On the night of October 21, 2020, devotional music from a temple marking the Hindu festival of Navaratri blared all night long over the village of Manegaon in Maharashtra’s Gondia district, around 150 km east of Nagpur.

Rajendra Babulal Bopche, a farmer, slept soundly through it. His house lay at the far end of the village. Next to it was his goat shed, with walls made of wooden logs, a thatched roof and a rudimentary gate. Beyond the house were some fields, and then the start of a patch of forested land.

Around 5 am next morning, Bopche woke up to terrible news: two of his goats were lying dismembered on a village road, a neighbour told him. Bopche rushed to his goat shed to find three more goat carcasses strewn there, the blood mingling with dust. His sixth goat was missing.

“The door of my goat shed was made of logs, they broke it and entered,” Bopche said. “They came like ghosts, no one heard anything. They only took one goat to feed. The rest were killed for no reason.”

There was no doubt about the identity of the killers: a pack of Indian peninsular wolves, who are the apex predator of grasslands, and whose numbers had been rising in a patch of land near Manegaon.

It wasn’t unheard of for wolves to carry away goats that were grazing in the fields around Manegaon. But this was the first time that wolves had killed goats inside the village, and in such a large number.

The shock of the attack apart, the killing of his goats also caused a serious economic loss to Bopche. Like most small-scale farmers in the region, his survival depends on his ability to combine a variety of work. He grows paddy on his five-acre farm once a year, which yields an income of between Rs 40,000 and Rs 50,000. He also occasionally works as a manual labourer in Gondia or Nagpur, for which he is paid around Rs 7,000 a month. But rearing goats accounted for the greatest portion of his annual income. “From the goats, I make Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000,” he said.

Goats here are reared for their meat, and not their milk. A healthy adult male goat can be sold for between Rs 12,000 and Rs 15,000. Prices soar during Eid, with each goat fetching as much as Rs 20,000.

The killing of Bopche’s goats left the villagers worried for their goats, as well as their own safety. The attack also left them resentful towards the forest department, which they say does not compensate them for livestock killed by wild animals.

But they also rued their own decision to conserve a patch of grassland of around 140 hectares, adjacent to the village. The conservation effort, which started in 2006, was a response to the forest department’s moves to plant bamboo and teak over the land.

The villagers had two concerns. First, they worried that their grazing land would be fenced off by the forest department for the plantation. Second, they feared that the plantation efforts would eat into the natural grassland habitat of the blackbuck, an animal in which locals take considerable pride.

The effort at conserving the grassland was so successful that the patch now has a thriving population of deer and blackbucks. This herbivore population, while a testimony to the health of the ecosystem, also served as a magnet for wolves, whose numbers also began to rise in the area.

The conservation efforts of the residents of Manegaon led to a rise in the herbivore population near the village, which in turn attracted wolves to the area. Photo Credit: Kanhaiya Udapure

“We can’t do anything about the animals because they belong to the forest department, but we lose our goats and the department doesn’t care,” said Sunanda Tejram Uke, Manegaon’s sarpanch.

Wolves, and the grasslands that they inhabit are both neglected by India’s conservation policies. Under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the wolf is classified as a Schedule I species, the category of animals that has the highest degree of protection under the law. But there are no focused programmes for its conservation, as there are with other Schedule I species such as tigers, elephants and rhinos.

In fact, the number of wolves in the country has gone down drastically over the years. They were hunted well into the 1970s, and it was only in the 1990s that studies began to be done to understand the species. Although there is no official population estimation programme for wolves, as there are for tigers, elephants and leopards, the general consensus pegs the total wolf population in the country at between 2,000 and 3,000.

The same neglect stretches to grasslands. Although productive ecosystems in their own right, they are seen as wastelands by the government. Unlike wetlands or forests, which are protected by laws, grasslands are seen as under-utilised tracts of land, to be planted over or used for infrastructure building. As a result, there has been little attention paid to the nuances of grassland conservation, particularly the fact that both people and wildlife species depend on them.

This makes them a potential site of conflict between humans and animals, but the human-animal conflict resolution policies of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, do not adequately address the challenges that wolves present – specifically, that a wolf rarely leaves a trace of its kill.

Manegaon and its residents, who created a conservation success story by nourishing the grasslands back to health, are now paying the price of this policy blindness.

