Howl­ing an SOS

The king of dry grass­lands has nowhere to go


De­spite the high­est pro­tec­tion sta­tus by the gov­ern­ment, wolves' sur­vival is at stake in In­dia

IMAG­INE A WOLF in sil­hou­ette howl­ing at the full moon. This visual cliché, used time and again in films, has earned the an­i­mal the rep­u­ta­tion of a myth­i­cal creature from a dark and dan­ger­ous world. But why does a wolf howl?

“A wolf will be wast­ing time howl­ing at the moon. It does so only to com­mu­ni­cate with its pack,” says Bi­lal Habib, an ex­pert on the an­i­mal with Wildlife In­sti­tute of In­dia, Dehradun. Wolves, just like dogs, bark, whine, whim­per, snarl, yelp and growl more of­ten than they howl. But it is the howl­ing that de­fines them. Ev­ery wolf howl is unique, just like ev­ery tiger has a unique stripe pat­tern on its body. Since the pack of wolves ranges over vast swathes of grass­lands— about 200 sq km—for food, howl­ing helps them lo­cate and iden­tify each other over great dis­tances in open grass­lands and re­unite as well as es­tab­lish ter­ri­tory among ri­val packs. The pack that howls to­gether stays to­gether, says Habib.

Habib and his team are set to con­duct a “sound cap­ture and re­cap­ture ex­per­i­ment”, a first of its kind in In­dia, to count the num­ber of wolves in the coun­try.At present, there is no pop­u­la­tion es­ti­ma­tion for wolves in the sub­con­ti­nent. In 2003, two ge­netic stud­ies es­tab­lished that the sub­con­ti­nent sup­ports three wolf lin­eages—the penin­su­lar In­dian wolf that evolved 400,000 years ago, the Hi­malayan wolf that came into be­ing 800,000 years ago, and the Ti­betan wolf, which is now found in the north western Hi­malayan re­gion in Kashmir. At the time the stud­ies were con­ducted, 350 Hi­malayan wolves were thought to be in the wild and the pop­u­la­tion of penin­su­lar In­dian wolf was es­ti­mated to be be­tween 1,000 and 3,000.

In the Bri­tish In­dia, wolves were con­sid­ered ver­mins. Ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Ma­hesh Ran­gara­jan, records show that 200,000 wolf skins were col­lected be­tween 1875 and 1925. This top preda­tor on the grass­lands has been per­se­cuted for live­stock depre­da­tion through­out his­tory.

The im­pact of wolves on hu­man lives and liveli­hoods in In­dia is poorly un­der­stood, points out con­ser­va­tion sci­en­tist Roopa Krithivasan in her 2009 study “Hu­man-Wolf Con­flict in Hu­man Dom­i­nated Land­scapes of Ahmed­na­gar dis­trict, Ma­ha­rash­tra”. In fact, in­ci­dents of con­flict be­tween wolves and live­stock own­ers are much higher in In­dia than any­where else. A ma­jor rea­son for this in­creas­ing con­flicts is dis­ap­pear­ance of

In­ci­dents of con­flict be­tween wolves and live­stock own­ers are much higher in In­dia than any­where else. This is be­cause its na­tive prey are fast dis­ap­pear­ing

na­tive prey species. Live­stock is now the only prey left for the wolves.

Be­sides, as the pop­u­la­tion grows, there is an in­creas­ing de­mand and pres­sure on grass­lands to be con­verted for de­vel­op­ment, says Abi Tamim Vanak, prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor for In­dian Savannah Project of Ashoka Trust for Ecol­ogy and En­vi­ron­ment (atree). The project aims to cre­ate a coun­try­wide map of dry grass­land ecosys­tem in Andhra Pradesh (un­di­vided), Kar­nataka, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ma­ha­rash­tra and de­sign land­scape-spe­cific con­ser­va­tion man­age­ment plans for the habi­tats. “Since grass­lands are de­void of tree cover, the gov­ern­ment clas­si­fies them as waste­lands. Such con­ver­sions will fur­ther shrink the tra­di­tional habi­tats of wolf,” says Vanak.

Grass­lands also support agro-pas­toral­ist com­mu­ni­ties and are home to crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species, such as the great In­dian bus­tard, lesser flor­i­can, In­dian fox, striped hyena and black buck. “Yet dry grass­lands do not re­ceive at­ten­tion from con­ser­va­tion­ists or pol­icy mak­ers,” Vanak adds.

In Kar­nataka’s Chi­tradurga dis­trict, the pas­toral com­mu­ni­ties have been op­pos­ing the di­ver­sion of 4,000 hectares of grass­lands, known as Am­rithma­hal Kavals in Chal­lakere taluk. Th­ese an­cient grass­lands are ear­marked for in­dus­trial, in­sti­tu­tional, in­fra­struc­ture and projects. Land has been al­lo­cated to in­sti­tutes such as De­fence Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion, In­dian In­sti­tute of Sci­ence, Ben­galuru, In­dian Space Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion and Bhabha Atomic Re­search Cen­tre. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have chal­lenged th­ese projects in Kar­nataka High Court and the Na­tional Green Tri­bunal (South­ern Zone) in Chen­nai.

Peo­ple in Ma­ha­rash­tra of­ten hum labad landga dhong kar­tay. This means, “Wolves are clever an­i­mals and will fool you with their dev­il­ish meth­ods.” The song sig­ni­fies a deep cul­tural re­la­tion­ship and un­der­stand­ing of the an­i­mal that the peo­ple of the time had. But this is no more the case. Although the gov­ern­ment now grants wolves the high­est pro­tec­tion by list­ing wolf as Sched­ule 1 species in the Wildlife Pro­tec­tion Act of 1972, the an­i­mal falls short in pop­u­lar­ity com­pared to the big four—tiger, lion, ele­phant and rhinocer­ous. “Wolves can­not be pro­tected by the for­est depart­ment as it re­quires pro­tect­ing vast ar­eas, ”says Habib.

A pack of wolves es­sen­tially con­sists of two an­i­mals—the al­pha male and fe­male which rule and breed. Con­sid­er­ing that each pack needs about 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 in our streets, then the wolves can hope to have a brighter fu­ture, ”sug­gests Habib.

Com­pen­sa­tion schemes to own­ers who lose live­stock to wolves also needs to be im­proved. The Ma­ha­rash­tra for­est depart­ment’s live­stock com­pen­sa­tion scheme for car­ni­vore depre­da­tion, launched in 2001,has nei­ther helped live­stock own­ers nor the wolf. This is be­cause the scheme re­quires the owner to pro­duce the car­cass of the kill or parts of it as proof to claim com­pen­sa­tion.But un­like other car­ni­vores, the wolf does not re­turn to its kill if it is dis­turbed. This makes the wolf for­feit the an­i­mal it has killed and hunt again, ag­gra­vat­ing the man-an­i­mal con­flict. The depart­ment has now roped in con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gists from the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety-In­dia to look into grass­lands, wolves and pas­toral­ists who use the en­tire grass­land in the state to make a ro­bust scheme.

The wolf to­day is vil­i­fied and hunted, strug­gling to find a habi­tat. This is a far cry from the wolves in leg­ends which raised or­phaned chil­dren—from Ro­mu­lus who built Rome to Mowgli in Rud­yard Ki­pling’s 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.”


The best way to pro­tect wolves is to ac­cept them the way peo­ple have ac­cepted dogs in streets

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