The Italian wolf, which is a slightly different species from the European wolf, is found in the mountainous regions of the Appennines and western Alps. Although at one time they were nearly hunted to extinction, it is now thought that the population has reached more than 500 individuals.
It was zoologist, Giuseppe Altobello, who first identified the Italian wolf as a distinct sub-species in 1921. He noticed that the colour of its pelt and the shape of its skull were different from the common European wolf. His classification was initially rejected but later, in 2002, it was reaffirmed after an extensive study showed him to have been correct.
The Italian wolf normally weighs around 30kg, although some larger males can reach 45kg. It can measure up to one and a half metres in length and up to 70 cm high at the shoulder. It is normally a grey, browny-yellow colour, which can turn redder in the summer. Its face and belly are lighter in colour with darker strips on its back, forelimbs and the tip of its tail. It normally lives in a pack of up to seven individuals.
Until the mid 1800s, the Italian wolf was found across the whole of the Italian peninsular, including Sicily, but extensive hunting and poisoning almost brought the species to extinction. Italian wolves fared rather better than their European neighbours, but neverthelesss, they were wiped out in many areas of the country including Sicily and the Alps. At one point, it is thought that there were less than 100 left. The last documented wolf in the northern Appennines was killed in Santo Stefano d'Aveto, Genoa in 1946. It is thought that at least 400 wolves were killed during the 1960s.
The conservation plan for the Italian wolf, called 'Operation Saint Francis', began in 1971. A census carried out in 1973 by the Italian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, found around 100 wolves living in the central southern regions of the country, between the Sibillini mountains in Abruzzo and La Sila, in Calabria.
The next ten years saw them double in number and they are now thriving along the whole of the Appennines from Aspromonte in southern Calabria to the Maritime Alps in north western Italy, with further sightings in Lazio, Tuscany, Piedmont and Trentino. there have also been sightings in the mountains of southern France and Switzerland.
The wolf has always played an important part in Italian mythology. The twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf and the wolf was considered sacred to the god Mars by the Romans. Seeing a wolf before going into battle was considered good luck. These myths can be traced back to the Sabine tribe of ancient Italy who had a wolf cult but the Lombard invasion brought with it a cultural hatred of wolves which was common among the Germanic peoples.
The belief in werewolves was still common in rural Italy well into the 20th century, and anyone sleeping outside at night would cover their face, believing that exposure to the full moon could transform them into a wolf. Various parts of a wolf were used in folk medicine too, to treat baby colic, rheumatism and tonsillitis and in preventing miscarriages.