The Italian wolf (Canis lupus italicus) is a subspecies of grey wolf native to the Italian Peninsula. It inhabits the mountainous areas of the Apennines and western Alps, though it is undergoing expansion towards the north and east. As of 2005, the Italian wolf population is estimated to consist of 500 individuals. It has been strictly protected in Italy since the 1970s, when the population reached a low of 70–100 individuals. The population is increasing in number, though illegal hunting and persecution still constitute a threat.
The Italian wolf was widespread in the Italian Peninsula, including Sicily, up until the mid 1800s. The extermination of the grey wolf in Italy was not as complete as in Northern Europe, due to greater cultural tolerance of the species.It was largely extirpated in the Alps during the 1920s, and disappeared from Sicily in the 1940s. Its range along the south-central Apennines was still relatively continuous by the 1950s, though this population was reduced in the decades after World War II because of widespread poisoning campaigns. At least 400 wolves were killed between 1960 and 1970, with the population reaching an all-time low in the early 1970s. The last documented wolf in the northern Apennines was killed in Santo Stefano d’Aveto, Genoa in 1946, though this was an isolated individual, as the local wolf population had long been extinct.
The Italian wolf was first given legal protection on 23 July 1971, with a nationwide population census being taken in 1973. This census was funded by the Italian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature as part of a conservation plan dubbed “Operation Saint Francis”. The census revealed that the Italian wolf population consisted of 100–110 individuals distributed throughout a fragmented range in the main mountainous aras of south-central Italy, from the Sibillini to La Sila. In 1983, the population had reached 200–220 individuals inhabiting two unconnected areas in central and southern Italy. By the late 1990s, it was estimated that the Italian wolf population had increased to 400–500 individuals with a continuous distribution along the entire Apennines, from Aspromonte to the Maritime Alps, with some isolated populations in Tuscany and Lazio. In 2008, a wolf carcass was discovered in the Fiemme Valley in Trentino, and by 2010, 45–55 wolves were estimated to have recolonised Piedmont.
By grey wolf standards, the Italian wolf is considered a medium sized subspecies. Their body size varies from 39 to 55 inches in length and weighs 53 to 88 pounds. Females are roughly 10 percent smaller than males. Italian wolves are usually a mix of grey and brown. Though rarely seen, black wolves have been sighted in the Mugello region and the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines.
The Italian Wolf is a nocturnal hunter which feeds primarily on medium sized animals such as Chamois, Roe Deer, Red Deer and Wild Boar. In the absence of such prey items, its diet will also include small animals such as hares and rabbits. An Italian wolf can eat up to 1,5 – 3 kilograms of meat a day. The Italian Wolf will occasionally consume berries and herbs for roughage. The Italian Wolf has adapted well in some urbanised areas and as such, will usually not ignore refuse or domestic animals.
Due to a scarcity of large prey, wolf packs in Italy tend to be smaller than average. Packs are usually limited to a nuclear family composed of a reproducing alpha pair, young sub adults which remain with their birth family until they are old enough to disperse and produce cubs. However, in areas where large herbivores such as deer have been reintroduced, such as the Abruzzo National Park, packs consisting of 6 – 7 individuals can be found.
Mating occurs in mid-March with a 2 month gestation period. The number of pups born is dependant on the mothers age, usually ranging from 2 to 8 pups. Italian Wolf pups weigh 250 – 350 grams at birth and open their eyes at the age of 11 – 12 days. Italian Wolf pups are weaned at the age of 35 – 45 days and are fully able to digest meat at 3 – 4 months.
The animal features prominently in both Roman and later Italian cultures. In Roman mythology, the wolf played a role in the founding of Rome by suckling the twins Romulus and Remus. According to Terry Jones, “The Romans did not see [the tale of Romulus, Remus and the she-wolf] as a charming story; they meant to show that they had imbibed wolfish appetites and ferocity with their mother’s milk”. The wolf was also considered sacred to Mars, and to see a wolf before going into battle was considered a good omen. The origin of the myth can be traced back to a wolf cult among the neighbouring Sabines. The Sabines had two words for wolf: hirpus (used in religious contexts) and lupus, the latter of which was incorporated into Latin. Negative attitudes towards wolves in Italy largely began with the invasion of the Lombards, who zoomorphically described their raids and invasions as wolf raids, bringing wolves into disrepute.