After the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified the Himalayan wolf as “vulnerable” in its Red List of Threatened Species in 2023, wildlife experts are pushing for stronger conservation measures for the apex predator, considering various constraints and conflicts in its habitat.

The Himalayan wolf is found in the Himalayan region encompassing India, Nepal and the Tibetan Plateau of Western China. The IUCN report noted that only 2,275 to 3,792 individuals of the Himalayan wolf (Canis lupus chanco) are left in the wild.

In India specifically, an estimated 227 to 378 Himalayan wolves are found, distributed in the upper Himalayan region in Lahaul, Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and in small areas of Sikkim, Uttarakhand and possibly Arunachal Pradesh, says Salvador Lyngdoh, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India.

The IUCN report notes that the Himalayan wolf lineage, described since 1840, has been overlooked by science and conservation. It was recently established that the Himalayan wolf forms a genetically distinct lineage than the grey wolf. It has specifically adapted to “life in the high-altitude ecosystems of the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau, justifying taxonomic recognition and conservation listing,” the report says.

IUCN Country Representative Yash Veer Bhatnagar admits that the delay in this IUCN classification for the Himalayan wolf was due to the assumption that it was of the same genetic lineage as the Holarctic grey wolf found in Mongolia and nearby provinces of China.

The IUCN report mentions two studies from 2020 and 2021, which suggest that the distribution boundary between the Holarctic wolf and the Himalayan wolf “ends at descending elevations of Qinghai in China”. The report now recognises the west distribution boundary of the sub-species to be in the Ladakh region.

Wolves in danger

The IUCN lists several threats to the subspecies, including habitat loss or modification, depredation conflict, depletion of wild prey, hunting for illegal wildlife trade, persecution for preying on livestock and hybridisation with increasing population of feral dogs or free-ranging dogs in India, especially in Ladakh and Spiti.

Yash Veer Bhatnagar tells Mongabay India that the Himalayan wolf is extremely vulnerable as various studies show it is a highly persecuted species.

“Though the wolves weren’t directly killed, earlier, there was a (mal)practice wherein a newly born litter of cubs used to be caught and paraded around the village in Spiti. This caused them extreme fatigue (though they were fed), and sometimes, the entire litter used to die,” says Bhatnagar.

In Ladakh, there existed a practice called Shang Dong, a traditional wolf concave trap made of stones deep inside the ground and baited with meat. The upturned ice-cream cone-type structure (conical walls) ensured that the wolf couldn’t escape. Once caught, they used to die of starvation or were killed.

Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), a wildlife conservation and research organisation, has been working with locals to rebuild ‘stupas’ over these structures as a form of penance and the trend of trapping the wolves has now stopped. Similar efforts have also helped gradually change locals’ attitude towards the wolves in Himachal too, says Bhatnagar.

Lyngdoh says that increasing conflict with humans is due to feeding habits. Wolves prey on livestock due to lack of adequate wild prey (ibex, blue sheep, and other small prey) in its habitat areas, resulting in retaliatory killings. The wolves also have to compete with snow leopards and free-ranging or feral dogs for wild prey.

The problem of feral dogs had become so acute in Spiti and Ladakh that there have been incidences where large packs of dogs even snatch kills from wolves and snow leopards, says Bhatnagar.

The DFO of Lahaul-Spiti, Mandar Umesh Jeware admits that the rising population of free-ranging dogs in Spiti poses grave challenges for wolf conservation.

The estimated population of feral dogs is around 8,000-10,000 in Spiti and around 25,000 in Ladakh, estimates Salvador and says that apart from increasing competition with wolves, red foxes and snow leopards for wild prey, the feral dogs are also causing hybridisation by cross breeding with wolves.

“If the trend is not curbed on time, it could cause serious pollution in the unique genetics of Himalayan wolves,” says Bhatnagar, referring to gene flow from the feral species into wild indigenous species, which is undesirable.


Multi-fold conservation strategies

To conserve the Himalayan wolf, Bhatnagar believes the priority should be to reduce conflict with people by increasing protection to livestock when grazing in pastures.

DFO Jeware tells Mongabay India that the Himachal Pradesh Wildlife Department has taken many measures such as providing predator-proof corrals for safeguarding livestock and speedy processing of compensation cases.

“This has given communities reassurance. Besides, the myth that wolves are the largest contributor to livestock killings has also been busted. Indirect signs in such cases pose difficulty in distinguishing between wolves and feral dogs. However, with time, it has been established that feral dogs are the biggest contributor to livestock killings in Spiti valley,” he added.

Bhatnagar and Lyngdoh call for extensive sterilisation and vaccination programmes for feral dogs to limit competition and prevent transmission of diseases to wild wolf populations. The dogs reproduce twice in a year; without corrective measures, they could soon dominate the Himalayan landscape.

The other measures are stopping the littering of organic waste in the open by tourists and defence activities in these regions.

Habitat conservation and management are also crucial, experts say. There has been increased grazing pressure on grasslands which are vital for survival for both wild prey and predator populations. Wolf habitats need to be protected and monitored for unplanned development and garbage disposal.

Lyngdoh says that wolves play a crucial role in regulating the ecosystem and studies need to be conducted to assess how many wolves and packs there are in the wild.

“Grassland conservation can help a long way to protect wolves and prey populations as the apex predator needs a lot of space to thrive,” he adds. “Community participation, awareness and acceptance are a must for Himalayan wolves to thrive in the Indian landscape.”

This article was first published on Mongabay.