8. 6. 2023

When a wolf meets a group of wild boars: an anthropologist’s critical reflection on the concept of ‘hunting strategy’

On May 9th, 2023, Thorsten Gieser gave a talk entitled When a wolf meets a group of wild boars: an anthropologist’s critical reflection on the concept of ‘hunting strategy’ at the Wolvesacrossborders conference in Stockholm.

In wolf research, one of the most prominent questions regarding hunting behaviour is whether wolves act ‘on instinct’, without a plan, without a pattern or structure and thus without intelligence or with a ‘strategy’, i.e., based on intelligence and rational thinking, based on a cost-benefit analysis, coming up with an intentional plan of how to hunt best which later is executed accordingly.

While the search for a ‘strategy’ and intelligence has been a welcome move towards a more complex view of what animals are and how animal behaviour can be understood, I argue that it also misconstrues wolves as thinking animals that is reminiscent of certain (heavily disputed) theories of human action in the social sciences. In particular, biologists’ use of the term ‘strategy’ seems to take up implicit assumptions stemming from rational choice theory and action theory. Both theories emphasize that humans think before they act, that they weigh up options and design a plan to be executed in order to reach the goal of action. As a theory of human action, it might hold for some yet not all circumstances. Translated into a theory of animal behaviour, it is more than dubious.

By looking closely at one particular hunt of one wolf of the Knappenrode/Seenland Pack in Germany, this paper offers an alternative, qualitative approach to understanding what happens. Instead of interpreting the encounter as a ‘competition of minds’, it shows both wolf and wild boar first of all as corporeal beings testing their body, bodily skills and bodily intelligence against each other. While the seemingly chaotic dynamics of this hunt suggests that there was no strategy at play, it will be shown that the success of the wolf depended on its ‘embodied knowledge’ of how its own body and those of the wild boar affects and is affected by the other.