Text by Astrid Olsson
The X-Men character aside, it’s fair to say most of us don’t know much about wolverines, one of Scandinavia’s four main species of large carnivores – and probably its most enigmatic. There are around 800 in Scandinavia, but they’re only rarely seen.
For those who don’t know, wolverines look absolutely nothing like Hugh Jackman. They look a bit like small bears, but are actually the largest of the weasel family, and are one of the most ferocious and powerful animals on the planet in proportion to their size. The scavengers, which feed off the carcasses of larger animals, have been known to kill polar bears, and have been killing Finnish domestic reindeer in increasing numbers.
“Wolves are hated; bears are hated but respected; but most people don’t know what to make of wolverines,” says Finnish wildlife tracker and photographer Antti Leinonen, the only person on the planet who can truly claim to know these beasts. Leinonen spent almost 20 years in the forests outside his home city of Kuhmo, near the Finnish-Russian border, documenting wolverines through tens of thousands of photographs and slowly cultivating a unique relationship with the famously shy animal. There are up to 200 wolverines in the Finnish forests bordering Russia, and around 30 near Kuhmo, drawn partly to the caves in the area where they can leave their young.
“I started shooting in this forest in 1986, and at first my priority was bears. I’d just see the odd wolverine, and it piqued my curiosity,” he says. “As a small boy, I remember reading about wolverines in novels – there was always something about them; something mysterious.”
Gradually, Leinonen started to focus on the wolverine, trying to come up with new ways to lure them. He would move an 80kg camouflaged hut, or hide, around the forest, which he would often sleep in through the night, waiting for the wolverines to appear. “I’d leave little pieces of pork under stones or moss, and wait for them to smell them,” he says of the animal, which is said to be able to smell a rotten carcass from more than 3km away, even buried under snow. For that reason, his hide had a special chimney which would eradicate his human scent.
In 1998 he first came across the female wolverine Valkokulma (named in Finnish for the white patches on her forehead) that would become his main muse. “She had 12 offspring between 1998 and 2006, and gradually we built up a rapport. She realised I meant no harm and was friendly. I also developed a relationship with one of her male offspring, Täplis (after the white patches on his chest), who was born in 2004 and came back a year later. That’s highly unusual for wolverines, which normally leave after a year and stay away.
“With both of them, it occurred to me at a certain point that they weren’t just following me for bait any more. They would follow my tracks, and I sensed that I was some kind of company. In the winter, on the ice, they’d play with me – wolverines often play-fight, and lie on their backs with their paws in the air. They started doing that when it was just me around.”
Leinonen’s research has changed thinking about wolverines. His time following the animals revealed that they’re a lot more social and family-oriented than was previously thought. Wolverine X, a documentary that followed Leinonen and his research, showed three generations of wolverine feasting on one carcass in a kind of family feast.
“I realised that males and females meet throughout the year, not just during mating season in the spring and summer. They have stronger bonds than we thought before.”
Leinonen had his own bonds. He lost track of Valkokulma in 2007, and assumes she was killed by Russian poachers. “Suddenly, the whole forest felt very empty – there were wolverines, but they weren’t my friends.”
Since then, Leinonen has moved on to other projects, but the wolverine retains his fascination. “No one has ever had that level of relationship with wolverines before or since,” he says. “It’s possible, but you have to spend a lot of time in the forest, building up that trust.”
Today, wolverine populations are stable, after hunting them was outlawed in 1984, even if the species is listed as vulnerable. There were over 1,000 cases last year of the animals killing domestic reindeer. As Leinonen says: “Every year they get less scared – humans are no longer the danger they once were.” And, thanks to a tracker with a singular focus, the wolverine may not be the enigma it once was.