Wolves in India might become endangered if appropriate measures are not taken to conserve them, writes Sunil Kumar M
Wolves, unlike other charismatic mammals like tigers, leopards and elephants, do not get the attention they deserve. Conservation of their habitats is also neglected as the focus of conservation in India is mostly towards securing forest ecosystems and their inhabitants.
Drier regions and grasslands which form unique habitats for wildlife such as the Indian Grey Wolf (Canis lupus pallipes) are deprived of the focus that must be laid on them.
The Indian Grey Wolf plays a significant role in the ecosystem as it performs the role of a top carnivore in the open plains like the tiger in the forests. Despite being accorded high protection status under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), there are reasons like change in land use pattern and depletion in natural prey base, endangering its existence.
Karnataka had a large population of wolves and also the habitat to sustain them. For example, wolves were believed to be in good numbers in Mandya district.
They were accorded ‘protected’ status by the Forest department by declaring the Melkote Temple Wildlife Sanctuary in Melkote as Wolf Sanctuary, perhaps the only one in the country. However, their population in this patch has dwindled and this has been reflected in the lack of sightings.
Wolves are also persecuted as they are known to steal livestock and rumoured to steal children. In some parts like Pavagad in Tumkur, the rumour of child-stealing by wolves in the early 1980s drove them to the brink of extinction in the region. Research on their population with respect to their habitats in Karnataka is limited when compared to animals like tigers and elephants.
However, some research findings provide broad reflections of the ground realities. During 2005-2007, wildlife biologist H N Kumara and naturalists N S Subhash Chandra, V V Naik, M M Kumar and B Somashekar (under the guidance of former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Chief Wildlife Warden Avni Kumar Verma) came out with several significant findings regarding the status of wolves, threats posed by them, protection and seasonal movement.
Since there were no statistics available to assess their population, mortality and other aspects, the department initiated a study to Kumara and his team to come up with a conservation strategy.
This study, titled Estimation of Indian Grey Wolf-Population in selected of regions of Karnataka and its conservation strategy was funded by the Karnataka State Forest Department.
The team studied eight potential regions (where shepherd population was high) for long term conservation of wolf prey species availability and their density, the man-animal conflict, its consequences and impact on wolf population and arrived at a conservation strategy.
The team was also told to assess the feasibility to develop a protected area network for conservation.
These study areas were Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary in Bellary district, Ranebennur Blackbuck Sanctuary in Haveri, Melkote Temple Sanctuary in Mandya, Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Chamrajnagar, Yadgir, Chincholi in Gulbarga district, Basavanabagevadi in Bijapur, Chikkodi, Rayagad and Gokak in Belgaum, Sira, Madhugiri and Pavagad in Tumkur district.
Apart from studying habitats, and looking for sightings and other evidences, the team also interviewed shepherds in these regions. The Pavagad belt, Tumkur and Madhugiri, Sira and Bandipur turned out to be quite discouraging for wolves.
The Pavagad region witnessed a series of wolf killings in the 80s and the sighting of wolves in the area was rare even though the sheep population remained high and stable. Melkote region which was declared as a Wolf Sanctuary reported no sighting of wolves.
The team found rapid changes in habitat as a cause for this. Prior to 1990, the farmers had large land holdings but cultivated very small portion of their land due to non-availability of water for irrigation. The majority of the land was used as a pasture for sheep and goats.
From 1980 to 2000, several developmental activities came up in the region, including an irrigation canal in 1981, adjacent to the northern side of the sanctuary. This divided the region into north and south, restricting the movement of the terrestrial animals.
The canal led to cultivation of the pasture for crops. The rearing of sheep also reduced drastically in the region, impacting the wolf population. Out of the 53 people who were interviewed, 30 per cent had sheep and goats in small numbers and only two people had sighted wolves during 2005-2006.
Outside protected areas
The situation outside protected areas looked better. Chincholi, Yadgir and Basavanbagevadi in Bijapur, Chikkodi, Gokak and a few other places in Belgaum had good population of wolves. The study in Chincholi and Yadgir ranges revealed that about 12 to 15 wolves existed in Chincholi and Yadgir had 7 to 12 wolves.
They were also sighted regularly at Chincholi Forest and villages. Villagers had also sighted pups in the region and there were incidents where wolves were killed by shepherds.
Basavanabagevadi, which is about 1978 sq km in area, has 11.46 sq km of forest land and dry grassland has about 9 to 13 wolves.
Wolves were sighted around Kanhala plantation near Basavanabagevadi and forests around Babangi. Several reports of wolves being eliminated as the villagers perceived them as threats also came to light.
Belgaum, Gokak and Chikkodi had around 20 to 30 wolves making it a significant place to conserve. Chikkodi had about 15 wolves with records of breeding and sighting of wolves have been regular.
Chikkodi, Raybagh, Gokak and Hukkeri were found to be important areas for wolves. Interaction with more than 74 shepherds in this region revealed that wolves were not considered a threat to sheep. These shepherds were more tolerant towards the wolves.
Shepherds who were interviewed said they would prefer chasing them to killing them. There is an urgent need to re-assess threats to wolves in terms of land use change and also human-animal conflicts.
Conservation strategies should go beyond traditional ways of protecting and ring-fencing land. Instead, wolf strategies for conservation should also involve local farmers, shepherds and other stakeholders.