In the third week of September, as the monsoon poured ceaselessly over Gondia, I met a group of villagers in the Manegaon Panchayat Bhawan, many of whom had lost their livestock to wolves. As I spoke to them, one resident barged into the room, under the impression that I was a forest department official. “Why don’t you keep your animals to yourself!” he said, agitated. “Why do I have to feed your animals!”

Mohanlal Manekar, as I learnt was his name, doesn’t own land. He depends for his livelihood on his ten goats, as well as on taking other people’s goats to graze, for which he is paid Rs 100 per goat per year. “Last November, I lost two goats,” said Manekar, who is 50 years old. “Just a few weeks back, another goat was killed.” This recent loss was particularly galling because the goat was pregnant – a female goat usually gives birth twice a year to a litter of two or three.

“What am I to do?” Manekar asked, exasperated. “I can’t kill the wolves, or I will be jailed. But when I ask the forest department for compensation, they say, where is the proof? Now how can I find proof of goats picked up by wolves?”

Sunanda Tejram Uke, the sarpanch of Manegaon, pointed out that the forest department did not display much concern about the villagers' loss of livestock to wolves. Photo: Ishan Kukreti

One of the basic elements of human-animal conflict resolution policies in India, which are laid out across multiple programmes at the national and state levels, is monetary compensation for the loss of livestock through depredation, the technical term for kills by carnivores. The amount, usually around 50% or 60% of the market value of the animal, is seen as an ex-gratia payment by the forest department. It is intended to build some degree of tolerance towards predators, and the lifting of livestock.

The catch, however, is that the owner of the animal has to collect evidence of the kill, such as bodily remains and photographs, and find a veterinarian to certify that the kill was made by a wildlife species. This evidence and the veterinarian’s certificate have to be handed over to the forest department.

But depredation by wolves presents a unique problem. Unlike kills made by a tiger, where parts of the carcass are usually found, kills made by wolves are almost never found.

“Wolves hunt in packs and unless the pack is disturbed and forced to abandon the kill, it is rare that even an earlobe of the livestock will be found,” said Ankit Thakur of Sustaining Environment and Wildlife Assemblage, a Gondia based conservation non-profit.

In November last year, Shashikala Rahangdale, a 45-year-old widow, whose livelihood depends on rearing goats, as well as on rolling beedis, and work she is assigned under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, took her five goats, along with two other shepherds, to a field near Manegaon.

“I was there with others and their goats, when I saw a wolf,” she said. “It was growling at us and slowly moving forward. We were three and decided to walk towards it, shouting and waving our sticks. That wolf backed away. But we didn’t realise that while we were confronting it, with our backs towards our flock, another wolf managed to pick up one of my goats. We didn’t even realise that the goat was gone till we did a headcount on our way back.”

Unlike kills made by a tiger, where parts of the carcass are usually found, kills made by wolves are almost never found. Photo: Kanhaiya Udapure

After Rahangdale realised that her goat was missing, she approached the members of the Manegaon Joint Forest Management committee. These committees, set up under guidelines laid down by the environment and forest ministry, comprise villagers and forest department officials. Their role is to provide platforms through which people can play a role in managing the forest resources around their villages. “The Joint Forest Management Committee member told me that I have to get a remaining body part of the goat to get compensation,” she said. “I went back, but I couldn’t find any trace of the goat. I spoke with the forest guard also, but he said the same thing.”

MD Madhusudan, a wildlife conservationist, pointed out the difference in the hunting habits of species of the cat family, like tigers or leopards, and those of the dog species, like wolves and dholes. “A tiger would make a kill and drag and hide its prey, returning to feed on it,” he said. Wolves, on the other hand, don’t drag their prey away. “Even if the wolves leave the carcass behind, other scavengers, like dogs, finish the kill,” he said.

Bopche is the first person in Manegaon to be compensated for the loss of goats to wolves – because the remains of the slaughter were there for all to see.

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Until the late 1980s, the 140-hectare patch of land next to Manegaon was a vast grassland punctuated by clumps of trees, according to Kuwarlal Tularam, a village elder I spoke with. Part of it was forest land, and part of it was owned by the village panchayat. Locals used the latter freely to graze their livestock.

The area underwent major changes beginning in 1987, when the forest department began a forestation drive over the land, planting teak and bamboo, and notifying the planted area as a Protected Forest. Part of the reason for this move is that grasslands are seen as wastelands, ready to be planted over. According to KU Kadamb, a forest guard, between 1987 and 2006, around 50 hectares of the patch was planted over and notified as a Protected Forest. “Earlier, because the land was not suitable for agriculture, the panchayat gave it to the forest department, which then notified it as Protected Forest and did plantation there,” said Chunnilal Bhalave, who was the sarpanch of Manegaon between 2004 and 2009.

