The unique genetic adaptation of the Himalayan wolf to high-altitudes and consequences for conservation; Geraldine Werhahna, Helen Senn, Muhammad Ghazali, DibeshKarmacharya, Adarsh ManSherchan, Jyoti Joshi, Naresh Kusi, José Vincente, López-Bao, Tanya Rosen, Shannon Kachel, Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, David W.Macdonald; Global Ecology and Conservation, 2018 Oct
By Mayank Aggarwal
The Himalayan wolf is a distinct species of wolf, which shows unique genetic adaptation to the difficult conditions in the Asian high altitude ecosystems, a study found, reiterating that it needs to be identified as a species of special conservation concern. “Conservation action for the Himalayan wolf is required and of global conservation interest,” noted the study.
For the study, the researchers used over 280 samples of scat and hair from the Himalayan region of Nepal, which included Humla and Dolpa districts in the north-western Nepalese Himalayas and the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA) in the north-eastern Nepalese Himalayas, during the spring and summer periods of 2014 to 2016.
Explaining that the Himalayan wolf is a little-understood wolf lineage found in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau of Asia, the study noted that the species diverged from the Holarctic grey wolf 691,000 to 740,000 years ago. The Holarctic region includes all the non-tropical parts of Europe, Asia, Africa (north of the Sahara) and North America (till the Mexican desert region). According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global population of grey wolf (Canis lupus) is estimated to be 200,000 to 250,000 individuals.
“The Himalayan wolf presents an overlooked wolf lineage that is phylogenetically [evolutionarily] distinct from grey wolves. Current evidence indicates that this wolf has diverged as an own lineage before the radiation of modern grey wolves. Hence the Himalayan wolf presents an evolutionary significant wolf population that merits appropriate taxonomic recognition,” Geraldine Werhahn, lead author of the study, told Mongabay-India.
Taxonomy is a system of classifying species. Relationships between species can be represented as a family tree, known as a phylogeny.
Werhahn explained that the Himalayan wolf is more “distinct than many of the currently recognized subspecies of the grey wolf, hence the debate around it potentially meriting full species recognition.”
“The Himalayan wolf is adapted to life in the extreme high altitude habitats of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau and along with the snow leopard, is a top predator in this ecosystem. Predators enjoy a growing recognition for the important roles they fulfill, like maintaining ecosystem health and balance. Currently, this wolf is overlooked by science and conservation and local people are not aware that this wolf needs to be conserved and is of global relevance,” added Werhahn, who is a conservation biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at the Zoology department of the University of Oxford. The study is a collaborative project between researchers from the U.K., Nepal, Spain, Kyrgyzstan and the U.S.
According to the study, the Himalayan wolf has been documented at 3,900 to 5,600 meters (approximately 12,800 to 18,400 feet) above sea level across the continuous landscape of the Himalayas and genetic evidence has confirmed its presence in the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau.
The study stated that Nepal, with its northern area dominated by the Himalayan mountain range, holds a considerable Himalayan wolf population.
It emphasized that the “dramatic inaccessible high Himalayan landscapes may present important habitat refuges for the Himalayan wolf” and recommended that Nepal should play a leading role in Himalayan wolf conservation and act as a role model for the other range countries, which currently, along with Nepal, include India and China.
Sharing her experience of the study, Werhahn stated that the majority of local people in the Himalayan wolf habitats are Buddhists and have a comparable tolerant and integral attitude towards the natural world around them.
“They have coexisted for centuries in these challenging but immensely beautiful ecosystems. Local people are not aware that the Himalayan wolf, similar to the snow leopard, needs to be protected and that they should not kill it. Snow leopard conservation has been in place since some decades now and local people are much more aware to not kill snow leopards. Now, the same must happen for Himalayan wolves,” she said. “In fact, all predators, and these whole predator guild conservation actions can go hand in hand with conservation actions already in place and functioning for snow leopards,” said Werhahn while replying to a query about the attitude of the local people toward the Himalayan wolf.
Separate Species Status Would Help in Conservation
As per the study, the evaluation of the conservation status of the Himalayan wolf and the subsequent implementation of conservation actions is “hindered by scarce data on taxonomic status, distribution and ecology.”
“Although the scientific evidence supporting its genetic uniqueness has been accumulating in recent years, reliable population estimates are lacking, ranging from 350 individuals in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh (in India) to several thousand in Tibet and Qinghai,” the study said.
Werhahn stressed that the main problem in conservation of this wolf species is scarce data and that it does not get the attention of science and conservation.
“Once it is assigned its appropriate and required taxonomic classification, it can then be assigned an IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) conservation status. And these two necessary advancements, taxonomic recognition and conservation status, are crucial to improve conservation efforts with regard to political leverage, but also conservation awareness and conservation funding. This will trigger an increasing interest to research and conserve this wolf,” she said.
She further said that later some more specific actions to mitigate livestock depredation, ensure healthy wild prey populations and decrease illegal wildlife trade of its parts can be taken for the purpose of conservation of the Himalayan wolf.