Gone but not forgotten: The Honshu Wolf
The Honshu wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) is one of two subspecies of grey wolf endemic to the islands of Japan that have become extinct, the other being the Hokkaido wolf. While the latter was unremarkable in its resemblance to the regular grey wolf, the Honshu wolf looked more like a coyote or jackal with its short, wiry hair, thin dog-like tail and short legs, and was the smallest known subspecies of Canis lupus, measuring less than 90 centimetres long and 30 centimetres tall at the shoulder.
Though once plentiful on the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, their number began to decrease rapidly in 1732 when rabies was introduced to their habitat. While local dogs helped transport the disease, it is widely believed humans bought the virus to Japan in a bid to wipe out the wolves – deforestation of their habitat had bought them into conflict with humans and particularly farmers. Intense human persecution was certainly partly to blame for the Honshu wolf’s extinction, but its diminutive size may also have ultimately been its downfall, as it became unable to compete with its larger, thriving relative the grey wolf for larger prey such as moose and deer.
The Honshu wolf has long held a prominent position in Japanese folklore, and continues to do so more than a century after its extinction. It was seen at a guardian of the mountains and in some villages the skull of the wolf was used as a charm for both protection and curing villagers possessed by spirits. Sightings of the wolf were always very rare, leading the Japanese to regard it as more of a spirit entity; some legends even portray the wolf as a prophetic creature. In fact it was widely believed that anyone who killed a Honshu wolf would face punishment from the spirit world. Perhaps the most poignant belief that still surrounds this mystical creature is that it could render itself invisible, its fur changing colour with the seasons to camouflage itself. To this day many local cultures, which hold the Honshu wolf in high regard, believe it is not extinct at all – it is just harder to find than it ever was.