Wolves have earned the admiration and respect of many. However, in nearly all the geographical and socio-political contexts they find themselves in, wolves are feared and abhorred. Humans have evolved along with other species; one of the most important co-evolutions has been that of wolves. Perhaps our ancestors learnt important traits such as sociality and cooperation from wolves, which formulated the founding bricks of our social behaviour too.
My first wolf sighting was in Kailadevi in 2010. Along with an intern who came to study Gharials, we were driving from Karauli to Karanpur . On the way, we saw 5 wolves playing in a water body near the Ashaki Guard post. It was a June afternoon. When we stopped our vehicle, they disappeared in a few seconds. After that, I spotted them many times but they never allowed me a sighting of more than a few minutes.
My first real moment with the Kailadevi wolves came in March 2016 when I found a group of 8-9 wild pigs of all sizes feeding on a dead goat near a pond. Approaching the site, I spotted 4 wolves, watching their kill taken over by the pigs with great disappointment. 2 of the wolves were adults and the other 2 were sub-adults. In winter coat, they looked very impressive, heavy and powerful yet not keen enough to take on the usurpers. However, possibly disturbed by our presence, the wild pigs abruptly left the kill.
After a few minutes hesitation, the 2 sub-adults could not resist themselves and approached the kill. The adult female also joined them. The sub adults appeared bigger in size than the female. The wolves would be safer on the higher side of the open pond area. The female was keen to drag the kill away from the opening from which the wild pigs or owner of the goat could return. But she found it difficult to shift the carcass. Inexperienced and hungry, the young ones tried to snatch it away from her, but from 2 different sides. Sometimes they even put their collective weight on the kill to stop their mother from moving it. Finally, the mother forcefully lifted with her mouth what was left of the goat, which could be around 10-12 kilogram.
A wolf’s teeth are extremely sharp, strong and slightly curved. This enables them to grasp their prey with their teeth. The canine teeth on the upper and lower jaw interlock so that the wolf can grip and hold on to struggling prey animals. Once the wolf has a firm hold on its prey, it will use the tremendous strength in its jaw muscles to hang on.
The mother wolf carried the carcass to the higher side of the hillock. But the weight of the carcass tired her and she dropped it midway. By then, the sub-adults understood the idea. After a while, all 3 lifted it together and, in a synchronised fashion, carried it easily to the hill top. The 4th wolf – a large male — was slightly shy. But when the kill reached the safer spot, he appeared and joined the rest in feeding. A jackal ventured close and started circling the spot impatiently. The wolves hardly paid any attention to it and finished the remains of the kill within the next 30 minutes. As dusk fell, I left the site.
Hanuman Gurjer, a Village Wildlife Volunteer (VWV), often told me that a wolf would catch a goat by the base of its ear and the pain would make the panicked goat walk alongside the predator. This saves the wolf the trouble of heavy-lifting. The strategy of taking away live goats works mostly during nightl raids on goat enclosures.
Wolves are usually stealth hunters. No one can tell if an animal missing from a herd, was taken by wolves. But they can also attack brazenly if the shepherd is a young and inexperienced child. A pack of 4-5 wolves can surround a herd of 40-60 goats or sheep from different directions. When the shepherd charges to save one targeted goat or sheep, another wolf ambushes a different goat. Such multi-pronged attacks on different goats can test the mettle of an inexperienced shepherd who often ends up losing one or multiple goats. But such attacks are possible only when a solitary shepherd fails to keep his herd from scattering.
2 VWV teams and I once observed the killing of 14 goats in such an attack. One team found 8 wolves on one side of a water channel while the other team counted 6 on the other side. Subsequently, we helped the targeted shepherd apply for and get compensation from the Forest Department.
The most common form of wolf predation involves digging their way into livestock enclosures, but they then find it difficult to escape easily. In such raids, they often end up killing more than required. In one incident in Bangarda near the town of Baler, 2 wolves killed 5 sheep. 2 of those were eaten while the other 3 were left intact.
Goat is the most common prey in and around Ranthambhore because they outnumber all other possible prey for wolves. Sheep is their most preferred prey species because the docile creatures do not offer much resistance and make even less noise when attacked. Data collected by our VWV showed that wolf-livestock predation was strictly restricted to the Kailadevi areas, while livestock predation cases related to the big cats were mostly documented from the Ranthambhore National Park area. Between July and November 2015, at least 31 domestic animals (18 goats and 13 sheep) were killed in 18 incidents of wolf predation in Keladevi (mostly in three villages:Bajoli, Lundawadi and Bhavpur).
