Wolves of the wasteland

At present, there is no population estimate for wolves anywhere in the Indian subcontinent


Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India
Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India

Think of wolves. Chances are you’d be hard-pressed to come up with an image that is positive, pleasing or happy.

You won’t be alone. In Europe, there’s the medieval legend of the werewolf, the man who turns into a wolf-like creature at night, with fangs and claws.

In India, wolves are supposed to steal unguarded babies, who then grow up to become wolf-boys.

In the US, former stockbroker Jordan Belfort chose to title his memoir chronicling his dark financial raids The Wolf of Wall Street.

Not to forget that cliché of horror movies—a wolf in silhouette, neck tilted up, howling away at the full moon.

For all we know, the howling wolf could well be a mythical creature from a dark and dangerous world.

But why does a wolf howl?

“A wolf will be wasting its time howling at the moon. It does so only to communicate with its pack. Every wolf howl is unique, just like every tiger has a unique stripe pattern on its body,” says Bilal Habib, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India and an expert on wolves.

This fact—about howling—is now set to aid Habib and his team conduct a ‘sound capture and recapture’ experiment, the first of its kind in India to count the number of wolves. At present, there is no population estimate for wolves anywhere in the Indian subcontinent. ‘Capture and recapture’ is a method commonly used to estimate the size of a species’ population.

In this case, scientists will record samples of wolf howls in a habitat in one season. Say they record 100 different howls. Later, in the next season, another sample is recorded, say now, the scientist gets 150 wolf howls and among these, 50 are found to have been previously recorded—then the total population size is 300, using the following formula: Total = original number tagged x total recaptured ÷ number tagged on recapture.

In 2003, genetic studies established that the Indian subcontinent supports three distinct wolf lineages. Two are ancient and unique to the subcontinent. The peninsular Indian wolf lineage (Canis lupus pallipes) came into being 400,000 years ago and is found across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The Himalayan wolf lineage (Canis lupus chanco), which evolved about 800,000 years ago, making India the cradle of modern wolf evolution, is found in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim.

The third Indian wolf (Canis lupus chanco, or the Tibetan wolf), found in the Himalayan mountains of Kashmir, belongs to the wolf-dog clade (species descendant from a common ancestor) that stretches across the rest of Eurasia and North America.

At the time these studies were conducted, there were thought to be around 350 Himalayan wolves in the wild and between 1,000 and 3,000 peninsular Indian wolves. Peninsular Indian wolves are creatures of the savannah, a unique grassland ecosystem that is found throughout peninsular India and in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha.

Central to the wolf’s universe is its pack, and howling keeps the group together. According to Habib, wolves—like dogs—also bark, whine, whimper, snarl, yelp and growl more often than they howl. But it is howling that defines the wolf. The pack that howls together stays together.

Wolf packs range over vast areas for food; on an average a pack occupies an area of around 180-200 sq.km, so howling is the only way to communicate over great distances in open grasslands. This unique feature allows wolves to identify each other, locate and reunite, as well as mark out territory to keep out rival packs.

Grasslands support a vast proportion of India’s agro-pastoral community and many rare, endangered and endemic bird and animal species. But since these vast areas are devoid of any tree cover, the government has classified them as wasteland.

“Dry grasslands do not receive attention from conservationists or policymakers, resulting in lack of protection for endangered and endemic wildlife which occupy this unique habitat. Unfortunately, government policy declares these grasslands, scrub and thorn forests as waste or unproductive land,” says Abi Tamim Vanak, principal investigator from Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment’s (ATREE) Indian Savannah Project.

The Indian Savannah Project aims to create a countrywide map of dry grassland ecosystem at the district level for the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra (see box) and design conservation management plans for the protection and sustainable use of grasslands.

Wolves, the top predators in the grasslands, have been hunted throughout history for livestock depredation. Once the most common species after humans in the northern hemisphere, the wolf is now extinct in Japan, Bangladesh, the UK and many European nations. In British India, wolves were declared vermin and, according to historian Mahesh Rangarajan, 200,000 wolf skins were collected between 1875 and 1925.

