Hunters have shot dead Belgium’s first wild wolf in more than a century, conservationist groups monitoring the resurgent species have said.
Naya, a she-wolf, has been missing since May. Scientists and associations watching her since she was first spotted in Belgium in January 2018 fear the worst.
Her male companion, who entered Belgium after Naya, is now exhibiting signs of being a lone wolf once more, experts said. Naya was pregnant when she was last seen in May on one of the 60 wildlife cameras set up in rural Limburg, close to the Dutch border.
“I am 100 percent sure that Naya was shot. It is the only plausible explanation," said Sil Janssen, of the Natuurhulpcentrum in Oudsbergen, which is in the eastern Flemish region that Naya made her territory.
“Hunters have free rein in the area,” Mr Janssen told the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper. “They may hunt wild boars there, but if they suddenly have a wolf in front of them, they will not hesitate. "
Hubertus Vereniging Vlaanderen, a Flemish hunting association, demanded Mr Jannssen provide evidence or take back the accusation.
“This is pure suspicion and an attempt to blacken an entire sector without having the necessary material evidence. Has he seen remains? Does he know the name of the so-called perpetrator?”, said Geert Van den Bosch, director of the association.
Jan Loos, of WelkomWolf (Welcome Wolf), said that hunters were to blame for Naya’s suspected death.
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“I’ve had phone calls and voice messages in which hunters were threatening to kill them. They literally announced it,” he told the Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper.
Mr Jannssen said that wolves do not die in childbirth or move away from their territory once they have cubs. He said that if Naya had been hit by a car, the conservationists would have found out by now.
“I can’t prove she was shot, but you don’t have to be clairvoyant to see that," he said, “the other scenarios are not really an option.”
Belgium’s Nature and Forest agency have not confirmed Naya’s death. No body has been found and the agency continues to investigate her disappearance.
Naya made international headlines in 2018 when she travelled 310 miles in ten days from Germany, through the Netherlands and into eastern Belgium.
Until then, Belgium was the only country in continental Europe to have not reported a wild wolf sighting, environmental group Landschap said at the time.
Wolves disappeared from most of Western Europe from the beginning of the 20th century because of hunting, growing cities and industrialisation but are now recolonising the continent.