Wolves of the wasteland
Think of wolves. Chances are you’d be hard-pressed to come up with an image that is positive, pleasing or happy. You won’t be alone. In Europe, there’s the medieval legend of the werewolf, the man who turns into a wolf-like creature at night, with fangs and claws. In India, wolves are supposed to steal unguarded babies, who then grow up to become wolf-boys. In the US, former stockbroker Jordan Belfort chose to title his memoir chronicling his dark financial raids The Wolf of Wall Street. Not to forget that cliché of horror movies—a wolf in silhouette, neck tilted up, howling away at the full moon. For all we know, the howling wolf could well be a mythical creature from a dark and dangerous world. But why does a wolf howl? “A wolf will be wasting its time howling at the moon. It does so only to communicate with its pack. Every wolf howl is unique, just like every tiger has a unique stripe pattern on its body,” says Bilal Habib, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India and an expert on wolves.
This fact—about howling—is now set to aid Habib and his team conduct a ‘sound capture and recapture’ experiment, the first of its kind in India to count the number of wolves. At present, there is no population estimate for wolves anywhere in the Indian subcontinent. ‘Capture and recapture’ is a method commonly used to estimate the size of a species’ population. In this case, scientists will record samples of wolf howls in a habitat in one season. Say they record 100 different howls. Later, in the next season, another sample is recorded, say now, the scientist gets 150 wolf howls and among these, 50 are found to have been previously recorded—then the total population size is 300, using the following formula: Total = original number tagged x total recaptured ÷ number tagged on recapture. In 2003, genetic studies established that the Indian subcontinent supports three distinct wolf lineages. Two are ancient and unique to the subcontinent. The peninsular Indian wolf lineage (Canis lupus pallipes) came into being 400,000 years ago and is found across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
The Himalayan wolf lineage (Canis lupus chanco), which evolved about 800,000 years ago, making India the cradle of modern wolf evolution, is found in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim. The third Indian wolf (Canis lupus chanco, or the Tibetan wolf), found in the Himalayan mountains of Kashmir, belongs to the wolf-dog clade (species descendant from a common ancestor) that stretches across the rest of Eurasia and North America. At the time these studies were conducted, there were thought to be around 350 Himalayan wolves in the wild and between 1,000 and 3,000 peninsular Indian wolves. Peninsular Indian wolves are creatures of the savannah, a unique grassland ecosystem that is found throughout peninsular India and in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha. Central to the wolf’s universe is its pack, and howling keeps the group together. According to Habib, wolves—like dogs—also bark, whine, whimper, snarl, yelp and growl more often than they howl. But it is howling that defines the wolf. The pack that howls together stays together. Wolf packs range over vast areas for food; on an average a pack occupies an area of around 180-200 sq.km, so howling is the only way to communicate over great distances in open grasslands. This unique feature allows wolves to identify each other, locate and reunite, as well as mark out territory to keep out rival packs. Grasslands support a vast proportion of India’s agro-pastoral community and many rare, endangered and endemic bird and animal species. But since these vast areas are devoid of any tree cover, the government has classified them as wasteland.