DANCING WITH THE WOLVES
FFive years ago, while playing golf, Indrajit Ghorpade had an epiphany that would change the course of his life.
He overheard a conversation about the golf club’s plan to bring out a book on the birds commonly spotted on the course and it struck him that he had little to show for the four days a week he had spent surrounded by nature on the links for 30-odd years. Why not take up wildlife photography instead, he thought? After all, he was familiar with the
wildlife around the grasslands near his ancestral home in Koppal, Karnataka. Plus, he had dabbled in photography in his youth and spent hours in the darkrooms of some of India’s best wildlife photographers.
However, Indrajit soon realised that he wasn’t content with just pretty pictures, and turned to conservation. It was an encounter with the Indian wolf that sparked his passion for conservation. It had been about a year since he had started photographing seriously when, one morning, while sitting in his 1947 4x4 Willys Jeep, watching a herd of blackbucks, his companion quietly pointed out a wolf to him. It was the first time in decades that he had come across this dwindling species. He crept closer and took a picture. The shot marked a turning point for Indrajit, who realised something: “There is no wildlife photography without wildlife.” Soon after, Indrajit founded one of India’s most successful wolf-preservation projects—the Deccan Conservation Foundation (DCF).
He bought around 25 camera traps, hired four workers, enlisted 20 volunteers and started DCF in 2015 with the aim to ensure the survival of the beautiful animals—of which only around 2,000 to 3,000 remain in India. Working with the Bengaluru-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), he has made great strides in eliminating poaching in Koppal.
Indrajit hails from the Sandur royal family, which has historically been a patron of those studying and conserving nature. Maharaja Yeshwantrao Ghorpade is known to have employed wildlife photographer and naturalist M. Krishnan in the 1940s and wildlife photographer T.N.A. Perumal later, to document wildlife in sanctuaries across India for a book. M.Y. Ghorpade, the titular Raja and Indrajit’s first cousin, was a renowned wildlife photographer himself. Growing up in Bengaluru, Indrajit lived next door to the naturalist Zafar Futehally, while O.C. Edwards, a pioneer in black and white wildlife photography, was a dormitory warden at his school. However, the most important reason for Indrajit’s interest in the subject was that Koppal, his home, is teeming with wildlife.
Located an hour’s drive from the spectacular ruins of the Vijayanagara empire in
Not content with just photographing wildlife, Indrajit turned to conservation after a rare sighting of the Indian wolf
Hampi, Koppal is geologically very unusual. “It is at a transition zone—lying in the doab between the Tungabhadra and Krishna rivers,” he says. The vast grasslands and the rocky outcrops, with both red and black cotton soil, make it ideal for wildlife. Striped hyenas, jungle cats, rusty spotted cats, leopards, blackbucks, jackals, and foxes can all be found here. “Since I had good knowledge of the terrain, the feeding habits and breeding season, I started getting good photographs,” he says.
DCF’s initial plan to conduct a biodiversity study to identify the remaining habitats in Koppal and the wildlife within them didn’t get the government’s support. Then, one day, he got a call from a WCS researcher. They had received a grant to study the Indian wolf, but were about to lose it because they hadn’t been able to find one for a year. Indrajit volunteered to take them around Koppal. Sceptical at first, WCS sent another researcher for a reconnaissance trip. “We got into a jeep at six in the morning and by 6.40 am, we had seen five wolves,” recounts Indrajit. The WCS spent the next two years at Koppal, conducting anti-poaching camps, setting up camera traps, spreading awareness, carrying out studies and dealing with man-animal conflict.
According to Indrajit, the local shepherds worship the wolf, believing that the predators ensure the sheep remain healthy by culling the weakest of the herd, and that the spike in the adrenaline that the wolf causes in the sheep makes the meat especially delicious. “People from Hyderabad come to Koppal to buy the sheep because the meat is so tasty,” he says.
Still, hunting by people living in villages nearby meant poaching remained a big problem. Over the past four years, DCF has managed to stop poaching across 200 acres surrounding Mandalmari village, the highest point in Koppal. “I saw a wolf in Mandalmari and said let’s protect this area. In three years, by putting 8-10 camera traps and two watchers, we have ensured there is no poaching,” he says. “In the beginning, we would catch a poacher every week. Now they avoid Mandalmari.”
Next up, he wants to tap into the tourists arriving at Hampi and promote wildlife tourism in the area. A coracle ride on the Tungabhadra is on the cards. But raising awareness among the local children remains his first love. “I want to tell the small boy on the road, ‘Hey, do you know where the dog came from? It came from the wolf’,” he says. “It will trigger a subconscious thing, and that’s all I need.”