Japanese or Honshu wolf

Extinction in the wild: 1905
  • Schomburgk’s deer
  • Schomburgk’s deer

Hated and beloved, but killed by man - the lost wolves of Japan

Many endemic Japanese wild animals have their nearest relatives in Siberia. Also the Japanese wolf descended originally from the Siberian wolf on the Asian mainland. At first they arrived in Hokkaido and migrated later also to the more southern islands.

Stuffed of Schomburgk's Deer

Stuffed Ezo wolves @ Botanic Garden & Museum Hokkaido University (Click to view larger image).

On the Japanese islands the wolf was isolated from the rest of the species. As often in evolution the isolated wolf populations on both islands became a special subspecies over the years, namely the Hokkaido or Ezo wolf (Canis lupus hattai) and the Honshu wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax). The Ezo wolf had a more traditionally wolf-like appearance than its southern relative, the Honshu wolf. It was larger than the Honshu wolf, resembling more closely the size and color of a regular Siberian wolf. The skull was large and formidable, with long, curved canines. The Hokkaido wolf was typically gray in color and significantly larger than the wolves on Honshu and the more southern islands.The Ezo wolf inhabited the Hokkaido and Sakhalin islands as well as the southern Kuril island and parts of the Kamchatka peninsula, whilst the distribution of the Honshu wolf was limited to the islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. The Honshu wolf was the world's smallest known wild subspecies of the wolf (Canis lupus). Its body length measured about 90 cm and the height at the shoulder only 30 cm. In its appearance the Honshu wolf resembled much more like dogs and jackals than its Siberian wolf ancestors. They had not only short legs, but also their hair was short and wiry and their tail was thin and dog-like and rounded at the end. The Honshu wolf inhabited the mountainous areas on the islands, preying on a variety of small mammals, including monkeys. – But the Ezo wolf being larger in size hunted mainly the endemic Hokkaido sika deer (Cervus nippon yesoensis). In the late 19th century during the Meiji Restoration period the Ezo Wolf's population declined due to the start of the farmers on Hokkaido with an intensive American-style livestock production of horses and cattle. This caused massive hunting of deer populations as food competitors for their own livestock, and also clearing of forest in order to create pasture for their domestic animals. Thus, the wolves' habitat and natural prey were decimated and replaced with much slower and less wary foodstuffs. On the other hand, the Hokkaido wolf, being restricted to an island system, could not disperse like the mainland wolf into marginal habitat to avoid bounty hunters or search more widely for prey, when native herbivores were decimated.In addition, the extremely harsh winters of 1878 and 1879 put further pressure on the local wildlife and made the pampered livestock even more tempting for the starving wolves. As soon as the wolves began to kill domestic animals, they came to be viewed as a serious threat to the livestock. The farmers began to hunt as their competitors the wolves intensively. Following an American advice, strychnine-poisoned baits were used to reduce the wolf numbers. So it is not a surprise that the last wild Ezo wolf was killed on Hokkaido already in 1889.

Skeleton of a Japanese wolf Stuffed Japanese wolf @ Leiden Museum

Skeleton of a Japanese wolf
(Click to view larger image).

Stuffed Japanese wolf @ Leiden Museum
(Click to view larger image).

Stuffed Japanese wolf @Laboratory of Forest Zoology Stuffed Japanese wolf @Laboratory of Forest Zoology

Stuffed Japanese wolf @Laboratory of Forest Zoology
Department of Forest Sciences
Graduate School of Agrecultural and Life Sciences
The University of Tokyo (Click to view larger image).

Japanese wolf drawn in the 1881 Stamp of Japanese post

Japanese wolf drawn in the 1881
(Click to view larger image).

Stamp of Japanese post
(Click to view larger image).

Japanese wolves were always good actor on the fairy tale and folk story

Japanese wolves were always good actor on the fairy tale and folk story (Click to view larger image).

Today, a stuffed Ezo wolf pair can be seen on display in the Hokkaido University Botanical Garden Museum. The female had been captured in June 1881 in the Toyohira District and the male in August 1879 in Shiroishi-ku. Both are one of the very few still existing stuffed animals, most probably collected as one of the last animals, before they became extinct. Although the Honshu wolf became in the 19th century intensively persecuted by men, the disappearance of the Honshu wolf or simply called Japanese wolf has some different means. In 1732 the first rabies appeared in the region. It spread rapidly through the wolf populations in the 19th century. Probably the disease infected the wolf population carried by local domestic dogs. However the virus arrived and its infection worked as a very effective partner in human attempts to remove the wolves from the area. By 1905 the last wild Honshu wolf was shot at Higashi-Yoshino village in Nara Prefecture. Its carcass was sold by an American to the Natural History Museum in London. The last living Honshu wolf, which was kept in the Ueno Zoo, was purchased in 1881 in Iwate Prefecture and died in the Ueno Zoo on June 24, 1892. This wolf can be seen today as a stuffed animal in the Faculty of Agriculture of the Tokyo University. Worldwide only 5 stuffed Honshu wolves can be seen today in the Natural History Museums.

Guardian of Mitsumine Shrine which worship Japanese wolf Guardian of Mitsumine Shrine which worship Japanese wolf

Guardian of Mitsumine Shrine which worship Japanese wolf (Click to view larger image).

Hanging scroll of Japanese wolves @ Mitsumine Shrine

Hanging scroll of Japanese wolves @ Mitsumine Shrine (Click to view larger image).

For the Japanese the protective and benign character of the wolf is highly esteemed, whilst outside of Japan the wolf is seen as a threat to human livelihood or to human life itself. Accordingly, the wolf-hunting has often been encouraged and celebrated in Europe and North America. Because of this different view, the wolf plays in Japanese fairy tales and myth always a sympathetic and protective role. There are stories that wolves protect the fields from farm-raiding forest animals like boars and deer. They accompany persons home, who lose their way in the forest, or raise lost children, similar to the old Roman story of Romulus and Remus. Therefore it is not surprising that even today, more than 100 years after its extinction the wolf plays still an important role in the daily life of the mountainous village people. Until today the death of the last killed wolf in 1905 is annually remembered in form of a ceremony in a local temple. For these local people the relationship between man and wolf stands for the relationship between man and nature.Because of its importance in the Japanese mythology, we are proud to keep in our Lost Zoo both subspecies of the Japanese wolf, the Ezo wolf from Hokkaido and the Honshu wolf from the southern main islands.

Japanese wolf Enclosure in LOST ZOO Stuffed Ezo Wolf Enclosure in LOST ZOO

Japanese wolf Enclosure in LOST ZOO
(Click to view larger image).

Ezo Wolf Enclosure in LOST ZOO
(Click to view larger image).

Executive Curator

Japanese or Honshu wolf

Smallest subspecies of the Siberian wolf. The other Japanese subspecies, the Ezo wolf from Hokkaido, was much bigger and more wolf-like in its appearance.

Shoulder height : 30 cm

Body length : 90 cm

Habitat: Living in the forests on the Japanese islands Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu

Extinction in the wild: 1905. Rabies, deforestation and overhunting caused the wolf's extinction.

Japanese or Honshu wolf