Elusive. Mysterious. Phantomlike. These are common epithets used in any conversation describing the Indian grey wolf (or Indian wolf, Canis lupus pallipes). Dr Bilal Habib, a conservation biologist and scientist from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and an expert on wolves, adds “genius” to this list.
Dr Habib has tracked wolves for over a decade. He asserts that their survival is purely due to their brilliance and charts out a list of why he thinks they’re so clever. “Their genius lies in how they use the landscape, travel, capture prey, avoid roads through smaller villages and human density areas, and how they select their denning areas. They are very active on the den site and despite these being close to human-dominated landscapes, wolves behave in a way that people do not see 90 per cent of the dens. They will never allow you within 500 m distance from them. If you were to put tigers in that situation, all the tigers would vanish in a year,” he says.
Wolves can be found less than two hours from Pune city, yet their proximity doesn’t signal an abundance in numbers. Like the tiger, the Indian grey wolf is an endangered species. Protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, they are a subspecies of the grey wolf. Found across peninsular India in scrub forests, grasslands, and arid and semiarid areas, much of the wolf population remains outside protected land. Given the lack of a recent survey, their exact numbers are unknown but guessed to be between 1,500-2,000 across Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka. The grasslands of Saswad, Morgaon, and Jejuri belt in Maharashtra, are one of its last breeding bastions, says Mihir Godbole of The Grasslands Trust. The Trust has been tracking wolves, the apex predator of the grasslands, in the area for a decade, and participated in a wolf collaring project run by WII.
The thrill of seeing wolf movement before the sun comes up over the grasslands is no different from watching a tiger, leopard, or elephant herd make an appearance. Despite the rarity of spotting wolves compared to tigers and elephants, they are often vilified.
Counting them remains a challenge. “They don’t have a unique body pattern, so traditional techniques of camera trapping don’t work for them… one pack works in around 200-300 square kilometres… making it difficult,” Dr Habib points out.
Given their elusive nature, attaching a GPS collar is one of the best ways to get information about this species. Some interesting facts have emerged from an exercise that began in 2018. Long dispersal patterns is one of them. “During one exercise, a subadult wolf was observed moving 80 km away from her territory and establishing herself in a new area,” says Dr Habib. He explains what such long dispersals mean. “A wolf from Sholapur can come to Saswad and vice versa (almost 250 km). This also indicates there’s no inbreeding between the sample population, so there is no chance of a genetic problem.”
Godbole shares exciting stories from his decade-long tracking of wolves in Saswad, mostly of the wolf’s near-legend cunning. “When out to hunt, one wolf acts as a decoy and diverts people and dogs in a certain direction, while the other wolf attacks and takes away livestock,” he says. “Many times, especially during the rains, wolves approach the flocks completely unnoticed, break cover suddenly, cause havoc and carry away sheep. They can disappear really fast, and it’s these abilities that give rise to many myths about them among shepherds,” says Godbole.
It’s this unparalleled ability to remain under the radar that sets wolves apart from other grassland predators like leopards and feral dogs. Dr Habib remembers collaring and tracking a pack of wolves in Nanaj, Maharashtra, during his doctoral thesis a decade ago. “It was summer, and the pack would sleep in a farmer’s pigeon pea field as it was cooler. Yet the farmer remained completely unaware and told me he had last set eyes on a wolf 15 years ago!”
Interestingly, while wolves are protective of their den sites, they use them only while breeding and raising pups, preferring to shelter around rocks or in fields at other times. In about 18 months the pups are subadults who recce different areas for a suitable place to live before leaving the pack. Subadults leaving their parents explore their surroundings, find their mate, and start their own pack. Godbole shares his observation: “Sometimes, individual wolves end up staying with the pack for almost two years. Usually, if there are five or six pups born, three or four survive. And usually, one of them ends up staying with the adults”. The wolf that doesn’t leave becomes a “helper”, sharing babysitting duties with parents for the next litter of pups.
Indian grey wolves tend to form pairs. The alpha pair stays together for a lifetime, and pack sizes vary between four and eight. The rest of the pack is mainly offspring, Godbole adds, as I accompany the Grasslands Trust team at dawn one January morning for a pack they’ve been tracking to show up. It isn’t our lucky day though we are pretty sure the grey ghosts have spotted us from their hideaway home and have decided to give us a wide berth.
Then there is the occasional lone wolf. Stray wolves sometimes leave the pack to hunt alone and survive independently before they join a pack.
With their tawny, grey, or brown coats, wolves meld into the flaxen-bronze grassland landscape. “With their long legs and strong jaws, they look like skinny German shepherds,” says Godbole. That strong jaw can crush large bones in just a few bites, making short work of poultry and cattle carcasses, often thrown in the grasslands from nearby villages and poultry farms.
Grasslands are considered wastelands both by the forest department and many locals. Nearby poultry farms dump waste and this easy availability of food is changing the “highly predatory” behaviour of wolves to some extent. Conservationists have noticed them go easy on chinkara and hare and go for readily available poultry waste instead.
“It’s ultimately part of that landscape,” says Godbole, who doesn’t term this change good or bad. “Poultry waste gets dumped in this landscape. Food availability means less human-wolf conflict. Tomorrow, if the poultry waste goes away, their conflict with humans will increase, and there will be a lot of retaliation killing as well.” Retaliatory killing can come in the form of entire packs poisoned with pesticide (sprayed on a carcass or poultry waste) or blocking/smoking den sites, resulting in the death of pups and sometimes adult wolves as well.
Another big threat to wolf habitats comes from changes in land-use patterns. Because of the perception of grasslands as wastelands and given the easy availability of irrigation facilities, locals have started using these areas for agriculture without understanding that over-irrigation could change the habitat. The expanding city comes closer to the grasslands. With plots of land sold, fencing and tar roads are built for access and this fragments animal corridors. Dumping waste leads to an increase in free-ranging stray dogs that end up hunting chinkara, the wolf’s natural prey. They also carry and spread rabies to wolves. Wolf pups are also prone to attacks from these dogs.
The wolf is losing its apex predator position in Saswad to the leopard. The influx of cash crops like sugarcane has brought in leopards who find these fields good for hiding, along with the easy availability of water and dogs for food. “Wolves can fight with hyenas and hold their ground,” says Godbole, “but once the leopard arrives, they disappear”.
The Grasslands Trust works with the forest department and local communities such as Dhangars and Pardhis to raise awareness about threats to the landscape and its wildlife, especially the Indian grey wolf.
Human development fast encroaching on their habitat and lack of awareness that leads to the animal being killed or driven away are both important threats that people working with wolves stress upon. Conservationists feel that policies need to be in place to protect den sites and preserve the region’s unique biodiversity. Breeding is a sensitive time in the wolf’s life and the appropriate habitat and conditions are much needed for this endangered species to thrive.
“The best wolf habitat is in human hearts,” says Dr Habib quoting the famous American scientist and wolf researcher David Mech. “And you have to leave some space for them to live there.”