In Karnataka’s Chitradurga district, pastoral communities have been protesting against the planned diversion of around 10,000 acres of ancient grasslands, known as the Amrithmahal Kavals in Challakere taluk, for industrial, defence, institutional and infrastructure projects. Land has been allocated to institutes such as the Defence Research and Development Organization, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Indian Space Research Organization and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

Environmentalists have challenged these plans in the Karnataka high court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT)-southern zone, Chennai.

“As our population continues to grow, there is increasing demand and pressure on grasslands marked as wastelands to be converted for development. This will further reduce old habitats of the wolf,” says Vanak.

In the report Forfeiting Our Commons submitted to an expert committee set up by NGT-southern zone, petitioner Leo Saldanha, trustee and coordinator, Environment Support Group, a non-governmental organization, writes: “Karnataka state was home to nearly 400,000 acres of Amritmahal Kavals at the time of independence. Now the state is left with only 60,000 acres. Of this remaining Kaval area, a substantial portion has been encroached or is in various states of degradation. The state has directly been the agency for such massive loss of grassland ecosystems. The Amritmahal Kavals, since time immemorial, have provided a variety of ecological and livelihoods services to the local communities of this region.”

The case is scheduled in the NGT for a final hearing in July.

“One of my most enduring memories of a wolf encounter was when late one evening in the grasslands of Nannaj, Maharashtra, I saw two wolves sneak up on a shepherd and make off with one of his sheep. When the shepherd started chasing after them, the wolves dropped the sheep, which was still alive. The shepherd picked up the sheep but both the wolves started following him. The shepherd occasionally turned around and waved his staff at them, as if shooing away a pesky dog. Soon the wolves gave up and wandered off towards the top of a hill where they continued to keep a close watch on the flock till the shepherd led them back home,” says Vanak.

Although wolves have been given the highest protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972— listed as a Schedule 1 species—the goal is less popular than saving the big four endangered animals: the tiger, lion, elephant and rhinoceros.

Across the world, environmentalists have begun warning about the dangers of focusing conservation money and efforts around the big four, and other so-called ‘charismatic species’—often at the expense of other less popular but endangered species.

There are other considerations.

“Wolves cannot be protected by the forest department as it requires looking after large areas. Protecting such big areas is impossible, especially in a country like ours. A pack is effectively two animals—the alpha male and female which rule and breed. Considering each pack needs around 200 sq. km, there is no place for dispersal and forming newer packs in the ever shrinking landscape. The best ways to protect the species is through public awareness and by dispelling myths. If only we could accept wolves like we have accepted dogs on our streets, then wolves can hope to have a brighter future,” says Habib.

Compensation to owners who lose their livestock to wolves also needs to be looked at. The Maharashtra forest department’s compensation scheme, begun in 2001, has not helped either livestock owners or wolves.

Unlike other carnivores, the wolf does not return to its kill if it is disturbed, which means it will forfeit the animal it has killed and hunt again, aggravating its conflict with humans. Also, the owner needs to produce the carcass of the kill or part of it as proof in order to claim compensation from authorities.

The Maharashtra forest department has asked conservation biologists from the Wildlife Conservation Society-India to look into grasslands, wolves and pastoralists who use the entire grasslands landscape in the state.

Meanwhile, the wolves in the Trans-Himalayan region remain in taxonomic confusion even after 170 years since they were first described to science.

There is ambiguity over their status as a subspecies or separate species. Habib and his team are in the process of an extensive genetic sample collection survey to come up with clear results in this challenging mountain landscape.

The wolf today is vilified and hunted, struggling to find a habitat. This is a far cry from the wolves of legends that raised orphaned children—from Romulus and Remus who built Rome to Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Will the wolf survive the brunt of human development? Ed Bangs, responsible for restoring the grey wolf species in the US, says, “I’ve always said that the best wolf habitat resides in the human heart. You have to leave a little space for them to live.”

This is the second in a series in which Mint looks at species that are less talked about and struggling for survival. To read the first part of the series, about dholes, go to mintne.ws/1lf05NM

Mint’s wildlife writer Ananda Banerjee received a fellowship from the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment to study these species.

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