While in Hungary I researched wolves for an essay. Here are the notes from the interview I did with Dávid Sütő from WWF Hungary.
I’m the Programme Leader of the Large Carnivore Programme at WWF Hungary, mainly dealing with human-wildlife conflicts. I got into this work because of the ecosystem aspect, and because working with charismatic species like large carnivores is really interesting. It’s also really interesting that we’re working on the human-wildlife conflict – it’s psychology, social norms and nature resources.
Surrounding large carnivores there can be challenges, because they were missing from almost the whole continent for at least 50 years. There are four large carnivore species in Europe – the wolverine (which is not occurring in Hungary), the grey wolf, the brown bear and the lynx. We didn’t really have wolves since the 1950s until the early 2000s, so we have to relearn how to live with them.
We consider wolves and bears as generalist species, meaning they are really flexible about their habitat and prey. We also consider them as opportunistic species, meaning they usually choose the most easily available food and other resources. That’s why we have problem bears sometimes in some areas, especially in Romania, because they are easily habituated to badly managed human food waste. They can cause a lot of problems because we’ve forgotten how to live with them.
People moved into towns, livestock keepers turned to a more intensive way of keeping livestock, the forest cover increased, large carnivores have become legally protected, and we stopped persecuting them – so the large carnivores started to come back. It’s a common myth that these are alien species or that they are reintroduced, but it’s actually happening naturally. In Hungary we now have 40-70 wolves.
It’s a bit artificial to consider a country a habitat because wolves do not really care about borders. In Hungary large carnivores mainly occur in the Northern Hungarian mountains in three national parks – Duna-Ipoly National Park, Bükk National Park, and Aggtelek National Park.
In Europe there are 19K wolves at the moment. Wolves are important because they help balance the ecosystem. We call them the guards of the forest. They are helping the trees regenerate and can help to keep invasive species like racoons at bay, leading to a healthier ecosystem. For a fully functioning ecosystem you need apex predators. Deer avoid patches where it’s too easy to be predated, and that can help the forest regenerate. Wolves can have a beneficial effect on deer population by selecting the old or ill individuals. They are opportunists – they don’t want to fight a big buck – so they try to grab the easiest prey.
Wolves are naturally afraid of humans, and that’s true for all large carnivores – but they can learn to find their resources near humans. That’s probably the most dangerous for the species itself, and the humans.
What we’re trying to achieve is to move from conflict to coexistence, and we’re trying to do that in several ways. The easiest is around the preventative tools – electric fences and large guardian dogs. But we also consider it important to involve all the stakeholders – livestock keepers and game managers, hunters, conservationists and even the local public.
The livestock keepers’ concerns are obvious, because depredation happens – but preventative measures can reduce that. Historically we had dog breeds to help protect the livestock. In Hungary we have a breed called kuvasz.
The perception of hunters is not really great in Hungary. They are usually seen as a group who just kill animals for fun. But to take resources in a sustainable way can be acceptable. Hunters have to lease the land where they hunt, and that’s expensive. They also have their conflicts with large carnivores, and sometimes complain that they eat all the prey species – but based on the ecological rules, large carnivores wouldn’t eradicate their prey species because then they would starve.
The survival of apex predators in Hungary really depends on our tolerance. In Europe we have this really long cultural history where the natural and anthropogenic landscapes have mingled. We have a shared landscape with large predators.
In Hungary, all the carnivores are strictly protected – also at an EU level. If for some reason you want to shoot something you think is a stray dog, you’d better be sure about the species.
The problem with all poaching is that these types of cases are usually cryptic. It’s like “shoot, shovel, and shut up”. In the forest there are no witnesses. Poaching is an issue, and not only in Hungary – it’s everywhere. It’s related to the human-wildlife conflicts because the hunters see these species as competition for the deer and livestock keepers as a pest. They shoot these animals because they cause nuisance for them. It’s not really correlated with the damage, it’s more about the perception. And if other locals or members of certain groups think poaching is acceptable or justified, it’s really hard to investigate these types of cases.
It’s really important to have a better understanding of the species to avoid misconceptions.
Wolves usually live in family packs. It’s not really true that they have ‘alphas’ – there are two parents who lead their family pack of four to six, just like humans with their children.
