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Devils in the Darkness
The Korean Gray Wolf was a terror for miners
Robert Neff (neff)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-05-23 16:33 (KST)   
Life in Korea prior to modernization was often short-lived. Diseases, accidents, and wild animal attacks were common. With so much of Korea covered in mountainous wilderness and forests, especially in the northern part of the peninsula, attacks by wild animals were common. Surprisingly, tigers were not the most dangerous animals to the Koreans, especially children: it was the gray wolves that claimed this dubious honor.

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Gray wolves once roamed the wilds of the northern, central and parts of the southern Korean Peninsula in small packs. They mainly inhabited deep forests and sparsely wooded lands, but would hunt the fields and pastures of Korean farmers when food became scarce and hunting the domesticated animals of the farmer, or even the farmer and his family, was easier -- especially during the winter

A look back at the newspapers from the past reveal just how extensive wolf attacks upon humans were. According to the Japanese Police Bureau in Korea, in 1928 28 Koreans were killed and 53 three were seriously wounded by wild animals, with most of the attacks done by the top-five predators.

Predator................Human Victims.................Cattle Lost
Tiger...........................1.......................................103
Leopards....................3.......................................272
Bears.........................0.........................................26
Wolves.....................48.....................................3,396
Boars..........................4........................................33

Having researched the Western mining concessions in Korea (1897-1939), I am keenly aware of just how much the wolf figured into the lives of the miners. Although wolves were a part of everyone's lives at the mining communities, it was the children of these miners that remember them the most vividly in their writings -- perhaps because they were all too aware of their place on the wolves' food chain.

Charles John Pedersen, a great chemist and Nobel Prize winner, was born in Busan in 1904. His father was a Norwegian named Brede who first came to Korea as part of the crew of a steamship that the Korean government had purchased from Europe. Brede eventually gave up the life of a seaman when his first son died while he was at sea and instead took up the life of a miner -- first at the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company [OCMC] and then later at the French Concession at Taiyudong. For most of Charles's life he lived in Japan and the United States, but he did spend one year at the OCMC's mines at Unsan in 1908. He recalled his year spent at the mines and the animals that dwelt within the wilderness that surrounded them:
쏧 spent my first and last winter at the mines when I was 4 years old. The region was known for severe weather due to the confluence of the Siberian steppes, Mongolian Gobi Desert and the mountains of Korea. Large Siberian tigers still roamed the countryside and were frightened away with bells on the pony harnesses. Wolves killed children during the cold winter nights, and foxes slept on roofs against the chimneys to keep warm.
James Blain, a son of a miner from Indiana, remembered that the wolves often came down from the surrounding hills and mountains, and occasionally attacked small children. In Pukchin village, the largest Korean community on the OCMC's concession, James knew a small child that was taken and another little boy who lost his ear to wolves.

Despite the danger, one evening in the early 1920s, when James was about seven or eight, he and another little boy went for a walk in the hills surrounding the mines. Even though they knew that wolves attacked children, they were not afraid. James later explained to his worried parents that he and his playmate knew wolves did not like fire, and, because they carried a torch, knew they were safe.

His younger brother, John, was not as confident and brave when it came to wolves. When he was in Korea nearly ten years later, the wolves were just as bad, if not worse.
쏷he snows were deep; the crust formed, and as you are aware of when the conditions get bad the wolves pack up. I can remember listening to the wolves on a winter's night, hearing them howl, and I can remember on a couple of occasions when they came down and fought with our dogs. I can remember dad shooting at them. I can remember when he would shine his flashlight out in the dark and you would see the reflection off of their eyes and it was just about emeralds sparkling out there in the dark. Of course we were not in danger of them; we had inside plumbing. But the natives not having inside plumbing I can remember especially that winter that there were a number of children attacked and killed by wolves when they went outside to use the toilet.
Wolves continued to plague the Korean countryside long after the tigers became scarce, and for the most part extinct, moving to the top of the food chain. Farmers and rangers, both Korean and Japanese alike, hunted and trapped the wolves extensively not only for their pelts but also as protection for their families and livestock. Despite their best efforts, the wolves continued to flourish.

It would be interesting to know how the wolves fared during the Korean War when so much of the country was destroyed and food more plentiful (in the form of corpses and animal carcasses), and the people better armed. Evidently the wolves were so plentiful in North Korea that in 1959 the North Korean government designated the wolves as nuisances and granted permission for any citizen to hunt them at will. According to surveys performed in the 1980s there were an estimated to be no more than 20 wolves in the Mount Paekdu region, but with the great famines and disasters that plagued the North in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the continued existence of these wolves is uncertain.

Wolves in South Korea fared even worse. With most of the country rapidly being developed and forested and uninhabited lands few, by the early 1960s the Gray Wolf was all but exterminated from South Korea -- with perhaps only a few left in the mountainous regions of Chiri-san and Taebaek-san. There have been reported sightings, the most recent in 1987, but no concrete proof of the wolf's continued existence in the wilds of South Korea.

There have been efforts to save the Korean Gray Wolf from extinction. Some of them have been extreme and highly controversial. In 2005, a team at Seoul National University (SNU) claimed to have cloned two Gray wolves -- named Snuwolf and Snuwolffy -- but this claim has come under the scrutiny of the scientific community and the paper has been withdrawn. The Scientist magazine quoted Robert Lanza, the medical director at Advanced Cell Technology, as saying, "No peer reviewed journal would [remove a paper from its Web site] unless there was a major concern."

Despite their great numbers in the past, the wolves have literally disappeared in the 60-plus years since the Western gold miners left Korea. They, like the tigers, are now stories from the past -- a treasure that has been lost.
Special appreciation to James Card, a naturalist who has done extensive research on Korea's wildlife, past and present.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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