LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION
For the study, eight wolves were radio-collared in the Vidharbha and western Maharashtra grasslands india
By Badri Chatterjee
The Indian grey wolf.(Photo: Mihir God-bole)
Dispelling the belief that wolves are one of the predator species lurking around human dominated zones, leading to conflict, preliminary results from a radio-collaring study of eight wolves in the Vidarbha and western Maharashtra grasslands showed the species tries to avoid human-dominated zones as much as possible.
Bilal Habib and his team of researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, and members of The Grasslands Trust, Pune, have been studying the land use pattern, movements, habitat selection, hunting and dispersal patterns of sub adults, and threats to the Indian grey wolf, since 2018.
Attaching global positioning system (GPS) collars on eight individuals in December 2018 helped researchers assess their findings over a period of three years. “The most striking thing we came across was how wolves try to avoid high density human-use areas. The core areas of wolf use are without any human presence,” said Habib, adding that these species are not identifiable by any patterns on their body (unlike big cats), not seen during the day, and are very elusive. “Their subtle behaviour made it difficult for us to photograph them easily in camera traps. The idea is to conserve this last remaining breeding population of the Indian grey wolf in grasslands of the Deccan Plateau in Maharashtra. We need concrete policy for the conservation of this species, and ensure it does not go extinct,” added Habib.
The Indian grey wolf is protected under schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. As a subspecies of the grey wolf, it is found across much of peninsular India inhabiting scrub, grasslands, arid and semi-arid areas in the subcontinent. The species is presently confined to parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Karnataka. According to the International Wolf Centre (conservation body), there are approximately 400-1,100 wolves living in the Himalayan Region and 4,000-6,000 wolves in the peninsular region.
Preliminary results of this three-year study showed that the land use pattern of adult pairs had considerable differences, even regionally, depending on the availability of food and water. One of the female sub-adults moved 80km away from her home territory, and established herself in a new area. “We also found that den sites play a crucial role in the lives of the wolves. Protecting land patches used as den sites would boost conservation efforts,” said Habib.
The study involved three phases of collaring wolves across moist deciduous forests and grasslands of Ahmednagar, Solapur, Pune, Aurangabad, Nagpur and Chandrapur districts. While wolves of different ages and across large packs were collared to know more about their ecology, body measurements and blood samples were taken during radio-collaring for further studies before releasing them.
Among threats, the study found that free ranging dogs and in some cases, leopards were competing with wolves for habitat dominance while cases of poisoning as retaliation to livestock killing were being reported across the grassland landscape.
“The Deccan plateau (Maharashtra) is probably the last remaining connected breeding population for this species in the world. Despite having highest priority in protection in terms of law, these animals and their habitat remain neglected by policy makers. We need a strong government initiative to preserve their future,” said Mihir Godbole, founder member, The Grassland Trust, Pune, which recently released a video of the study findings.
Final results of this study are expected by mid-2021, said Habib.
According to a 2017 study by the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and WII, habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, retaliatory killing coupled with disease threats rendered Indian wolves prone to extinction. However, very little research has been done to understand more about the species, and the animal continues to be perceived to cause conflict by allegedly attacking and lifting livestock in human-dominated landscapes.
Independent experts said animal behaviour depends upon numerous factors and perceptions. “The behaviour repertoire of any species evolves with situations and circumstances. Studies (like WII’s) need to be carried periodically and findings need to be validated repeatedly to understand results better,” said Dr VB Mathur, former director, WII, adding that most predator animals maintain a respectable distance from humans until provoked or confronted.
Dr Mathur explained that the first average reaction of people to elephants would be to appreciate, bow, and pay regards to the animal as it is worshipped in the Indian culture. “However, a wolf or a snake evokes a different response. Thus, when we talk about threats to such species, it is because of preconceived human behaviour rather than the animal behavior rendering them an additional threat. Combined with this, there is folklore, some of which may be true while some may not be. However, as far as the wolf is concerned, the image of this animal in the eyes of an average human is that of a hostile type,” he said, adding, “As a landscape species, the best strategy for the wolf would be to avoid human presence. At the same time, despite our threat perception, grasslands need to be conserved for their safety, and the perception of such habitats as wastelands needs to change.”
THE INDIAN GREY WOLF
Indian grey wolves resemble the domesticated dog breed (German shepherds or huskies) in appearance but have a large skull and teeth, which distinguish them from other closely related canines. According to taxonomic studies, there are 32 sub species of the grey wolf globally with the Tibetian and Indian wolf found across India. Indian wolves have yellowish-brown coat colour interspersed with black. Their coat colour is usually lighter during summers. Studies estimate that they can travel tirelessly at a rate of 8 km per hour and sprint at speeds of 55 to 70 km per hour. Their average length ranges from 103 to 145 cm, males are heavier (19-25 kg) than females (17-22 kg) while adults can be distinguished from juveniles by white markings above the eyes, on the chin and under the throat. Females have a gestation period of 62-63 days with a litter size of two to six individuals. The mating season is during October and November while the age of dispersal for a young adult is 18 months. “Across Maharashtra, the majority of the wolf population is found outside protected areas and highly dependent on livestock allowing the potential for conflict, especially the shepherd community, but in this case we found their hunting, dispersal, and habitat pattern assuming that human spaces were a threat to them,” said Habib.