The Return of “Beasts of Prey”

This weekend marks the 33rd annual Southeastern Wildlife Expo in downtown Charleston, an event that draws tens of thousands of wildlife enthusiasts to our tame, urban environment. The expo celebrates the fauna of the southeast, the traditions of sport hunting, and wildlife artwork, but it’s a little light on history and context. In an effort to contribute a little background to the scene, I’m going to repeat a lecture from several months back that draws attention to a little-know aspect of our state’s natural history. The program, “Hunting ‘Beasts of Prey’ in Early South Carolina,” looks at the government-funded efforts to eradicate panthers, wolves, bears, and bobcats from the Lowcountry in the eighteenth century.

A red wolf at Charles Towne Landing state park

A red wolf at Charles Towne Landing state park

Recently I visited one of my favorite state parks, Charles Towne Landing, and spent a while admiring the new Red Wolf exhibit. It’s a beautiful space that’s well-integrated into the environment, and the animals are adorable. Three hundred years ago, however, wolves like these  were hunted to extirpation from South Carolina because the early European settlers considered them a threat. Beginning in 1696, our provincial government began offering a bounty to hunters who brought in the scalps (with two ears) of “beasts of prey,” which included wolves, “tigers,” “catts,” and bears. This incentive program was so successful that by 1750 the government voted to let the bounty expire in 1751. In the intervening decades, tens of thousands of animals were killed in our forests by settlers and professional sportsmen, the original “bounty hunters” in colonial South Carolina.

“Beasts of prey” have been exceedingly rare in the Lowcountry since the mid-eighteenth century, but perhaps not completely absent. In December 1783, for example, a “large wolf” was killed at the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets in the heart of downtown Charleston, after it had been ravaging the Beef Market (now the site of our City Hall). The more recent growth of local bear and bobcat populations, as well as the re-introduction of wolves, are examples of modern conservation efforts that seek a balance between protected natural habitats and human expansion.

If you’d like to learn more about this wild topic, please join me for an illustrated program titled:

“Hunting Beasts of Prey in Early South Carolina”

Saturday, February 14th at 1 p.m.

2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.