"Which is worse? The wolf who cries before eating the lamb or the wolf who does not."— Leo Tolstoy

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Wolves of Chong Kemin

Anyone who has read Jack London novels "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang," or the short story "To Build a Fire," cannot help but come away from the experience fascinated by wolves. The video advertisement embedded in this post captures the mythopoeic majesty of the predator-prey dialectic. It also displays a common tendency of city folk - that was also present in Jack London's writings - to anthropomorphize wolves.  Like most advertising, the video stands reality on its head, and the conclusion of the story is pure fantasy, and a very different result from the fate of the protagonist in "To Build a Fire."

The ad campaign's slogan - "it's in our nature" - is revealing  in a way entirely different from what the sponsor had intended.   The predator-prey dialectic  is so deeply ingrained in our DNA that the most humans can hope for is to control as best we can the instinct to prey upon the weak and powerless in sublimation to constructs that we characterize as either  a social contract or a divine covenant. This instinct to take advantage of weakness to our own benefit manifests itself, like the layers of an onion, in just about every aspect of every activity in nearly every human society.

Jack London - in addition to his novels and short stories - also wrote "The People of the Abyss,"a book that  I consider to be one of the best works of literary nonfiction  ever written.  In 1902 Jack London changed into threadbare clothes and descended into the miasmic slums of London's East End.  The People of the Abyss, published in 1905,  chronicled the author's experiences living among the wreckage of humanity created by the Industrial Revolution. The conclusions he drew about society and government are powerful, and as timely today as they were when they were written over one hundred years ago:
The unfit and the unneeded! The miserable and despised and forgotten, dying in the social shambles. The progeny of prostitution--of the prostitution of men and women and children, of flesh and blood, and sparkle and spirit; in brief, the prostitution of labour. If this is the best that civilization can do for the human, then give us howling and naked savagery. Far better to be a people of the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting- place, than to be a people of the machine and the Abyss.
The People of the Abyss : Chapter XXIV--A Vision of the Night

The idea for this blog came to me during my time working in Central Asia as a Long Term Legal Specialist for the American Bar Association's Rule of Law Initiative.  My job was to train defense advocates in the former Soviet Republics about the practical application of abstract concepts such as due process.  Ultimately, the hopes of having a lasting "sustainable" impact were buried by the sucking quicksand of poverty, alcoholism, corruption and ethnic conflict that is endemic to the region. I could not help compare the way most governments operate in Central Asia with its flourishing population of wild wolves who prey upon both man and beast  largely with impunity and without any mercy.

Thee are well over 4,000 wolves roamng the forests of Kyrgyzstan, a country slightly smaller than the U.S. State of South Dakota with 80% of its land mass covered by tall mountains.  On a trip deep into the Chong-Kemin wilderness I heard the wolves howl and saw the destructive power and brutal efficncy of a wolf pack at work.

Warning!  The continuation of this post contains a brief description and images of graphic violence.

A typical Kyrgyz forest.  Mountain ranges over 3,000 meters occupy 80% of the Kyrgyz Republic.  The wilderness here is remote, very rugged and the people who live here have to be just as tough

No deposit no return.  There is not a lot to do after dark in this remote outpost except cut the boredom
with some cut rate vodka.  At least two of those bottle were fresh empties from the night before.
Nearing 3,000 meters with a bad headache. My head hurts just looking at this photo. I had spent
the last twenty  years living  on the East Coast and in the Arizona desert at sea level, had been in
Kyrgyzstan less than a month and hadn't been on a horse since i was twelve years old.

Above 4,000 meters.  Without a doubt the coldest place I have ever been.  At this altitude the weather is unpredictable and changes quickly. It started to snow shortly after the this photo was taken.
How high we were going and the weather we could expect were somehow lost in translation and I was unprepared for the conditions. You can't tell because of the lack of vegetation but there were strong winds that cut through my jacket like daggers. I started shivering badly and I knew if we didn't leave soon there was a good chance I would develop hypothermia, a difficult concept to explain to a Russian speaker when you speak no Russian. It is an understatement to say that Kyrgyz mountain men brook no truck with sissies. They don't want to hear about your discomfort unless you have a compound fracture, and then only to acknowledge that there might be a logistical problem in getting you off the mountain.

It was a full hard day of travel up above 4,000 meters and back down again. we came across a fresh wolf kill near a remote ranchero far from any village.  The horse had been stripped clean before its blood - which soaked the ground around the carcass - had even had a chance to dry. A large chunk of flesh and  sinew and cartilage  had been ripped from its throat, leaving a ragged semi-circle in the flesh. All of the internal organs had been eviscerated leaving a gaping, glistening red hole in the torso. The horse's eyes were still open, fixed wide with the terror that occupied itl's last moments.

To understand the ferocity of the violence that was inflicted it is important to realize just how tough Kyrgyz mountain horses are.  Although relatively short in stature compared with European and American horses.   They are very strong, nimble  and sure footed.  The Kyrgyz mountain men take these horses to high inaccessible places where American horses could never go, and they trust them daily with their lives. It must have taken incredible power and strength to bring this horse to the ground.  

We drove up to the ranch house to tell the rancher about the fate of his horse and learned that he  had lost a horse a week over the past month to a recently arrived wolf pack. He had no gun with which to protect his stock,and was facing financial ruin if his brother did not return soon from the nearest village with the poison he would bait inside a horse carcass as a final solution to his wolf problem.

Stories of ranchers and villagers being set upon by wolves is not uncommon in Southern Russia and the former Soviet Republics.

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