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Groggy and only slowly waking up to a pleasant Gujarat summer’s day in June, I was jolted when our jeep came to a sudden halt even before we entered the Velavadar National Park. My driver (also my naturalist that morning) was peering to the left in the dim light. A pack of wolves had just made a blackbuck kill, and were polishing off the antelope about 200m from the road.

At 5.30am, the sun hadn’t yet risen on the west coast; the wolves had begun their day early. Minutes later, they were surrounded by a sounder of wild pigs, with the clear intent of snatching their hunt. Outnumbered and outsized, they gave up without much of a fight. In the wild grasslands of Velavadar, even the bullies are bullied. I learnt later that it is not unusual behaviour for both boars and hyenas to bully wolves into giving up their kill.

My great wolf sighting, my reason for travel, was done even before I started my first safari inside the park. As is the case with most wildlife sightings, this was a matter of luck.

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Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

The predators

The endangered Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes), one of over 30 subspecies in the world, thrives in Velavadar, and is the apex predator in this rapidly dwindling grassland ecosystem. The Asiatic Cheetah held the title of the key predator across India’s grassland ecosystems till it was hunted to extinction in the 1940s.

Most of what we know of Velavadar’s blackbucks and wolves has been discovered by wildlife scientist Yadvendradev V. Jhala,
now with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. Jhala established that wolves in the peninsula are genetically unique, different from all other wolf populations across the world.

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A hyena with its cubs. Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan.

The national park experiences extreme temperatures, and I picked summer to visit precisely for this reason. The heat gets to the animals too so the action begins pretty early. The predawn hours are the most dynamic, with the predators on the move. The wolves start getting active in the morning, while the nocturnal hyenas wind down their operations around the same time, settling into their dens.

Not long after my first sighting that June morning, in another part of the grassland, a hyena and her three large pups were scavenging, down to hide and bones, the remains of a blackbuck. A hyena wastes nothing. Even at a distance, the stench spread as rapidly as the morning light.

Summer in Velavadar works best for photographers because the grass is still short and allows for easier sighting than after the monsoon. Blackbuck is the primary prey for wolves, followed by lesser mammals like hares and rodents. Wolves, on an average, kill twice a week. The hyena is a scavenger, and a significant one in these ecosystems, always on the lookout for carcasses in the grassland. Both species occasionally feed on cattle and goats from the farmlands that surround the park.

The bucks and birds

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The blackbuck is one of Velavadar’s successes. Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan.

Having seen and photographed blackbucks all over India, I can easily attest that this is one of the best places to study them. To top my blackbuck sightings, I even observed a few albinos. I could not but help wonder how these striking albinos would survive, sticking out as conspicuously as they did in the otherwise dull-colour landscape.

India’s largest antelope—the nilgai (or Bluebull)—is also common in Velavadar. The grassland constitutes a fabulous bird habitat too and the place has earned a reputation as a birding hot spot. A forest department board at the park entrance says, “It is one of the largest roosting sites of harriers in the world". Harriersare slender raptors (birds of prey) that come from Central Asia to India in winter. In addition, the specialized open and grassy habitat harbours larks, shrikes, bushchats, wheatears, sandgrouses, francolins and quails.

The grasslands provide a major breeding ground for the critically endangered, endemic Lesser Florican—one of the rarest birds in India and the world. Even in June, which is still early for breeding, I saw on two occasions a shy female in high grass, nervously walking away, yet confident of its camouflage.

Velavadar is the only grassland preserved in the entire Bhal region. As we drive back and forth, there is an illusion of endless grass in all four directions—though it is just 34 sq. km. But it does give the endangered wildlife, and the equally endangered ecosystem, a chance of surviving.

Hot spots

The best places to find the ubiquitous wolf.

Indian wolves can be spotted in several arid areas. If you look for grasslands on the map, which also have large populations of blackbuck or ‘chinkara’ (Indian gazelle), there is a good chance of finding wolves there.

In the south, wolves can be seen largely in Karnataka. The Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary near Hampi has a small population, as do the Jayamangali Blackbuck Conservation Reserve in Tumkur district and Basur Kaval in Chikmagalur district. In Andhra Pradesh, they can be seen in the Blackbuck Sanctuary in Kurnool district.

The canines can also be seen in Maharashtra in the scrublands of Nanaj and in the Mayureshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhuleshwar, which has a large population of Indian gazelle. Sightings have been good in the Little Rann of Kutch and Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan.

(The author thanks scientists Yadvendradev V. Jhala, Kavita Isvaran, Priya Singh, Bharat D. Jethva and Indra R. Gadhvi as much of the information here was derived from their work.)

Ramki Sreenivasan is a technology entrepreneur, wildlife photographer and chief coordinator of Conservation India.

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