Trying to join another pack can be dangerous – if a lone wolf meets a pack, they might kill them. Being an apex predator is pretty dangerous. You have to battle with prey, and you can injure yourself and then starve to death. Adding to this, roaming long distances, crossing roads and settlements it is not easy and has a risk. Among the pups the mortality is really high. The summer times are not really good for wolves. They’re better at hunting during the cold months – probably because it’s not as easy for prey to hide and they move easier in the snow, although we hardly ever have snow in Hungary anymore.
Knowing that wolves are present can cause fear in people, but wolves are not as dangerous as we think. In Northern Hungary, you’re much more likely to get hurt driving a car than you are to be mauled by a wolf. They are more afraid of us than we are of them. The wild specimens that have lived in nature have not attacked anyone and it is crucial to try to keep it in this way. To keep them wild, never bait them with food. Don’t let them to habituate to us, humans and to our resources.
To avoid the conflicts we recommend some rules to follow. For example if you are with a dog in the forest, you have to keep it on a leash. Take your waste with you, and obviously never feed a large carnivore. If you are visiting a country with large carnivores try to stay on the hiking routes. Try to do your trips in small groups and chat with each other so the animals have a chance to recognize you as a human and have time to get away. And if you meet a large carnivore, stay cool. Usually it will leave you alone. If you feel threatened, you can clap your hands and shout to scare it away.
I’ve always dealt with mammals. You have some kind of kinship with mammals. Because we are mammals too, it’s easier to get in their understanding. But working with mammals is harder than working with other animals like birds. You can see the birds, but if you’re working with mammals, you can see their footprints, scat, maybe some hair – but you never really meet the animal itself. I haven’t met a wolf yet in their natural habitat. Usually only hunters and people who are out in the forest all day meet these types of animals.
Károly, my Hungarian Writers Residency contact, had told me that staying in the Zsolnay Culture quarter in Pécs would be like staying in an art gallery - and it really was. There are statues and bird baths everywhere, beautiful gardens, pop-up art exhibitions, and gorgeous architecture embellished with Zsolnay ceramics and the ornamental, frost-resistant Zsolnay Pyrogranit roof tiles that sparkle in the sun. The still-operating Zsolnay factory sells a range of ceramics, including vases and ornamental animals glazed using the secret, iridescent glazing technique called Eosin, named after the Greek goddess Eos and developed in 1893. The Zsolnay gallery was just one delight along the 'street of shops' that also included a cafe and a chocolate shop.
Hungarian is known as a difficult language to learn, but my husband and I got a surprising long way with the two words we did manage to pick up - szia ("see ya") for hi/bye and kösz ("cursie") for thanks. My husband also said he had a good conversation with a man in a supermarket about apples, even though the man was speaking Hungarian and my husband was speaking English.
Though part of what attracted me to Hungary was the idea of sharing a landscape with animals that don't live in New Zealand, I didn't want to visit any zoos, and after a while I thought I wouldn't see any wildlife at all. But gradually, creatures revealed themselves. First the dogs, then the pigeons, then the skinks, then the cats... and then the birds. I was woken from a siesta one hot afternoon by a tap-tap-tap outside my bedroom window. The tapping creature was (I think) a tiny Eurasian Nuthatch. More mysterious was the alarm that starting going off on the hot nights. It would start once the sun had gone down and only stop before the sun came out, emitting a metronomic peep. After a couple of nights my husband said he thought the alarm was actually a bird. I googled 'bird that sounds like an alarm' and am pretty sure the 'alarm' was actually a Eurasian Scops Owl. The bugs were also interesting - the very pretty and very randy yellow and black moths, red beetles with black spots, and a bug I photographed at a cafe that I later identified as a probable stink bug. When a similar bug made an appearance in our apartment later, it was removed with extreme caution (stink bugs apparently give off a smell like burnt tyres). In the forest we also saw emerald-green beetles that looked as though they'd been glazed with the Zsolnay factory's eosin glaze. The landscape was different, too. Train rides revealed vast fields of beautiful sunflowers on Hungary's plains. Even the clouds were different from New Zealand clouds. And the weather was different, with several mid-summer thunderstorms.
I was in Hungary to write, but having come from the other side of the world, I wanted to soak up as much Hungarian culture as I could, too. While in Pécs I saw and experienced some of the delights the city has to offer - the ornate Basilica, the oldest university in Hungary (established in 1367), the Jakovali Hassan Mosque (a church with an interesting history) with its beautifully decorated dome, and the Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs. The Necropolis featured a display of unearthed artefacts. For a time I worked to support the New Dunedin Hospital rebuild, and when the archaeologists excavated the site we were amazed by the 1800s bottles they unearthed. This bottles on display in the Necropolis dated back to around 500 AD!
