Serbia is home to a wide range of animals, but none resonate quite as strongly within the national consciousness as the proud, brave gray wolf. A hugely important part of Serbian mythology and a recurring character in the nation’s epic poetry, the wolf is more than just a symbol. With that in mind, let’s chat about all things wolf!
Not ‘wolf’ exactly but the Serbian translation of the word. Vuk is an immensely popular name in Serbia and has been for well over a century, and there is nothing coincidental about it. In a historical context, the name was often chosen after a mother had lost a number of children during childbirth. The wildly superstitious Serbs believed this was the work of witches, so a name signifying bravery and strength had to be chosen. Vuk was that name.
While the idea of an actual gray wolf reforming the Serbian language is a magnificent image, that honour goes to the most famous Vuk in history. Vuk Karadžić may have ended his life with one leg and very little in the way of material wealth, but the man from Tršić was the main reformer of the Serbian language in the 19th century. Vuk took the archaic tongue of the church and held up the language of the people, imploring the Serbs to ‘write as you speak and to read as it is written’. He was given his name for the very reason presented in the first part of this piece.
It is unlikely that Alexander Vučić and his government have a wolf in parliament, but many Serbs across the nation will tell you that the social and political decisions made by Serbia show that they are evolved from wolves, not apes. It will often be said that it is impossible to tame a wolf, impossible to make the beasts heel to other powers. This is how many Serbs see their nation on the international stage. Where the UAE takeover of Savamala fits into that, who knows, but that isn’t the point.
The wolf hasn’t always been a symbol of strength and unity for the Serbs, but even before the dogs were taken onboard as a national mascot they held a certain reverence around the villages of the nation. It was actually forbidden to kill wolves in certain parts of the country, as village elders were afraid of the potential consequences of that act. Of course, the wolf population subsequently grew to unmanageable numbers, and the law was removed. The villagers didn’t have to go so far as to poison them though.
The Serbs are generally a little more superstitious than most in Europe, but the fear of the alien big dog might be going a little too far. Two strange, dog-like beasts were found dead near Čačak way back in the mid-‘90s, and nobody really kept it in mind for too long. Half a decade or so later the memories came flooding back however, as masses of sheep were found slaughtered near Jelica. Locals were convinced that NATO had introduced some wolf-like creature to murder them. A year later, similar killings took place around Novi Kneževac. All has been quiet in the 17 years since, but keep one eye open.
In a perfect world, the wolf would be able to exist simply as a revered animal free of negative connotations. Unfortunately we do not live in that utopia, and ‘the wolves’ might mean something very different in another part of the region. The Wolves of Vučjak were a paramilitary organisation active during the Croatian War of Independence and subsequently the conflict in Bosnia, committing unspeakable crimes along their way. The Russian nationalist group the Night Wolves are also popular with nationalist elements within Serbia.
There is more to the humble wolf than paramilitary connotations and boys’ names, as underneath all the bluster and ideology is an animal trying to survive in the wilderness of modern day Europe. ‘Survive’ is the operative word there, too, as food is becoming scarcer all the time. The gray wolf can get by on just 2 1/2 pounds of food per day, although it isn’t going to be having a particularly great time. If the gray wolf finds itself in a bountiful situation, it can devour almost 10 times that amount. Feast or famine indeed.
Unless something has gone dramatically wrong in the private lives of wolves in the country, there is a stable population of 500 gray wolves in Serbia. This is a minor miracle in itself however, as the national animal isn’t afforded any special protection from the state. There is no compensation for livestock losses either, so it is a surprise that farmers haven’t taken the law into their own hands.
Despite its grand position as the national animal, it is still legal to hunt wolves in Serbia. There isn’t even any particular season for this, it is simply legal to grab a gun and go out hunting the gray wolf, provided you own the necessary licence. Shooting and trapping are the most popular kinds, although it remains to be seen how long this remains the case. Why we’re hunting wolves in the 21st century is well and truly baffling.
We’ll finish on a high note after all the nationalism and hunting. The gray wolf is one of the proud animals that finds a mate and sticks with them through thick and thin, mating for life until death they do part. The wolf is often depicted as a scheming beast in the Western world, but that could not be further from the truth. Sure, they will lie in wait until you are vulnerable enough to be attacked, but leave their other half? No way.