Of the land that it still owned, the panchayat gave out land parcels to former army personnel, as part of a Maharashtra state government scheme, as well as those in the village who owned no land. But because much of the land had low crop productivity, it found few takers.

The newly forested area provided cover for the herbivores to hide from predators, and the adjacent grassland provided them with a source of food. As a result, the populations of blackbuck, spotted deer and other herbivores rose. “People came from all over to see blackbucks,” Bhalave said. He pointed out that the Navegaon Nagzira Tiger Reserve, a dense forest around 70 km away, did not have blackbucks.

“They are only in some pockets like in our village,” he said. “We thought if we could help increase their numbers, it would not only make our village famous, but also bring tourism here.”

However, the land that the forest department planted over and notified as protected became unavailable to villagers to use for grazing. “The forest department gave us another patch of land for grazing, but that was used by the shepherds of two other villages. The pressure on that land was too much,” Bhalave said.

Matters reached a head in 2006, when, just before the monsoon was about to set in, the forest department began digging holes to start a new plantation drive.

“When I heard that there was going to be plantation, I decided to stop it,” Bhalave said. “Blackbucks need open area and the trees would prevent its movement.” Further, he added, additional plantation would deprive people of even more land for grazing.

In 2006, the forest department dug holes in the grassland adjacent to Manegaon to plant teak over it. The residents of the village opposed the move and successfully halted the plantation. Photo: Kanhaiya Udapure

Sawan Bahekar, of the NGO Sustaining Environment & Wildlife Assemblage, or SEWA, who helped the villagers in their efforts, said that he spoke to the sub-divisional officer of the revenue department, “and he seemed to understand.” He, in turn, spoke to the divisional forest officer, “and the plantation drive was stopped,” Bahekar said. Human needs and the interests of wildlife conservation came together on this patch of grassland.

Following this, the village used MGNREGA funds to dig ponds in the area for blackbuck to drink from, and planted indigenous grass species, like themeda and deenanath, in 20 hectares of panchayat land.

This helped increase the population of blackbucks and other herbivores. Spotted deer, earlier only seen in the monsoons, became permanent residents of the area. The success of the conservation efforts started in 2006 led the District Tourism Committee to launch a tourism programme in 2015.

To attract blackbucks to the land near their village, Manegaon's residents dug ponds from which they could drink, and planted indigenous species of grass, such as themeda and deenanath. Photo: Shashank Ladekar

According to Kadamb, Bhalave and others, wolves, which prey on the fawn of blackbucks and deer, began to be seen in the area around 2011.

Today, as visitors take a right turn off the Amgaon-Gondia road at Manegaon, towards the patch of forest and grassland, they are greeted by a barrier with images of blackbucks and wolves. When I visited late one evening in September I met two guards at the barrier – Rahul Nirajlal Manekar and Someshwar Bhalave.

The ticket to enter the patch is priced at Rs 10 – money raised from sales pays their salaries. Apart from that, those who want to avail of their services as guides pay Rs 50. Since March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has put a dampener on tourism, but before that, the income – about Rs 6,000 per month each – was enough to allow the two to give up the occasional manual labour work they did in Nagpur. “If I work here, I can stay home with family and it saves the rent,” Rahul said.

As I drove through the area with the guards, the headlight swept over the plantations, and several pairs of eyes of deer and blackbuck shone in the dark.

Livestock depredation is usually seen as a sign of low prey density in an area, which leads carnivores to supplement their diets with livestock. But in Manegaon, although there is enough prey in the area, the wolves are still lifting goats.

According to Madhusudan, this can occur when there is a shift in species populations in habitats, from what is called bottom-up control systems to top-down control systems. In Manegaon, for instance, as conservation efforts led to a rise in herbivore populations, the number of carnivores that preyed on them also began to rise – an example of bottom-up control. After a certain threshold of the carnivore population, however, their hunting activities begin to determine the number of herbivores in the area – a shift to top-down control.

“Once a carnivore population threshold is crossed, the control becomes top-down and the hunting pattern of the carnivores regulate the population of herbivores,” Madhusudan said. “The increased number of carnivores also means that some of them will kill the herbivores, but some will also lift livestock.”

In Manegaon, since the incident with Bopche’s goats, apart from livestock depredation, the villagers are also worried about their children.

