In February 2019, people from three villages in the Jhargram district of West Bengal feared a wolf that had attacked eight people. Local newspapers reported that in a neighbouring village, three men sitting around a fire were attacked by a wolf, and one of them later died at a hospital. The increasing incidents of wolf attacks in the region was a cause of concern for those working in the fields. Finally, a wolf trying to hunt a sheep in the village was captured by the locals and handed over to the authorities. Often, villagers retaliate by poisoning wolves or killing them when they find their livestock missing. However, data shows that more wolves are attacked and killed by humans than humans are by wolves. During the British rule, wolves were declared as vermin, and about 200,000 wolves were reportedly killed in India.
Human-wolf conflicts are not just limited to India, and hundreds of wolves are being culled each year in different parts of the world. A recent study by researchers at the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) has tried to understand the possible reasons for these increasing conflicts. In a first such effort, they have mapped the habitat of the Indian Grey Wolves in eastern India, particularly in the Lower Gangetic Plains and Chotta Nagpur Plateau. The Indian Grey Wolf, or the Indian Wolf, is found in patches across Peninsular India in ecologically low densities. Hence, they are classified as a protected species under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972).
In the current study, the researchers have studied areas that cover a majority of the eastern range of the Indian Wolf, including the states of Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. The study found that out of the nearly 4.2 lakh sq. km, only about 18,000 sq. km are highly suitable habitats for wolves. Of this, only 1,332 sq. km lies within Protected Areas (PA), indicating that most 'suitable habitats' lie outside such protected areas, which could explain the increasing human-wolf conflicts in recent times.
"We have highlighted that the border area of the Lower Gangetic Plains and Chotta Nagpur Plateau provides a habitat, which could be supporting the remnant population of wolves in this landscape. We also mapped the possible biological corridors, which the species may be using, as movement corridors", says Dr. Lalit Kumar Sharma from the Zoological Survey of India.
The researchers identified two important corridors that connect the Lower Gangetic Plains and Chhota Nagpur Plateau, which the wolves may use. The first lies in the northern part of Chotta Nagpur Plateau via Bhimbandh and Koderma Range, and the other in the east via districts of Bankura and West Midnapore. Among the protected areas, the Satkosia Tiger Reserve and Simlipal National Park in Odisha, Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary and Koderma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand, and Bhimbandh Wildlife Sanctuary and Nagi Dam Wildlife Sanctuary in Bihar were found to have suitable habitats for wolves.
The data on the presence of wolves in different locations were collected between 2015-2016 by a combination of field surveys, old records from ZSI, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and by interviewing the Forest Department staff. Using a computer-based algorithm, the researchers predicted the geographic distribution of wolves based on environmental parameters like temperature, rainfall and forest cover.
The researchers hope that the distribution range and possible movement corridors, predicted by this study, can help in creating a management plan to conserve wolves and prevent conflicts with humans. "The forest conservation and management agencies in India have adopted several conservation plans, but most of those focus on large charismatic mammals like tigers, leopards and elephants. However, wolves that occupy areas outside these protected areas need a different management strategy", opines Dr Sharma.
The researchers further elaborate on the features of an efficient management strategy for wolves across the region. "The conservation strategies for wolves should not be restricted to some small patches of the vast landscape", says Dr Kailash Chandra, Director of the Zoological Survey of India. "Instead, the focus should be on protecting the natural composition of its habitat, which will promote the smooth functioning of the biological corridors and connectivity between habitat patches. Such efforts will ultimately play a vital role in minimizing human-wolf conflict," he signs off.
This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.