The Lonesome wolves

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 25, 2013 20:20 hrs

There are two species of wolves indigenous to India and both are disappearing fast, hunted down by farmers for killing livestock. Rajat Ghai maps out an ecologocial disaster in the making

Fixated with the big cats, the near extinction of two sub-species of wolves indigenous to India seems to have escaped the attention of conservationists. These are the Indian or Common Wolf (Canis Lupus Pallipes), which is found in areas south of the Himalayas; and the Tibetan Wolf (Canis Lupus Chanco), found on the Tibetan Plateau and in the trans-Himalayan region. There is also the Himalayan Wolf (Canis Lupus Himalayensis), which many taxonomists have proposed as a separate subspecies but there is no unanimity on the issue.

Their numbers have been steadily dwindling over the years. “Pallipes number between 1,000 and 3,000 individuals across India. But, there has been no country-wide census. The estimate is based on telemetry in select areas where wolf density was determined and then extrapolated to the wolf range in India,” says Yadavendradev Jhala, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun and among India’s leading cainid (the dog family) experts. Worse, forest officials do not even conduct regular surveys of Pallipes since they are mainly found outside forests, he adds.

As for the Chanco, Jhala does not know their estimated number at present. His colleague at the WII, scientist Bilal Habib, is currently working on a project to map the Tibetan wolf in the Himalayas with the help of DNA testing of scat samples. But chances of an accurate estimate of its population seem remote.

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Part of the reason for this is that wolves have had a negative public image across time and culture. This is ironic since the wolf has been around humans since the time the latter huddled around campfires after a day of hunting-gathering. It continued to be around when man settled down and began to grow food and domesticate animals. Perhaps, this was the wolf’s undoing. For as wolves turned to hunting and killing livestock, humans turned against it.

The most rabid manifestation of this is seen in Europe. In Celtic, Germanic, Roman, Greek and Slavic folklore, the wolf features mostly as a negative character, whether it be Fenrir, a monstrous wolf, gobbling up the Norse deity Odin, or Zeus in Hellenic myth punishing Lycaon, the king of Arcadia, by transforming him into a wolf. The werewolf, man who can turn into a wolf, is one of the most pervasive European myths, surpassed, perhaps, only by the vampire. This long-standing revulsion of the creature in Europe, that continued well into modern times, resulted in its being almost exterminated in the continent.

When Europeans discovered the New World, they took their prejudices about the wolf with them. And this spelt doom for the region’s lupine population. By the nineteenth century, wolves had almost been decimated in continental United States. And so it was a pleasant surprise that last month, The Economist reported that the wolf had come back to western Europe and the US, colonising areas from where it had been extirpated. The magazine also noted that the wolf’s arrival had aroused ancient antagonisms and that there was a raging debate, especially in the US on whether to welcome the newcomers or to cull them.

But while their bretheren in Europe and the US are recolonising their ancient domains, India’s wolves are on the verge of extinction. “The future prospects for India’s wolves, especially Pallipes, are bleak,” admits Jhalas. “Chanco has a better chance of surviving than Pallipes as the areas it inhabits are more remote, with low human density,” he adds.

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How did things come to such a pass? There are historical reasons for it.

The wolf has a bad reputation in India as well, though it is not be as reviled here as it is in the West. “Both the species, Pallipes and Chanco, are known as livestock thieves, which often results in retaliation from livestock owners,” says Debobroto Sircar of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). And research shows that there is some truth to this. “Some years ago, I was researching the Chanco in Kargil and Zanskar in Ladakh and I found that Chancos were responsible for all the livestock killed in the area," says S Sathyakumar, a scientist at WII.

But, as Jhala explains, there is a reason for wolves turning into livestock killers. “Wolves primarily prefer semi-arid habitats — grasslands, scrub lands, thorn forests and open mixed forests. They are not found in high-rainfall, dense forests. Since wolves live primarily in agro-pastoral landscapes where their natural prey [blackbuck, chinkara, hare, etc] has often been depleted they prey on small livestock like sheep and goats,” he says.

A yet more sinister charge levelled against wolves, especially Pallipes, is child-lifting. Remember the high-profile case of wolves killing 21 children and mauling 16 others in Jaunpur, Pratapgarh and Sultanpur districts in Uttar Pradesh between March 27, 1996 and July 1, 1996? These are rare instances, says Jhala. "The wolf has learnt that children are easy prey. Such incidents happen in very poor localities where livestock are heavily guarded; there are few natural prey and a high density of humans with poor housing and child-care standards."

Wolves of both species face other problems too. "In the case of Pallipes, their prey base is getting smaller. They are also susceptible to land use changes [such as grasslands being converted into farms] and are often confused with the black-backed jackal as both look very similar to most people," says Sircar.

“The immediate threats facing Chanco are poisoning and persecution," says Jhala. Worse, Chanco is found from Ladakh to Sikkim — parts of the country that are at once militarily volatile and of strategic importance. Are geo-political issues an impediment in the wolves’ conservation? "Yes. If the army uses wildlife for target practice! Awareness among army personnel is very important," adds Jhala.

Their numbers initially increased after the passage of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which protected them by banning their killing. But in recent years, they have declined again, mainly due to reprisals by livestock owners after wolves have killed their animals.

What then can be done for these two species, both of which are Schedule-I animals (category under the Wildlife Protection Act which forbids hunting and trade in these animals)? Especially Pallipes, which most wolf reserachers believe is the ancestor of domestic dogs and Dingo, the Australian wild dog?

"Publicity through media, compensation for livestock kills and strict legal protection are the only solution that I can think of," says Jhala.

There is no doubt that India’s wolves need immediate protection and conservation efforts. Their loss would not just be a loss of a magnificent animal but also leave a hole in the food-chain. Herbivores like antelope, deer and rodents, which wolves feed on, would be left without a predator and consequently, their numbers would increase disturbing the balance in the ecosystem. The current status of India’s wolves should be an alarm call for the authorities as well as wildlife groups.

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