The day began like any other; hot, despite being the middle of December. We headed out to the field to check camera traps set-up to study Indian wolves in Koppal, Karnataka. We were at the third stop for the day; having parked our jeep, we had to hike a short distance navigating boulders and thorny shrubs to get to the location of the camera trap. Checking the pictures, we found to our joy, that a wolf pack had been photographed. There was a pregnant female, one male and two pups! We noticed that most of the individuals had signs of mange, a type of skin disease. We waited for some time in the hope of seeing the pack. With no sign of the pack around, we began the hike back to the jeep.
The mud road for the most part was narrow and bumpy. Shankar anna, who was driving the vehicle, was taking the utmost care not to jerk the jeep around. All of a sudden, a dog bounded into the middle of the road, and thanks to Shankar anna’s mindful driving, he was able to stop the jeep smoothly. The dog crossed, and we waited to see if any other dogs were going to cross before moving.
And out she came. Silently, unexpectedly, out of the bushes.
The she-wolf was just as surprised to see us, as we were to see her. She stood there for about a minute or so, looking at us. Did the unexpected shock of seeing us stun her? Perhaps. She was the same pregnant female we had seen in the camera trap pictures. The mange– conspicuously sparse fur– was clearly visible on her legs now. She then crossed the road and vanished into the bushes.
It took us a minute or two to recover from the unexpected encounter. We waited for a few minutes to see if any other individual from the pack was going to follow. No other wolf or dog came out, and so we left. We could talk about nothing but the wolf on our way back.
The encounter had raised a lot of questions in our mind. Why was she alone? Could we do anything to stop the mange from spreading? Why was she with the dog? Or was it mere coincidence that she followed the dog out of the bushes?
I didn’t see a wolf again during my time there. But hopefully in the future when I go back, the pack would have grown. And maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll see the beautiful she-wolf again.
Dusk was settling over the grey waters of the Chambal. The sky, which had been clear and bright up until thirty minutes ago, was now settling into deeper shades of blue and purple. As my field assistant would say, the hunting hour was fast approaching. He was talking, of course, about the Indian wolf. It was in these ravine systems where I had a rather nerve-wracking encounter with wolves.
It began when our driver deserted us in the ravines. The jeep was cranky and old and refused to traverse the narrow sandy ridges. So he stopped the jeep and told us to go along the transects. My field assistant and I walked for over an hour through a system of confusing ravines, marking GPS points, marking scats, pellets, signs, and pugmarks. We eventually found ourselves on a sandy bank with the Chambal river sprawled out before us. That was when I noticed the pugmarks by the water, right where we were standing. “Wolves,” I said, nudging my field assistant. He came over to look. “We should call the driver,” he said nervously. Wolves do not have a positive reputation with many of the local tribes in this region. Pacing along the riverbank, I looked up at the darkening ravines looming above us and made a decision- to retrace our steps to where we left the jeep.
My field assistant was less than pleased. Retracing your steps with a nervous field assistant continuously muttering about bad omens in your ear is hard. “Madam, are we lost?” my assistant asked feebly, when I stopped and puzzled. That was when the howls began. My assistant couldn’t help the shriek that left his mouth as the eerie howling of wolves was picked up by two, three, five, six animals, seemingly surrounding the gorge where we stood. My eyes struggled to acclimatize to the shadowy darkness. I heard rustling from above, where the low sandy cliffs nearly met over our heads and tried to slow the thumping of my heart. The howls grew in volume and intensity.
My assistant suggested we play loud music and sing along! “The wolves will hear the songs and think we are a large group of people. They will stay away from us.” I was already worried about finding our way back to the jeep, so I gave in. Singing along to racy Hindi songs while running away from wolf hunting grounds was definitely not part of my internship contract. It was when I looked up at the dark sloping ravines above us that I saw their glowing eyes. We were intruders in their habitat, but they were keeping a distance from the cacophony we were causing. After that first glimpse of the wolves, I kept a lookout for more of those elusive canids. After half an hour of wandering blindly through wolf country, we heard faint shouts and saw flashing lights. My teammate and the driver had found us! The howls of the wolves faded away, and as we reunited with our teammates, I looked back at the shadowy ravines from where I had emerged.
The wolves had vanished, melting back into the shadows. All that was left were pugmarks and the echoes of howls in the night wind above the Chambal.
An ordinary agricultural landscape in the arid peninsular India and there is nothing much one notices apart from people, farmlands and livestock. Only with a closer look do you realize that there are hidden elements here, and the most enigmatic of these is the Indian grey wolf. It doesn’t have a spine-chilling growl or stripes and rosettes or even the ability to take down very large prey. But you may be just a few metres away and it knows how to disappear into the agricultural fields and you would never know. It would be panning the landscape from an elevated mound or moving across some rare patches of grasslands, but so well-blended that you may never get to see it. Wolves have the ability to appear and disappear at unexpected times and this is what makes them magical. They are not like the European or North American ones – grey, furry and large. They are some shade of taupe, just about mildly furry and rather lanky. They are social animals, i.e. they live in packs and generally one pair amongst them gives birth to a litter of pups during the colder months. All members of the pack help in raising the litter, and the pups start moving with the pack after they are above 7 to 8 months old. While they are known to prey on antelopes and livestock, they don’t mind some vegetables once in a while. None of us know how many wolves currently roam peninsular India and what the future holds for this extraordinary animal.
There are some special people in the arid areas of peninsular India who know these lands and the wolves very closely: the nomadic pastoralists. These groups move from one harvested field to the other, tracking fodder and water. One might chance upon them herding thousands of sheep along the roadside, carrying their entire household on horseback, and collared dogs moving amidst them. They can be distinguished from local pastoral groups by the womenfolk who move along with the horses and young children, and men herding livestock wearing brightly coloured turbans and gold in their ears. Wolves often take their livestock. But there is something unique about their relations with them, evident from some cultural narratives that one gets to hear. Some say that wolves are brothers and some say they are maternal uncles (Sodara mava in Kannada). As a family member, the wolf deserves a small share of the livestock. The story goes that wolves bless livestock through the occasional visits and the herd prospers if wolves take livestock on certain instances. So has the need for taking livestock recognized and valued by the people? And does this foster acceptance in these landscapes? At least the next time we hear stories about ‘the big bad wolf’, ‘the cunning wolf’ or ‘the wolf in sheep’s clothing’, we might remember this story from the heart of the Deccan peninsula. It reminds us that there are such beautiful, positive relationships between humans and wildlife, right here in India.