“Today they are killing goats, tomorrow they might kill our kids,” Bopche said. “Wolves are known to kill and abduct children.”

The fear of wolves attacking or carrying away children traces back at least to colonial times. The idea of such “wolf-children” appears in the correspondences and writings of British officials in India, such as Colonel William Henry Sleeman, who published a pamphlet in 1852 titled, “An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens”. This was believed to be the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, in which the lead character Mowgli is raised by wolves.

But historian Mahesh Rangarajan dismissed the possibility. “There is no hard evidence for this,” he said. “Plus it is a biological impossibility. A human child needs two million calories till adulthood. Not just wolves, even apes cannot raise humans. So, sorry, Tarzan story.”

But cases of wolves attacking children have been documented, most significantly in Uttar Pradesh in the late 1990s. Starting in 1996, in the eastern Uttar Pradesh districts of Jaunpur, Pratapgarh and Sultanpur, wolves targeted children in a spate of attacks. A total of 76 children were attacked, of whom 33 died.

Yadvendradev Vikramsinh Jhala, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, who studied the attacks and published a study on them in 1997, came to the conclusion that it was a single wolf that took to lifting children, and that the probable reason for the behaviour was a reduction in prey base due to poaching. “Wolves lifting children is a very rare phenomenon,” Jhala said. “Apart from the cases in Uttar Pradesh, there was one such case reported from Hazaribagh, in Bihar, in 1982.”

Most such documented cases involve peninsular wolves, and not Tibetan wolves: the latter are found in the Himalayan states, while the former are found in dry grasslands of states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, parts of Uttar Pradesh, and even further south.

The root cause of the conflict between humans and peninsular wolves, according to Jhala, is that they share their habitat with humans. “Most wolf populations in India are found outside the Protected Areas, in fields and grasslands,” Jhala said. But the population of their herbivorous prey are typically found within these Protected Areas. “This means that wolves depend on livestock, like small goats and sheep, and this brings them in conflict with people, especially pastoralists.”

Wolves share grassland habitats with humans, while their prey are typically found within Protected Areas. This is one of the reasons they attack livestock. Photo: Kanhaiya Udapa

But a study by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, published in January 2021, analysed human attack data from 2007 and 2008 across 25 states in India, to compare attacks by different wildlife species, and found that wolves were not among the biggest threats to humans. Of the 608 deaths and 5,832 injuries caused by wildlife, the study found that wolves were identified as being responsible for 12 deaths (one in Uttar Pradesh, seven in Madhya Pradesh, three in Maharashtra, one in Jharkhand) and 167 injuries – the lowest deaths and injuries caused of all the animals in the study, which included tigers, leopards and elephants.

Rather, the human-wolf conflict centres around livestock depredation. Often, wolves are killed in retaliation. “It is very difficult to find and kill an adult wolf,” Jhala said. “So instead in a wolf retaliatory killing, the wolf den is found and burnt.”

In Manegaon, so far no wolf killing has taken place, but the absence of proper measures to mitigate conflict is testing people’s tolerance. “It was the people who preserved this patch of grassland,” Bahekar said. “If it wasn’t for their efforts, it would have been planted over with bamboo and teak. Now, their efforts have brought the wolf into the area and because of policy shortsightedness, the people are paying the price for it.”

The forest department, for its part, claims that its policies of mitigating conflict through compensation are sound. “How can we compensate for livestock when there is no evidence of depredation?” said KU Kadamb, the forest beat guard of Manegaon.

“In cases where there is evidence we act, as in the case of the six goats that were killed in Manegaon,” he added. “But otherwise, we can’t. There are a lot of false claims too.”

Wildlife conservationists say that scientists would be better placed to examine cases of depredation. “The forest department, which deals with these predations, doesn’t have the expertise to understand what a wolf kill site looks like,” Jhala said. “So they can’t identify the evidence of a wolf kill, which a person who understands wolf ecology can see. So, there is a need to bring people who are trained in wolf ecology to deal with these issues of compensation.”

Of course, the problem of identifying wolf kills isn’t just about missing carcasses. In many instances, the shepherd doesn’t have a camera to document the kill, or is not able to call the veterinarian in time to certify the death.

In 2015, the forest department installed a barrier outside the Manegaon grassland and mandated an entry fee of Rs 10 per person, which goes to pay the salary of the two guards, Rahul Manekar (in the picture here) and Someshwar Bhalave. Photo: Shashank Ladekar

There are those, meanwhile, who argue that the focus on compensation alone is misplaced. “You pay compensation every year without doing anything to reduce the conflict,” Madhusudan said. “What good does it do? Instead, money should be spent on predator-proofing the livestock sheds, encouraging better hoarding practices.”

