India’s Lost Wolves – The Hindus

No more than 3,100 wolves live in India. With an ancient lineage, these animals are as endangered as tigers

No more than 3,100 wolves live in India. With an ancient lineage, these animals are as endangered as tigers

‘wolf! wolf!’ The driver in the car facing us was silent with his mouth and pointed to his right. Within seconds, a group of three gorgeous Indian Gray Wolves appeared in the savannah grasslands, less than 100 meters from us. A large male, followed by what appears to be a heavily pregnant female, and finally a younger male, possibly from a previous litter. They looked at us cautiously, walked to the neighboring farm and disappeared.

There were many distinct things about this scene. We were observing the top predator of the grasslands of India, in their natural habitat, but this was far from any national park or wildlife sanctuary. This was actually in the backyard of Pune, a landscape full of people, farming and domestic livestock. The Grasslands Trust, a Pune-based NGO, has been monitoring the beams in these landscapes for more than a decade. They have documented over 10 different breeding groups using this landscape of approximately 700 square kilometres. Wolves share this amazing spectacle with a host of other endangered species, the Indian gazelle (chinkara), the Indian fox, the striped hyena, and dozens of migratory and resident birds. This area is also home to tens of thousands of agricultural herders, and is used as a monsoon pasture by the Dhangar community, a tribe of nomadic pastoralists, who make their way with flocks of sheep and goats through the Western Ghats every year from the coastal regions of the Konkan.

the only survivor

Unfortunately, for the wolves we saw, the ending was not happy. A few weeks later, the entire group, including their new cubs, was found dead or dying from the deadly canine strain virus. The female was the only survivor.

Diseases such as the canine strain virus are just one of the many problems faced by this mysterious predator of the Indian savannah. A new study estimates that there may be as many as 3,100 wolves in India. This puts them in the same danger category as tigers. Habitat loss is a major threat to this species. There is no wildlife sanctuary dedicated to the conservation of the Indian wolf, and a recent study shows that less than 5% of the country’s open natural ecosystems are protected. The wolf, unlike the tiger, is not a forest creature. It requires vast areas, manages to live in the gaps of agricultural areas left by farmers who depend on rainfall as the only source of irrigation.

Story tracks

The wolf is frequent in folk Indian tales and legends, where it is often recognized as a dangerous predator distinguished by its cunning. a Gataka The tale reverses this metaphor by showing man as a deceiver, though not cunning enough for the wolf, who outsmarts him. Perhaps the most famous wolf in Indian children’s literature is Akeelah (also known as The Lone Wolf or Big Wolf), the valiant leader of the Seeonee group of wolves and Mowgli’s adoptive father in Rudyard Kipling’s jungle book (1894). While showing courage and wisdom, his partner, Raksha, who adopts a “mancub”, is all about kindness and protection.

The semi-arid grassland savannah and rocky areas of the Deccan Plateau, in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, along with some regions of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are among the last strongholds of the Indian wolf. Before independence, they likely shared their habitat with the Asiatic cheetah, roaming the Black Buck and Shinkara. The cheetah is now gone, and so are the huge herds of antelopes that roamed the Indian plains. The wolves unfortunately follow the same path and have retreated across their entire range.

fatal disease

Indian gray wolves differ from their European and American counterparts. They are smaller, more slender and highly adapted to the hot and arid plains of the Indian subcontinent. They, along with the Tibetan wolf found in the Himalayas, are among the oldest wolf breeds in the world. Scientists have given the Indian wolf status as its own subspecies, lupus liposarcoma, Some have argued that it must be its own unique species. If the Indian wolf were to disappear, this ancient evolutionary line would be lost forever, and the Indian savannah would be stripped of both predators.

The Indian wolf’s unique genetic signature is under attack from another unlikely source: its domesticated brethren. The number of free-roaming domestic dogs has exploded in rural India. When a wolf’s habitat becomes fragmented, there are more opportunities for dogs to communicate with wolves. Wolves and dogs have a turbulent relationship between love and hate. A single dog is likely to be driven away by a pack of wolves, and vice versa. However, if wolf populations are low, and the wolf is unable to find a partner, it may also mate with a dog, resulting in wolf hybrids. This genetic dilution of wild genes may eventually lead to an evolutionary defect in the wolf, depriving it of its ability to hunt prey and survive in the wild. Dogs can also transmit something more deadly to wolves. Diseases such as canine sickness, parvovirus, and rabies can easily spread to wolf packs. This likely happened to the pack we saw near Pune.

Not very green

While all of these dangers continue to jeopardize the wolf’s future, perhaps there is nothing as bad as the disgrace that accrues to the habitat the wolf calls home. According to the Government of India Atlas of the arid land of India, much of the wolf’s native habitat is a wasteland, a priority for development activities. Ironically, one of the biggest dangers to grasslands comes from “green” projects such as solar power and tree-planting drives.

The survival of the Indian wolf depends on an unlikely ally: societies of nomadic pastoralists | Image source: THE GRASSLANDS TRUST

The survival of the Indian wolf depends on an unlikely ally: the communities of nomadic pastoralists who herd local sheep and goats in these grasslands. This is the main prey of wolves, and in many pastoral societies, such as the Dhangar of Maharashtra, the wolf is worshiped and the occasional lamb is not envied. But this relationship is not always rosy. In many other parts of the country, wolves are regularly persecuted by agricultural herders, blocking their dens with stones and killing pups. However, the future of wolves, black bucks, and the future of shepherds and their livestock is closely intertwined with the fate of their habitat.

Only by granting India’s savannah grasslands legitimacy as a natural habitat, and acknowledging the deep and complex dependency between human and non-human residents of this vast open landscape, do we have a chance to save the wolves.

Vanak is a Senior Fellow at ATREE, Bengaluru, and Goodpool is the Founding Founder and President of The Grasslands Trust, Pune.

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