Before visiting Hungary I had also heard about 'fruit soup', which I really wanted to try. I never did see sour cherry soup on a menu, but in Pécs I tried apple soup - and I also had a mixed berry and cherry soup several times from a diner near my apartment - a recipe that I think would make a perfect New Zealand Christmas dish. I'm vegetarian, so some traditional Hungarian foods were off the menu for me, but I really loved the foods I did try, which included cucumber salad, a beautiful hot pea dish from the diner, battered zucchini, a street food dinner of lángos (fried bread with sour cream and cheese). In general it was pretty easy being vegetarian in Hungary, though the food options were a little limited at the train stations. Fresh produce was abundant and we bought beautiful tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, fresh figs, apricot and mascarpone tarts, and flowers from an outdoor market nearby. The Hungarian cakes are also incredible. I think I will always regret not trying the strawberry soup we saw advertised outside a restaurant in Budapest - but I did have a slice of the most incredible strawberry cake at the Palace Hotel.
There was so much art to enjoy in Pécs - a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, the Vasarely Museum, and the Festival of Light, which provided free entertainment such as circus performers, live music, and incredible animated lightshows projected onto the Basilica. The day after we left, the city held a Roman festival, and through Károly's photos I saw the streets filled with people in authentic-looking costume.
I had an idea for an essay about wolves, so part of my time in Hungary was spent following the thread of that idea. For writing research I wanted to climb the hills behind Pécs, past the Zoo and up to the TV tower. On the way we spotted a Victor Vasarely artwork in the wild, walked through the 1930s stone Gates of Mecsek into the Mecsek Forest, and wondered about the animals we could hear rustling in the undergrowth. Apparently a creature called a dormouse lives in the forests - a small, mouse-like creature with big eyes and a bushy tail.
As part of my writing research I also headed north to beautiful Lillafüred - a place that everyone who's a romantic at heart would absolutely love. We crossed the country to reach the tourist resort, which is in the Bükk Mountains in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county. I'd read a novel set in a similarly grand estate in the Zemplén mountains before coming to Hungary. When we arrived, I felt as if I'd stepped into a fairy tale. The town has inspired poetry and films, and between the waterfall, the swallows, the hanging garden and the forest train, I could see why. The Palace Hotel, where we were staying, has a long and intriguing history. The hotel became a military hospital for wounded Russian soldiers during WWII, and later became a resort for employees of the National Council of Trade Unions. It's been a hotel again since 1993, and it was the most beautiful hotel I've ever stayed at. We saw several couples getting their wedding photos taken in the beautiful surroundings. From Lillafüred we also made a day trip to the small town of Hidasnémeti, the site of a scene in my essay.
We met a lot of wonderful people. From our perspective at a day-to-day-level level we didn't find the cultural differences too marked, and people were very warm and friendly. A favourite moment was my encounter with a man who worked at the dairy across the road. One morning I wanted some canned fruit for breakfast, so I popped over to the dairy. We didn't have a can opener in our apartment and none of the fruit tins in the shop had pull tabs, so I mimed wanting to buy a can opener. The man mimed that I could probably stab the can open with a big knife, but eventually he opened the can himself with a can opener from out the back, and even indicated that he could give me a spoon and let me eat the fruit in his courtyard if I wanted to. It was a lovely start to the day.
My residency contact Károly was very warm and hospitable, and provided me with lots of useful information that I used in my writing. I also did an online interview with reporter Reka Mohay for the Pécs newspaper. I had the opportunity to meet her on my last morning in Pécs. I really enjoyed our coffee together, and Reka also gave me some really good writing and reading leads. When I left Károly gifted me a literary journal. Featuring international writers such as Roxanne Gay alongside Hungarian writers and writers commenting on aspects of Hungarian culture (I found the piece about 'Hungarian Indians' especially fascinating!), it's been a wonderful companion as I've made my slow way home through Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Auckland.
By the time I left Hungary I'd finished a first draft of my wolf essay. Moe importantly, I'd stored away a lifetime of memories that will help me with my writing for years to come. In the shorter term, I intend to use some of the details from the trip to colour the short stories for a collection I'm working on called Delight. In the longer term, my life has been enriched by this experience - and I know it will enrich my writing, too.
Thanks to the Hungarian Writers Residency and also to the Winston Churchill McNeish Fellowship.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from Victoria University Wellington - Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin with her two rescue cats.