The Realm of the Grey Wolf
India is really gifted when it comes to natural habitats. We are home to an amazing number of landscapes, and I would even go as far as saying that any landscape that you can think of anywhere in the world, you can find something similar in India. It is this diversity of landscape that has let numerous species evolve here and call it home giving us 10% of the world’s wildlife. One amongst these and a favourite of mine is the wolf.
Wolves have always fascinated mankind they are a big part of our folklore in many parts of the world and of course man’s best friend has descended from the wolf. It is said that some 15000-40,000 years ago is when the dogs broke away from the wolf. Even today the dog shares more than 99% of its DNA with the wolf though 1% of difference is a lot. But that is another discussion. Today I would like to talk about my search for the wolf in India.
I have been travelling for watching and cherishing our wildlife for close to 40 years now and have seen numerous species over the years, however, what surprised me was that in all this time I had not yet seen the Indian wolf. I realize that their numbers have dropped significantly but that they would be so elusive was not expected. I did come quite close to seeing them on a couple of occasions:
In May 2019 I travelled to Pench National Park with some guests (for those of you who do not know I organize wildlife travel within the subcontinent and on some occasion travel with the guests). We arrive early morning in Nagpur and had an afternoon safari planned. When I reached the lodge, everyone seemed to be excited as that morning 2 wolves were seen in the park and everybody got excellent photographs of them interacting and it was a good long sighting. Although we did try and find them, but it wasn’t yet my time to see them.
In November 2019 I was again in Pench with another group of photographers and while we searched for tigers many jeeps saw the wolves again. Having missed the canid yet again I was determined to see it and to photograph it and so I planned my family vacation in January to a park visited by a few, but it is considered to be the best place in the country to see the wolf. This was the Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar.
Blackbuck National Park is one of the most unique landscapes in the country. It is perhaps the only grassland of its type in the country. It is located in the state of Gujarat close to Bhavnagar. It is spread over an area of just 34 sq.km. This was an area used as a hunting ground for the Maharaja of Bhavnagar largely for Cheetah coursing (the name given to the use of trained cheetahs for the hunt). Cheetahs were very much part of the Indian landscape less than a century ago and they were often used by the rulers to hunt Blackbuck. The blackbuck – an antelope species is one of the fastest land mammals found in India. The park was established in July 1976. It protects not only the grassland but has also been a successful conservation effort for the Blackbuck antelope, Indian Wolf, Striped Hyena and the lesser Florican amongst other species.
On the first sight of the park you will realize that this is the closest that any landscape in India comes to savanna grasslands of Africa. It is a haven for antelopes – blackbuck and the blue bull whose population are today controlled by none other than the Indian Wolf. On my recent visit this January I was fortunate to sight a total of 15 wolves on 3 different occasions. The first sighting was perhaps the most un-real. In the orange glow of the rising sun we saw 4 specks in the distance, at the time we could barely tell whether these were even living creatures or clumps of grass. In fact, I did ask Siddharth (our naturalist – with Blackbuck Lodge) what it was, and it took him a while as well to realize that it was a pack that was heading our way. What was more incredible is the speed at which they move. We could barely turn the jeep around, and they had already covered what seemed like half a kilometre to cross the road just behind our vehicle – this was my first sighting of the Indian grey wolf. But the crossing of tracks was brief, and they disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Though I was happy but was not really satisfied with the sighting.
But the next day was incredible. In the evening itself from the lodge (Blackbuck Lodge) – which is in very close proximity to the park we heard lots of howling. The next morning, we had just entered the park when we found the pack with a kill. This was an incredible sighting (though a little far for great photography – unfortunately I am a finicky photographer 😉). We saw interactions within the ranks, we saw them feeding and spent the whole morning with them. As we went further, we found another pack with another kill and the wolves ran alongside the jeep – the incredible speeds that they reached was something I hadn’t imagined. This might have also been because they were encroaching upon the territory of the previous pack. So, they got the kill and were moving away.
However, the sighting that was the most incredible for me was when a pack elder flushed out a hare for the young to catch. I’m guessing this was school time!! But because the young wolf might have been distracted by our vehicle it missed the hare and a chase ensued. The rabbit ran across the grassland towards us on to the road in front followed closely by the wolf and then veered off to the other side – this was exhilarating stuff as the rest of the pack followed at such a speed that one could get glimpses of where the current day greyhound genes would have come from. As the entire classroom along with their teacher disappeared after what I presume was a terrified hare my admiration for this incredible species only grew stronger. A must visit destination for all who enjoy wilderness.
The interactions of the pack, how they raised their family and coordinated their hunts was enough to make me remember the famous lines from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book –
“For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”