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Climate Change to Significantly Impact on Distribution of Wooly Wolf in Central Asia

Seema Sharma |
The wooly wolf is a high-altitude wolf whose population is distributed primarily in the Himalayan region and the Tibetan Plateau.
wolf env

Image Credits: Salvador Lyngdoh

A recently published research paper evaluates the present and future scenario of the impact of climate change and other related anthropogenic factors on the population of wooly wolves. It shows an increase in habitat suitability of wooly wolves within its probable distribution range under the combined effects of climate and land-use changes in the future.

The Central Asian wolves form a cohort within the wolf-dog clade known as the woolly wolf (Canis lupus chanco). These wolves are poorly studied and their current extent and distribution remain unknown, according to the research paper titled Modeling Potential Impacts of Climate Change on the Distribution of Wooly Wolf (Canis lupus chanco).

The wooly wolf is a high-altitude wolf whose population is distributed mostly in the Himalayan region and the Tibetan Plateau. The Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes) is of the semi-arid region, and it is found in the Indian peninsula.

The research has been carried out collectively by the scientists from prestigious environmental institutes, namely, the Wildlife Institute of India, the Department of Biogeography and Global Change at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Spain, the Department of Ecology at the French Institute of Pondicherry in Pondicherry, India, and the Department of Ecological Modelling, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research at Leipzig in Germany.

According to the research paper, the team collected 3,776 present locations of the wooly wolves across its range. The study area included parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, China, Mongolia, and Russia, comprising about 18.63 million square kilometres. 

The researchers are of the view that this is the first study that shows the global extent of wooly wolves and helps find key priority areas that may be of management importance in the face of climate change and other anthropogenic factors. Thus, this study holds great significance for the conservation and management of this species.

This study explores the current distribution of the animal’s population and predicts the likely changes in the suitable habitats for wooly wolves across 15 countries in Central Asia under the effects of climate change. It also shows an increase in the future habitat suitability of the wooly wolves.

Among the studied countries, Myanmar and Russia were found to have the introduction of high and medium suitability areas for the wooly wolf in future scenarios. On the contrary, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan showed a consistent loss in high suitability areas, while Mongolia and Bhutan had the largest gain in high suitability areas. 

Given that wolfs exhibit an inclination toward areas with low to moderately warm temperatures, higher precipitation, and barren land (instead of forests), Bilal Habib, WII scientist and co-author of the research paper, told NewsClick, “Keeping the future projection of probable rise in global temperature for the years 2050 and 2070, the expansion of Wooly wolf range in medium and high suitability area is predicted. Russia and Myanmar are likely to have such areas.” 

He further explained the reason behind the prediction, saying, “Both global warming and land-use change are interconnected. For instance, warming will make glaciers melt in Russia, facilitating the availability of barren areas and agricultural lands. Since wolves prefer such habitats, their distribution will also expand in the country. In a way, the wooly wolf is a climate positive species.”

The paper also says that certain prey species may not respond well to climate change, and, as a result, there can be a decline or mass extinction in their population, or they may become victims of diseases that can affect predators like wolves.

As per earlier studies, wild ungulates would become more susceptible to diseases in future. This will happen due to climate change, habitat shrinking, increased concentration and movement of humans and livestock within shared habitats of wild animals, which will introduce various pathogens and vectors.

Prey species in Central Asia, such as saiga antelopes (Saiga tatarica), are prone to disease outbreaks because of the increasing temperature and shared rangelands with livestock.

The research put Kazakhstan under decreased habitat suitability area of the wooly wolf in future. It is directly related to the decrease in the saiga antelope population, which is its main prey in the country. Another subspecies, grey wolves, which were once the most widespread land carnivore, have now vanished from 26% of their geographical extent. 

Salvador Lyngdoh, WII scientist and another co-author of the research paper, told NewsClick, “Some areas may open newer environments in terms of barren and open lands that can help wolves colonise these areas. The opposite may also be true, which may lead to a loss in habitats and a decline in the wolf population due to the non-availability of prey. Yes, there is a range of factors that can shape the distribution of species.” 

Lyngdoh added, “If you see the historical records, many species are supposed to occur in a given area as it is known that they may be climatically suited for it. However, with the human population and other changes in land use, an immediate reason for an elephant or a frog not being there is urbanisation, for example. So, an increase in the suitable area will be shaped by other drivers if the area is mostly anthropocentric in origin. Socio-Political as well as environmental drivers will determine the adaptability of wolves.”

Similarly, the wooly wolf has also been subjected to human persecution and conflict for centuries due to resource-scarce habitats. 

He said the livestock killing by wolves and retaliation by humans could be the main reasons for conflict across their distribution range. The expansion of their distribution may lead to a further rise in the conflict in human-dominated landscapes. Hence, "we need some robust future administrative mechanisms for wolf management in these countries,” he said.

This study, done across different countries, showed that Bhutan, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, China, and India had increased the suitable habitat, mostly outside PAs. These countries already have existing conflict issues with wolves. Also, the research showed negative relations with forests and farmlands, reflecting its affinity more toward open barren areas. Only ∼12% of the study area corresponded to a suitable area (Medium + High) for the wooly wolf, of which only ∼1% is under PA and the rest is outside PA.

Habib suggested protection measures for the wooly wolf, saying, “Wolf is doing pretty well in PAs in India. However, we need more PAs in the locations where wolves distributions are found. This is how the species can be protected from conflict. And we need the support of the communities to extend protection to the species outside PAs."

Lyngdoh also added, “Lastly, we will need transboundary efforts to conserve wolves; we will need peace parks that look beyond political boundaries and allow species to exist without borders.”

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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