TALLINN - With its multitude of habitats, abundance of food and proximity of the big wolf population in Russia, Estonia harbors more wolves than most EU members, and as the Baltic country prepares to join the EU amid the wolves' declining population, the wolf has become a protected species.
Still, the number of wolves appears to be dwindling below the minimum set when the EU gave Estonia special permission to continue its age-old tradition of wolf-hunting, forbidden in other member states.
In 1990 Estonia counted 600 - 700 wolves, and at the time the wolf was an outlaw. The government gave prizes for hunting it, and there were special wolf-hunting brigades for many years.
Incredibly, some 300 were hunted every year at special hunting sessions or shooting ranges.
By late last year hunters said there were only around 100 left, with specialists saying there were even less - as low as 70-80 - less than the 100-150 Estonia promised the EU it would maintain.
The EU has given Estonia permission to hunt 16 wolves every year.
John Kjaer, the EU's ambassador to Estonia, said that the bloc was carefully watching the situation. "We look forward with interest to seeing the new fresh figures about the wolf situation in Estonia," he said.
Enn Vilbaste, the director of the Nigula nature protection area near the Latvian border, and wolf researcher Marko Kubarsepp both said they were confident Estonia would soon have more than 100 wolves again, as wolves give birth to their puppies in late winter and spring.
The experts said several factors contributed to the decline in the wolf population.
"The biggest problem is a mistake made some years ago: The structure of wolfpacks was demolished - hunters killed mostly pack leaders," Vilbaste explained. "Without leaders the packs scattered."
So while the Nigula nature protection area once had a big and strong wolfpack, now it has two small packs and some lone wolves roaming alone.
"Loners are the worst. They don't have pack support to hunt down wild prey. So they come near the human settlements to kill dogs and other domestic animals," Vilbaste said.
"Young wolves will not take part in hunting a prey. They watch how adults do it and learn," researcher Kubarsepp, who has been watching and researching wolves for years, said. "When you shoot down the elders, the young wolves won't get any teaching at all."
"Actually it's possible to shoot wolves selectively, not killing the leaders. But hunters prefer to shoot the first and biggest wolf of the pack, leaving the pack without a leader," he added.
Lone wolves also have difficulties finding a reproductive partner, meaning some do it with vagrant dogs. There have been many reports of wolf-dog mixes around the country.
"I also believe the vagrant dogs do more damage to domestic animals than wolves. Nobody knows how many of them we have in forests - more than wolves for sure," Vilbaste said.
Fewer wolves are also crossing the border from Russia due to the new practice of poisoning wolves there, the Environment Ministry official responsible for wolves Peep Mannil said.
In theory no further wolves should be shot this year as the 12-month quota for wolf hunting was met in December.
But no one can control poaching in Estonia - because for the Estonian hunter the wolf has been the eternal enemy for centuries. And they don't consider it a sin to ambush a wolf and bury it in the bushes.
"Changing people's attitude takes time, the fear for wolves is still inside everyone," Kubarsepp said. "But this is crucial in saving our wolf population."