After searching for six months, Senani Hegde, Krupakar and Joseph Raja almost gave up their quest for the Indian wolf in south-central India. Put on the trail of the elusive animal by a wildlife enthusiast, the trio set out to document the life of the wolf but could find no signs of it on the arid plains. However, when they changed tack and started following nomadic tribes, they not only saw the wolf but also uncovered an unusual belief that has possible helped keep the Indian wolf alive.

“Wolves are generally hated by everybody,” said Raja. “But initially, the nomads seemed over-protective of the wolf.” After half a year looking for wolf tracks and observing the wandering tribes, the filmmakers finally saw an old male wolf with one of its ears bent. Obviously, they called him Bent Ear.

The film they made over the next three years became Walking With Wolves, which this week won the wildlife conservation film award this year at the Centre for Media Studies' Vatavaran festival. The filmmakers show how Bent Ear survived many years in the Raichur area, where wilderness has been taken over by farming and grazing and where wolves are regularly hunted or poisoned to protect domestic animals.

Several surprises

The filmmakers were in for a series of surprises while working on the project. First, they realised that Bent Ear had a female partner and sub-adult children. In the absence of prey, the wolf family fed on berries and bananas. The filmmakers learnt from the nomads that wily Bent Ear knew how to penetrate their sheep pens. They observed his son learning to do the same. They saw Bent Ear avoiding food too conveniently placed, as though he suspected it might be poisoned. They filmed the death of the cubs by poisoning but also the birth of a new litter.

But the biggest surprise came to them in the attitude of the nomadic people towards the wolf. Unlike local farmers and herders, the nomads never chased, hunted or hurt the wolves. The filmmakers soon uncovered a legend of three brothers, one of whom is cheated out of his share by the other two. He leaves but not before bestowing a curse that he would come back to claim his due. The tribesmen consider the wolf to be that brother, returning to take what’s rightfully his. It’s possible that this fraternal feeling between tribe and wolf saved Bent Ear and his family.

Despite its importance as an apex predator in the central Indian ecosystem, the Indian wolf is one of the least-studied animals. It is one of two species found on the Indian subcontinent, the other being the Himalayan wolf. Yadvendradev Jhala, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, has studied wolves for decades now but even he can only make an educated guess that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 Indian wolves in peninsular India. Few people know anything about the animal. Protecting it is almost impossible.

“The wolves don’t live in forests, they live outside forest areas,” Jhala said. "They are endangered and on Schedule I but it is very difficult to enforce the law because they are outside the protected area network."

Ashwin Aghor can only guess at the number of wolves in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra where he works. Aghor is the director of projects at EnviroCare Welfare Society that has conducted work  to reduce animal conflict with humans. The projects include like building water holes for animals. Aghor has no doubt that the wolf population has crashed in the last 30 years or so.

Rare sightings

“From conversations with shepherds, we find that the sightings of wolves were very frequent and now they are very rare,” he said. “A person who is 70 years old will say that when he was 30 years old he would have seen 20 wolves in a day. Now he doesn’t even see 20 in a month.”

According to Jhala what the wolf desperately needs are refuges across the agro-pastoral landscapes of India. These might be a few square kilometers that haven’t yet been touched by people, like the sacred groves in Rajasthan and Gujarat. They could turn into safe sights for breeding and rearing wolf pups. “But these refuges are fast vanishing because of extractive uses by people and encroachment by agriculture,” he said.

Walking With Wolves might only be the beginning of an investigation into the lives of wolves in India. The film discovered another animal with a wolf-like appearance hanging around Bent Ear's den and playing with his new litter. Was letting another adult into his family Bent Ear’s new survival strategy? “That’s a mystery,” said Raja. “That animal came at the end of our work. It just showed us one aspect and we said ‘now we have more questions.’”