Using these methods, Madhusudan and his team have been able to bring down depredation of livestock by snow leopards in Ladakh. “To improve herding practices, we announced a cash reward for the herder with the least depression of livestock,” he said. “This made them more vigilant. We also started insuring the livestock. The people had to pay a premium to insure their livestock, which was subsidised by funds from conservation organisations.”

At the root of the Manegaon’s wolf problem is the fact that although the grassland adjacent to it hosts a variety of flora and fauna, it is formally classified as wasteland. This outdated classification overlooks the ecological value of such lands, and ignores the potential they hold to yield new models to manage conflict between humans and animals.

“The Working Plans of the forest department, which cover the entire forestland of the country, still look at land through the forestry lens,” Ankit Thakur said. “So, it doesn’t matter if one is dealing with a grassland ecosystem, the Working Plan, which is a blueprint of forestry operations for a particular forest division, will talk about tree plantations. There is no mention of grassland management.”

Wastelands are defined by the Department of Land Resources as a combination of 23 land types which include ravinous lands, scrubs – such as the land in Malegaon – marshy lands, mining wastelands and glacier areas, among other categories. Wastelands were classified as such by the British to identify any land that did not generate revenue for the Raj, either through agriculture or forestry activities.

This classification has outlasted the British and continues into the present. Today, wastelands are mostly lands that are owned by village panchayats, and are used as pastureland; or a variety of savannas, such as semi-arid savanna grasslands and savanna woodlands, which are typically classified as “open forest” by the environment and forest ministry.

These so-called wastelands are the lands over which the government undertakes its various afforestation missions, like the National Afforestation Mission and the Green India Mission. These are also the sites which are used, or slated to be used, for a host of renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind farms.

This approach ignores the fact that, across the country, between ten and twenty million people depend on these grasslands, according to the Centre for Pastoralism, a non-profit organisation that works with pastoral and nomad communities across the country.

It also ignores the ecological significance of these habitats. Madhusudan pointed out that the Indian subcontinent was part of the African continent before it drifted away, and collided with the Eurasian tectonic plate, and that those species that were on the landmass before this, could be considered quintessentially Indian. “The species which are unique to India are grassland species like the Indian bustard and the lesser florican,” he said. “Tigers are not native to India” – having entered the subcontinent from the north after this tectonic collision. “By trying to plant over grasslands to mitigate climate change, we are sacrificing these species,” Madhusudan added.

Further, he explained, in semi-arid ecosystems, it is often self-defeating to plant trees as a way to store carbon. “The natural vegetation template of these areas are open ecosystems and not a closed canopy ecosystem,” he said. “Most of the vegetation that grows in these ecosystems are grasses which have evolved and adapted to thrive in these ecosystems.”

These grasses store carbon under the ground, and thus don’t release it into the atmosphere during fires, as trees do. “In places where grasses are better suited to survive, if you went and planted trees, you actually sequester less carbon,” he said. One study, in California, found that the region’s grasslands were a “more resilient” carbon sink than its forests “in response to 21st century changes in climate”.

These “wastelands” are on the decline, pushing the wildlife species and the people who depend on them to the wall. Nationally, between 2000 and 2015, the area of “wasteland” shrunk from around 639,000 square kilometres to around 558,000 square kilometres, a reduction of 81,000 square kilometres, according to the Department of Land Resources’ Wastelands Atlas of India. In Gondia, the area of “wasteland” was 767 square kilometre in 2003, but shrank to 269 square kilometres in 2015. The efforts of the residents of Manegaon ensured that a patch of grassland was preserved near their village.

“It is ironic that for the sake of mitigating climate change, we are sacrificing these biodiversity-rich areas,” Madhusudan said. He pointed out that India is seeking to meet its commitments as a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, by planting over grasslands and setting up renewable energy projects on them, but that in the process the country risks trampling over its commitments to biodiversity, as a signatory to the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity.

The villagers of Manegaon do not cite the Paris Agreement, or varying carbon sequestration levels of different plants. Yet, they strike a measured stance on the issue, though they have the most to lose from the predators in their vicinity. “We don’t hate the wolves,” Uke, Manegaon’s sarpanch, said. “But the forest department has to find a way to create a balance where we don’t suffer, and the animals don’t suffer too.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.