The 2nd time I saw wolves on a sheep kill, some Indian vultures were circling above. A sub-adult wolf was approaching the carcass very cautiously. Every now and then, it was running for cover before returning to the kill. After several rounds scanning for all possible threats ,it finally grabbed the kill and started dragging it away. But soon it lost its nerve again, dropped the carcass and ran away. 2 adult wolves were monitoring the drama from a vantage point. They were not interested in the kill anymore and did not assist the sub-adult. Only then did we finally realise that the sub-adult was actually wary of a shepherd nearby. Though our vehicle was very close to the kill, we were not aware of the shepherd’s presence on the ground some 600 meters away until we managed to follow the direction in which the sub-adult was glancing repeatedly. While the young wolf did not pay any heed to our vehicle, it finally gave up on the kill due to a solitary man walking more than half a kilometre away.
As soon as a wolf makes a kill, scavengers like jackals, vultures and crows arrive to share the meal. The above incident taught us that vultures can lead us to kills made by wolves in Kailadevi. Soon enough, a congregation of vultures directed us to a second kill. I started my wildlife journey when the population of vultures slumped across the country. In Ranthambhore, we rarely saw vultures near a kill. The books and records of Fateh and Valmik often mention how vultures lead them to tiger kills on many an occasion. Kailadevi is full of cattle so some populations of vultures still exist in the area while migratory vultures also visit the place.
In mid-January 2016, a conservation educationist Mr Nimesh Ved visited Ranthambhore and we decided to go to Kailadevi where we found a large flock of around 30-40 vultures circling one area. Upon reaching the spot, we found around 50 vultures belonging to 2 migratory — 8 Himalayan Griffons, 25-27 Eurasian Griffons — and 2 resident — 12 Indian Vultures and 2 White Rumped Vultures– species.
The vultures surrounded a carcass that a wolf was feeding on. We then spotted another 3 wolves. They were well fed but hung around the carcass to keep the vultures away. There was a shy male wolf and a lactating female. The 3rd one was a bold male which was strongly defending the kill against vultures. After an hour or so, we realized that it was difficult for him to stand guard at the kill under the harsh midday sun. So he left the carcass and took shelter in the shade of a bush. But as the vultures descended on the kill, the possessive wolf made a dash and kept charging at them. He would spend a few minutes on the kill before heading to his resting spot. But halfway , he would rush back to charge at the vultures settling the kill in his absence. This cycle of charge-guard-leave-charge continued for at least 15 times and on occasions the wolf even managed to grab a vulture or two by their wings but did not hold on to the birds. Nevertheless , the determined vultures knew that the full-bellied wolf would tire soon. Sure enough, once the wolf finally settled down in the shade to rest, the vultures polished off whatever remained of the carcass. It was all over in a matter of minutes and they flew away.
This was an amazing moment in natural history we witnessed. I believe this is a common occurrence during the winter months when the sanctuary is full of migratory vultures. Exactly after 20 days, conservationist Valmik Thapar joined me on a visit to Kailadevi. Again, I spotted a big flock of vultures circling a particular area. We reached there and found a feral dog feeding on a calf carcass. Valmik quickly pointed out that another animal was hiding behind the bushes nearby. It was a full-grown wolf watching the dog feed on its kill. The feral dog opened the calf from his lateral side and kept feeding. After some time, we decided that it was unfair that a feral dog was eating a wolf’s kill inside a forest. We shooed the feral dog away and the wolf immediately emerged out of the bush. The vultures were waiting about 100 meters away from the kill. It was around 2 pm. A pair of Egyptian vultures landed near the kill. They were in breeding plumage and looked handsome. They mated first and then started feeding on meat scattered around the carcass. The wolf was cleaning the dung from the kill’s belly by making a deep opening. Soon, he found the prized portion – the liver –and ran away with it. As soon as he left, another wolf – this time, a lactating female – emerged.
I thought this was the same pack, but then realised the area is 10 km away from the earlier site where I saw 3 wolves a few days ago. 3 jackals were trying to approach the kill but 1 male wolf chased them away. Other jackals, however, were still roaming in the area. Then, 2 feral dogs arrived from a nearby village. The Kailadevi Sanctuary houses many villages and villagers keep a few feral dogs to alert them whenever a predator was in the vicinity.
Wolf packs are usually family groups that consist of a breeding pair and their offspring of the previous 1–3 years. They move within their exclusive home ranges. I have never seen more than 8-9 members in a wolf pack. Once, near the village of Dangra , 14 wolves reportedly killed 14 goats but the predators belonged to 2 different packs. The Druid Peak (Yellowstone National Park) pack of 37 wolves may be the largest pack ever documented. It is an impressive and unforgettable sight, when a grey wolf pack grew from just 8 wolves in 1999 to 27 in 2000 to 37 in 2001. The average pack size in the Yellowstone National park is an impressive 14.6 wolves/pack. The Druid Peak pack, with 5 or 6 adults, 20 yearlings, and 12 pups, numbers to 37 – 38, although since they cannot always find the 12th pup, they count the pack size as 37 wolves.
