Where did the white wolf come from in Mangistau?

In recent days, the mass media of Kazakhstan have reported the recording of a white wolf sighting using a camera trap on the territory of the Manashi Regional Wildlife Refuge in Mangistau region. Obviously, the interpretation of this undoubtedly interesting and rare event offered by the media is not quite accurate from a zoological point of view and requires additional comments from specialists.

Photo of a white wolf from a camera trap installed by the staff of the Kyzylsai Nature Park

So, the photo of a white wolf was obtained by the staff of the regional natural park "Kyzylsai", which actually consists of several clusters, including the reserve "Manashi", located along the northern end of the Western Chink of the Ustyurt Plateau in the territory of Beineu district of Mangistau region. This photo, among other numerous photographs of wild animals, was obtained as part of the Kyzylsai Park staff's participation in a long-term international project to study and protect wild cats, including the pronghorn leopard, in Kazakhstan. The project started in May 2023, supported by a grant from National Geographic and the Segré Foundation and the participation of Conservation X Labs.

More information about the project is available on the website of the public foundation "Biodiversity Research and Conservation Centre" (BRCC), which is the main executor of this project in Kazakhstan: https://www.brcc.kz/en/projects-and-plans/study-and-protection-of-large-cats/

ACBK is also involved in the implementation of the project: https://www.acbk.kz/.

The wolf is a very plastic species: it inhabits a wide variety of natural zones, from arctic tundras to tropical forests and deserts. Throughout its range, the wolf forms a significant number of subspecies, which, in general, differ in colouration and size. For example, in the north of Eurasia there is the Arctic or tundra wolf, which is characterised by its particularly large size and the predominance of individuals with almost white winter fur colouration.

IMPORTANT: As a rule, grey colour prevails in the colouration of wolf fur, however, the colouration of the coat of a particular wolf is determined by its individual genetic features and can vary widely: from white to reddish, grey and black with all possible transitions. Such variability occurs throughout the entire range of the wolf, and in one brood the wolf cubs can be coloured differently. That is, ordinary grey wolves can sometimes give birth to wolf cubs of almost white, reddish-grey or black colour, although this is quite rare.

In the whole territory of Kazakhstan, including the Mangistau region, there is currently one single species of wolf - the common wolf (Latin name - Canis lupus). Conventionally, it is considered that there are 4 subspecies of wolf in Kazakhstan, including the so-called steppe wolf - in western and central Kazakhstan, but the real intraspecific systematics of wolf in Kazakhstan is insufficiently studied.

Thus, the occurrence of a wolf with almost white winter fur in the territory of Mangistau region in no way means the appearance of some new species (or subspecies) of wolves here from outside. It is only about the manifestation of a rare combination of genes that led to the appearance of such an unusual for Kazakhstan wolf colouration.

The same can be said about the meeting of the "red wolf" in the Mangystau region two years ago. The real red wolf (Latin name Cuon alpinus) is a separate species of the canid family found in the mountains of Central and South Asia. In Kazakhstan, until the middle of the twentieth century, isolated encounters of the red wolf were noted exclusively in the Tien Shan mountains. Currently, the species is considered extinct on the territory of Kazakhstan and, naturally, in no case could it have appeared on the territory of the Mangystau region.

By the way, it should be emphasized that the white wolf in the photo is not an albino, because his nose and eyes have the usual color (in an albino they would be pink). Scientists call such individuals of various species that have a white coat or feathers, but are not albinos, leucists: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leucism

Interestingly, almost simultaneously with the white wolf – within one minute – the same camera trap recorded another wolf of ordinary gray color. It is obvious that these animals are from the same pack, which once again indirectly confirms the diversity of color of wolves within the species, subspecies, population and pack. By the way, pay attention – this second wolf is missing its right hind leg. It is quite obvious that this was the result of the animal falling into a trap, after which the wolf chewed off his paw to save his life.

Leaving aside the moral and ethical side of using leg-grabbing traps for trapping large animals, let's ask the question: who will this crippled wolf be able to hunt now? Obviously, not being able to catch up with a wild animal, he will have to attack domestic animals. Thus, a person, using traps, provokes conflict with a predator himself.

Photo of a common-colored wolf with traumatic amputation of the right hind paw from a camera trap installed by the staff of the Kyzylsai Nature Park

In 2015, the media widely circulated a photo of the rarest Eurasian leopard illegally captured with a large-sized snare in Karakiyan district of Mangistau region: https://tumba.kz/zhizn-regiona/11-zhizn-regiona/8500-ubili_leoparda.html

Earlier, in Mangistau region, we personally repeatedly encountered the facts of setting large-sized traps at watering places of gazelles and urials. And this is done, as a rule, under the pretext of "fighting wolves". It is quite obvious that when setting a trap "on wolves" other specially protected "red-listed" animals, such as caracal, honeyeater and golden eagle, may suffer and actually die. We consider it necessary to initiate a broad discussion with the participation of specialists and members of societies of hunters and fishermen of Kazakhstan on the possibility of a complete ban on the use of large-sized traps, at least in those areas where "red-listed" species of predators (leopard, snow leopard, caracal, manul, barkhan cat, Turkestan lynx, etc.).

Taking this opportunity, we would also like to remind about the real problem of regional protected areas in Mangistau region. Unfortunately, recently there has been a negative trend of adjusting the areas of protected areas in accordance with the requests of resource extraction companies and local residents engaged in farming. In particular, in 2021, the Tepke site was removed from the central part of the Manashy regional nature reserve by the decision of the regional Akimat, and the area of the reserve decreased by 55,455 hectares. Exploration and drilling operations for hydrocarbon production are currently being carried out in the Tepke site, which has a serious impact on the preservation of the natural complexes of the reserve.

In general, I would like to congratulate my colleagues from the Kyzylsai Nature Park with a rare and very interesting phototrophy - a photo of a white wolf - leucist. This fact, thanks to social networks, has already become widely known to specialists from different countries and caused a discussion about the genetics of the wolf population in Mangistau and the feasibility of studying it by collecting DNA samples (for example, from samples of wolf droppings). I wish all participants of the project on study and protection of wild cats in Kazakhstan new successes and achievement of the main result - new photo-confirmations of the presence of the pronghorn leopard in Mangistau.

In conclusion, I would like to ask everyone who cares about the Wildlife of Mangistau: please report sightings of rare animals - your data will be very useful to specialists. Contact for communication: mobile: +7 (701) 757 00 51, e-mail: office@brcc.kz.

Mark Pestov, Ph.D., member of the project team for the study and protection of wild cats in Kazakhstan

Leave a Comment