The wolf is perhaps the only terrestrial mammal that has a reputation worldwide, from the Rocky Mountains of North America to the woods of Europe to the tundra to the African highlands and to the scrublands of India. It is also one of the least-loved and most misunderstood creatures with which we inhabit this planet. Across the globe, wolves are synonymous with livestock depredation, stealing children, and essentially find themselves grouped into the category of vermin. Hunted for these so-called sins of the pack, wolves are slowly dropping off the face of the earth…and no one is noticing!

An African golden wolf assesses the photographer, eyes watchful (Google)

Let me take you on a tour of our threatened wolf species. The most ubiquitous species is the grey wolf (Canis lupus), found in North America, Europe, and India in a variety of habitats. The grey wolf is not always grey; it takes on a russet shade in the sub-tropics and during the summer months. In India, the fur is never as thick or as long as that of its counterparts in colder climes. There is also the highly endangered red wolf (Canis rufus), of which only a tiny population remains in the coastal wetlands of the state of North Carolina in the USA. Hunted as vermin, this beautiful canid now struggles to hold onto its lease of life even as farmers argue their right to hunt it to extinction. Another wolfish cousin, the Himalayan wolf (Canis himalayensis) walks a lonely path towards extinction in the high peaks of northern India (Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh), Nepal, and Tibet. Protected in India, it is still denied legal protection in Tibet. It’s close cousins, the Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus laniger) and the African golden wolf (Canis anthus) also battle equally for recognition and life in separate geographic spheres. And the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), isolated in the Ethiopian Highlands, holds the title of Africa’s most endangered carnivore.

A pair of elusive Himalayan wolves make their way through their rocky habitat (Google Images)

Even Yellowstone National Park, the United States’ stronghold for grey wolves in North America, fights a losing battle to keep the wolf free and alive. In the early 1900s, government predator control programmes succeeded in eliminating wolves from this park; the last wolf in Yellowstone was shot in 1926. In 1973, decades later, the Endangered Species Act made it legally possible to reintroduce wolves into the ecosystem…and to enforce that they remained alive this time. When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, their impacts on the ecosystem were immediate and visible. The abundant elk population was suddenly kept in check, and with this, vegetation species that had been overgrazed began to return to the park. Species such as the willow, cottonwood, and aspen have returned around the fringes of timber areas in the park, and coyote populations in the park have declined as well. Beavers, too, have returned in greater numbers to Yellowstone’s streams and rivers, thanks to the return of willow, an important part of the beaver’s winter diet. Thus, the return of an apex predator to the ecosystem has had far-reaching effects with benefits to the health of the overall landscape (National Parks Service 2017).

Having seen the return of wolves, but also heard the multiple protests against their reintroduction, I have still find reason to hope for the continued survival of this species in the other parts of its global range, especially in my homeland – India. Part of what has helped to keep wolves alive in Eastern nations is folklore and superstition – of the positive kind. In many parts of India and Africa, wolves appear in mythological tales and in moral fables. Let me take you to the central highlands of India, where nomadic herders have a unique and positive relationship with a pack of Indian wolves. An ancient legend held to be true by these nomads is the key to this coexistence. The tale is of three brothers, one of whom is cheated out of his share of inheritance by his brothers. He leaves his family, leaving behind a curse that he would one day return to claim his rights. The nomads believe that the wolves are the spirit of this brother, returning to the land to claim what is rightfully theirs. And this fosters tolerance and respect, unlike the attitudes displayed by local farmers and herders.

The Indian wolf is one of the least understood and least-studied carnivores on the subcontinent, surprising, given wildlife lovers’ fascination with all things with teeth and claws. Protecting the wolf is especially difficult as these animals roam beyond the boundaries of protected areas and outside forested areas. Law enforcement becomes an issue despite the wolf carrying a Schedule I protection on its head. It is difficult to account for all cases of farmer-wolf conflict in central India, especially as many of these cases go unreported and unnoticed.

The domestic dog may be man’s best friend, but the wolf has been awarded far less pleasant titles despite belonging to the same family. I have had the pleasure of seeing wolves and hearing their howls in the scrublands of Rajasthan, where wolves still wander the land. During my Master’s at Duke University in North Carolina, I trekked through wolf territory in the pocosin wetlands where the red wolf makes its final stand. Though the dense wetland vegetation prevented us from sighting a wolf, its mark on the ecosystem was everywhere. An apex predator ensures that the dynamics of the ecosystem are in place, controlling herbivore populations and therefore stemming the spread of disease and allowing for the proliferation of vegetation.

A red wolf surveys its territory in the pocosin wetlands of North Carolina, where this charismatic animal struggles to beat extinction (photo from Red Wolf Defenders)

In my forays in nature, I have only ever come across five wolf pugmarks. Three were in Rajasthan, two in North Carolina. Elusive and phantasmagorical, the wolves themselves dissolved into their respective landscapes when we came near. Their vanishing imprints on this land are a reminder of our habit of claiming what is not ours – landscapes, the lease of life from certain maligned species, and the spark of wild beauty for which we no longer can muster up adequate respect.

For those interested in the interesting relationship between Indian nomads and wolves, check out the documentary “Walking With Wolves,” available on Netflix. I am including a promo of the documentary here, to spark your interest.

One thought on “Can Wolves Fight Back Against the Lonely Walk to Extinction?

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