, was extinct in the wild by 1980. Its genetic shadow lives in a population of hybrid coyotes into which the last handful of wild red wolves - inbred, sick, and unable to find mates of their own kind - deposited their legacy. (While some experts are unsure of the red wolf’s status as a separate species, American conservation authorities continue to treat it as one.)
Fortunately, a captive population was bred from fourteen red wolves trapped between 1973 and 1979. Beginning in 1987, a few wolves were released onto government-owned land in North Carolina, and other reintroduction projects are underway. There are now over 300 red wolves in captivity or in the reintroduction areas.
As mentioned earlier, Even the island nation of Japan had its wolf – or, actually, wolves. An epidemic wiped out the already-declining population of wolves on the northern island of Hokkaido sometime before 1912. This was the Edo (or Ezo) wolf, a medium-sized, largely grey subspecies designated Canis lupus hattai. There have been a few sighting reports made since the animal’s demise, but these are not generally regarded as strong evidence for survival.
The most mysterious of all wolf tales, though, is the fate of the Honshu wolf, known in Japan as the yamainu or shamainu. The yamainu is normally listed as a wolf subspecies, Canis lupus hodophilax, although the animal was originally described as a separate species, C. hodophilax. A few modern specialists, such as Dr. Yoshinori Imaizumi, have argued this unique identity should be resurrected.
The yamainu was the smallest race of wolf that we know of from anywhere in the world. It was only about fourteen inches high at the shoulder and had disproportionately short legs for a wolf of any sort. It might be said that the nation which gave the world the subcompact car also developed the subcompact wolf.
Centuries ago, the diminutive wolf was looked on favorably in Japanese culture. Folk tales often cast the animal as a friend or guardian of humans. Despite this, the yamainu still had the air of mystery humans have always ascribed to wolves. This may have been due to the species’ vocalizations. These wolves reportedly howled for hours at a time, giving voice to a haunting wail that seemed far too loud to come from such a small animal. To the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, the yamainu was the “Howling God.”
As Western-style farming and the keeping of domestic animals increased, the yamainu took on more of the aura of a threat. By the late nineteenth century, the yamainu had, in many areas, reverted to the role of wolves everywhere – that of enemy of the human race. It was hunted for its fur, because of the alleged threat it posed to livestock, and because of the danger created by occasional rabid specimens. In areas where wolf sightings were once ignored or welcomed, villagers posted magical charms to ward off wolves or actively pursued the animals with traps, weapons, and poison. Governments placed bounties on the animals. As the species became rarer (and thus even less of a real threat), the persecution intensified – an illogical reaction which has occurred many times in many lands where wolves are concerned.
It is commonly believed that the last Japanese wolf was killed in 1905. At the site of this event, in Higashi-Yoshino Village in Nara Prefecture (one of the southernmost prefectures, or states, on the main island of Honshu), a requiem ceremony is carried out each year. The Japanese have exterminated their wolf, but not without regret.
Or have they? There is Japanese saying that “The wolf can hide behind a single reed.” There may be something to it.
Occasional sighting reports have kept the question of the Honshu wolf’s existence open for almost a century now. Brent Swancer, an American cryptozoological researcher living in Japan, unearthed a photograph of a wolf killed in 1910. In 1934, a group of farmers northwest of Hongu reported seeing five or six wolves in a pack. After World War II, sightings increased. According to forester and writer Ue Toshikatsu, this was a logical development, since conscription and war reduced the population of rural areas and produced an increase in the numbers of wild game such as boar and deer.
Sighting reports dropped off again in the late 1950s. Ue Toshikatsu noted that, in this period, forests and wildlife were again under pressure from development. He suggested the wolf survived its presumed demise and began a modest comeback during and after the war, only to meet a final end around 1960.
In 1993, Yanai Kenji published his own story of how, as a mountaineer accompanied by his son and his co-worker, he was startled by a “horrible howling” while hiking toward Ryogami Mountain in 1964. Soon after hearing the howls, the party encountered a lone wolf. The animal watched them briefly, then fled, leaving the half-eaten carcass of a hare behind.
In March 1994, wolf enthusiasts hosted a conference in Nara. Over eighty professional and amateur researchers attended. They presented and analyzed reports from seventy witnesses who had seen wolves or heard howls. An accompanying story in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun stated that a shrine in Tottori Prefecture, just northwest of Nara, was discovered in January 1994 to hold a surprisingly recent specimen of the yamainu. This animal may have been presented to the shrine as recently as 1950.
The largest number of modern sightings have come from the Kii Peninsula. This rugged, mountainous block of land projecting into the Pacific from the southeastern coast of Honshu was the last stronghold of the yamainu.
The photographic evidence, though, has come from other regions. In 1966, a wolf enthusiast named Hiroshi Yagi was driving on a forest road in the central Japanese prefecture of Saitama (well north of the Kii) when he spotted what he believed was a wolf. He stopped, and the animal let him get close while he took photographs. These pictures sparked a renewal of interest, though not all authorities accepted they showed a wolf rather than a domestic dog.
The next claim came from the southern island of Kyushu. On July 8, 2000, school principal and amateur biologist Akira Nishida was hiking on a mountain trail when a canid about three feet in length emerged from the forest and passed within a few yards of him. Nishida whipped out his camera and shot ten pictures. The aforementioned Dr. Imaizumi examined the evidence and said, “I cannot help but think that the animal is a Japanese wolf.” Other scientists were cautious about identifying the animal, but agreed the case deserved investigation. A claim that this, too, was an abandoned dog has divided expert opinion.
Recent expeditions focused on the Kii Peninsula have produced no new evidence, despite trapping efforts and the playing of recorded Canadian wolf howls (this latter tactic seems unlikely to provoke a response from such a differentiated lupine race, but anything is worth a try) . Modern sighting reports that don’t include photographs are hard to interpret: the wolf is beyond living memory in Japan, and some witnesses, at least, no doubt are misidentifying dogs.
Folklorist John Knight suggests the wolf has become a symbol, or metonym, for the place the mountain forests once held in Japanese culture. Such forests were viewed as lands of mystery and danger. In short, the continuing interest in wolves exists because people want to believe the wildness, the mystery, is still “out there,” despite the slender nature of the evidence. This may well be true, but it doesn’t answer the question: is the wolf extinct, or are there nights when, on Japan’s loneliest mountaintops, the Howling God still speaks?
Matt Bille is a science writer and cryptozoologist in Colorado Springs. See his website at http://www.mattwriter.com/
Special thanks to artist Bill Rebsamen (the photos in the post) and to cryptozoologist Angel Morant Fores for providing Japanese publications translated into English by Ishizawa Naoya.