A chance photograph that wasn’t part of the Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) study on the response of leopards to tigers has turned out to be a big discovery.
Anubhuti Krishna, a student of MSc (wildlife science) researching the subject, had kept aside an inconspicuous photograph in a bunch of images captured in Rajaji Tiger Reserve (RTR), Uttarakhand, in February.
When she showed the odd photo, of an animal related to the Canidae family—a biological family of dog-like carnivores—to WII scientist Salvadore Lyngdoh, it turned out to be a significant discovery.
Lyngdoh, an expert on Himalayan mammals, including wolves and snow leopards, instantly recognised it as an Indian female grey wolf. It was the first photographic evidence of the presence of this subspecies in the northern Himalayas collected between the Beriwada and Dhokhand ranges of the western part of RTR on February 28.
The WII conducts several studies in RTR by mounting camera traps in selected areas and analysing photos. “There have been anecdotes about sporadic sightings of the Indian grey wolf in RTR. But now we have the first evidence of its presence in the northern Himalayas. Now, Uttarkhand has both the sub-species—the Indian grey wolf in lower reaches and the Himalayan wolf at higher altitudes,” Lyngdoh told Newsclick.
This evidence also shows the presence of the grey wolf in the Western Terai belt. “There had been reported sightings of the grey wolf in the Eastern Terai region, such as the Valmiki Tiger Reserve, Bihar, but none in Western Terai.”
The Indian grey wolf is small, lean and slender and weighs around 25 kg. It can also be identified by its thin black-tipped tail and brown-grey coat. In contrast, the wolves in the upper Himalayas are larger and heavier, weighing about 35 kg, with a broad skull, longer muzzle and more whitish coat to withstand the cold.
The Indian grey wolf is found in the central, eastern, western and southern parts of the country while its Himalayan counterpart is distributed in Ladakh, Spiti (Himachal), Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nepal.
WII director Dhananjai Mohan told Newsclick that intensified camera trapping is leading to the discovery of new species. “Just as the Indian grey wolf is spotted in RTR, new wildlife discoveries have been made in the Gangotri National Park, Uttarakhand. These new findings are very significant as we get a better insight into these animals.”
RTR director DK Singh seconded Mohan. “We never believed people claiming that tigers were seen in high altitudes of the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary. But the claims proved to be right after the camera trap image of a tiger in the terrain was splashed in media reports.”
Mohan said that it is too early to draw conclusions about the grey wolf, and it will be interesting to see if it moves further or remains in the tiger reserve.
Lyngdoh too speculated that the wolf could have strayed from pockets like Saharnpur or Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, considered the endpoint of the northernmost distribution of the Indian grey wolf. “Owing to the rapid change in land use in Uttar Pradesh, where arid/semiarid open grasslands/scrublands are being converted to agriculture land, the animal may have strayed into RTR.”
Increasing use of land for agriculture had many cascading effects on the wildlife, like habitat deterioration, depletion of prey base, increasing disturbance due to anthropogenic activities and human-animal conflict, which could force animals to migrate.
“With their habitat shrinking in UP, it is quite possible that this female wolf could have taken refuge in the southernmost area of the western part of RTR, which is quite similar to their habitat in UP—the open and rugged landscape preferred by the subspecies. Besides, Rajaji has a good prey base of Ungulates, water availability and forest cover,” Lyngdoh added. There are negligible chances of the wolf coming into conflict with tigers or leopards since wolves avoid big predators, he added.
Lyngdoh explained that the wolf is a highly adaptive and resilient species that prefers to prey on wild animals. “However, due to their elusive nature, they are often misrepresented and misunderstood as cunning and killed by locals. This is the reason for the decline in their population though there is no confirmed estimate of their population.”