The most dominant wolf is the one that wins fights over all others, and is called the “alpha”. The “beta” loses fights with the alpha, yet wins over all others, and so on down the line. The wolf least likely to win any fights is called the “omega”. But why do we use these special terms for them and not for a human family or a herd of deer? Researcher L. David Mech, one of the primary creators of the Alpha male hypothesis for wolves, later found additional evidence that the concept of an Alpha male may have been an erroneous interpretation of incomplete data and formally disavowed this terminology in 1999. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so “alpha” adds no information. Why not refer to an alpha female as the female parent, the breeding female, the matriarch, or simply the mother? The alpha theory is based on the behaviour of captive packs consisting of unrelated individuals, an error reflecting the once prevailing view that wild pack formation occurred in winter among independent grey wolves. The theory holds that pack size should vary with prey size up to some optimum number. This optimum should be that which allows predation with the least energy expenditure and the most energy return. Others say that a large number of wolves are not necessary to kill large prey. Even when a larger wolf pack attacks prey, not every pack member contributes significantly to the hunt.
The Indian wolf pack size is usually small, and even though wolves are highly territorial, and they carefully defend territories through various mode of communication. The parent wolves in a pack (both male and female) mark the trail with urine and faeces every 100 meters or so. While the male uses raised-leg urination, standing urination, flexed-leg urination, the female uses squat urination. Defecation and scraping the ground are other wolf scent-marking behaviour. There are many inadequacies with scent marking, so howling compliments it for better territory monitoring. The main disadvantage with scent marking is that it has little effect over long distances. So a combination of howling and scent marking minimizes the chances of neighbouring wolves encountering one another. Famous ecologist, E O Wilson described territoriality as “a very special form of contest, in which the animal needs to win only once or relatively few times. Consequently, the resident expends far less energy than would be, if the case were forced into a confrontation each time it attempted to eat in the presence of a conspecific animal”. The size of the territory is another factor and in establishing a territory, a pair of wolves must select an area far larger than they themselves would need to gain a living because they can expect to produce an average of 4 or 6 pups per litter, which they must feed.
The above-mentioned effort is mainly for their own species but I also observed the interaction of wolves with some other species. In the Banas ravines, I witnessed 13 Jackals and 3 hyenas were on the same buffalo carcass while 2 wolves roamed around. They were shy to approach the kill and possibly due to our presence, they did not try. On several occasions, I have seen feral dogs feeding on wolf-made kills and wolves watching. Sometimes, bigger wolves do manage to scare the feral dogs away though.
Kailadevi WLS is mainly a plateau and the table tops are the main habitat of wolves. But in the summer, as grass dries and water availability drops, livestock keepers migrate down to the nearby Chambal and its tributary rivers with their cattle for green fodder and water. The presence of wolves also reduces on the table tops and their attack on livestock increases in the villages near the river banks. In the hot summer months, wolves shed their fur and look gawky with only a sparse long hair coat remaining. They are usually found alone or in small family groups. Monsoon rains bring more livestock in the sanctuary. Simultaneously, wolves start getting new coats which become thicker by the end of November. The coat becomes more shiny and the colours more prominent. Furthermore, after monsoon, blue bull, chinkara and hare have young ones which the wolves prey on.
As humans usurp more and more of the Earth and alter the natural ecosystem for their own agricultural and infrastructural needs, many carnivores’ habitats get restricted to small pockets, which we then declare as protected areas. The wolf has never restricted itself to these protected areas. It lives in areas held by pastoral communities, who use them for their goats and sheep, the Indian wolf’s main prey these days. Wolves have learnt to survive, they are elusive, cover large areas and are fast runners. If they have a place to breed , then food is not a problem for them.
Wolves do, of course, face the brunt of people’s retaliation. Their dens are burnt and they are poisoned too. Yet, wolves have learnt to survive. There is no report of direct conflict with people around Ranthambhore. I asked many if there were any report of wolves attacking people or children. The answer was always an emphatic ‘No’. In the recent past though, a serious situation arose in 1996 when child lifting cases by wolves were reported in 50 villages of eastern Utter Pradesh. Dr. YV Jhala investigated these cases and found that 76 lethal and non-lethal cases occurred in the area. He found that children aged 4 to 9 years were targeted and the pattern suggested that a single wolf was responsible for the attacks during an 8-month period. There were many such stories of child-lifting wolves in Utter Pradesh in the past. Such ill will caused by a single wolf can destroy long term conservation goals.
The wolf has shown great ecological flexibility. They do not need large inviolate space like tigers, can thrive in degraded forest, and prey predominantly on domestic livestock. However, the population of domestic livestock is also declining, and many open grazing areas have become out of bounds to graziers implying how connected the lives of the wolves and pastoralists are. Conservation efforts are certainly crucial but, ultimately, the Indian wolf’s future will largely depend on us, our lifestyle, attitudes and priorities.