Wildlife & Biodiversity

‘The future of the Indian Wolf is hanging by a slender thread’

Karnataka-based documentary filmmakers, Senani Hegde and Krupakar, whose work on wild dogs has been feted in the past, have recently, won another laurel. Their documentary, Walking With Wolves recently won the Wildlife Conservation Award at the Centre for Media Studies’ Vatavaran festival. The duo spoke to Down To Earth on their movie and the Indian Wolf. Excerpts:

 
By Rajat Ghai
Last Updated: Tuesday 12 April 2016

I read in one of your interviews that you and Krupakar were “put on the trail of the elusive animal (the wolf) by a wildlife enthusiast.” Could you share the full story?

It is good that you have asked this question. Otherwise, I would not tell this story. Because this person prefers to keep a very low profile, out of the limelight. His name is Bobby and he belongs to Karnataka’s Koppal district. He is a very good friend of ours. He is a wildlife enthusiast, who I think is one of the most committed conservationists, with remarkable achievements on his own. For example, to his credit, one of his personally, passionately protected areas—a 4 km stretch of the Tungabhadra river—is now being officially declared an otter sanctuary. Bobby knows these arid grasslands (where wolves are found), which are fast vanishing for many reasons, like the back of his hand. He had been motivating us to work in these areas for a long time. He also had many interesting stories about the wolves of this area. That is the major reason as to why we started on a survey of wolves in northern Karnataka. Apart from this, as we had been working on social mammals for a long time, we were easily drawn to and fascinated by this other intelligent social animal, the wolf. Another reason is that the wolf is one of the very few wild predators that has an evolutionary association with humans, and is surrounded with possibly the most myths all over the world.

You scouted locations in Raichur, Ballari, Koppal and the Maharashtra border for the movie. Where did you finally find Bent Ear, the film’s lupine protagonist and his family?

We traversed almost the whole of south central India, covering more than 20,000 km. At most places, people would say that there were plenty of wolves. But even after six months of extensive travelling, camping and many interesting incidents, we had not seen a single wolf in the wild. In fact, after six months, we were almost on the verge of giving up. But Bobby’s perseverance resulted in us finding an interesting wolf pack which was often found in an area close to the border of Raichur district. Not that we would see them every day, but we would get to see one of them every once in a while at least.

Did the nomads who feature in your film belong to the Dhangar community? Or did they belong to some other Scheduled Tribe? If yes, then which?

They are called Kurubas in Karnataka. They are full time traditional nomadic graziers, travelling across states throughout the year. These people do go back to their village during festivals or on some special occasion, but are always on the move with their sheep, staying in temporary camps along the way. They do not belong to any Scheduled Tribe according to the government classification.

Kuruba shepherds and their flocks     Credit: Krupakar and Senani

How have these particular nomads managed to retain their way of life in 2015, with so much urbanisation all around them? And what is the reason behind the particular legend because of which they conserve the wolf? How did it come about in their folklore?

They are simple people with an ancient way of life. With their sheep and their belongings in tow, several family groups roam the plains of south central India together, through the year. Their direction is guided by the quality of the pasture, the space and safety for their sheep. Truly, it is like a miracle to see these nomadic shepherds survive in a world that is changing so rapidly. This ancient nomadic culture is undoubtedly being swamped by a fast-changing India. Their routes and most of their pastures have either been turned into agricultural lands, or have been fenced off for mining or for industries. What had been their traditional migratory routes and pastures over hundreds of years are no more theirs. This ancient culture is definitely facing the threat of being wiped out. Vanishing cultures are a price paid for modernisation the world over; but here, it would take down a species with it too.

According to the Kurubas’ unique legend, once there were three brothers. One of them was cheated out of his share by the other two. He left 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 is rightfully his and thus are against killing it or letting it be killed by anybody else. For centuries, these nomadic shepherds and wolves have evolved together. Wolves have been shaping their lives and the landscape that they roam. In the eyes of these people, the wolf is more than just a wild beast. It is the symbol of freedom, power and the very spirit of survival. Maybe as they have always lived in the open during day and night, these myths are born and take shape in the dark. The myths, the wolves and the nomadic shepherds have now become inseparable. But one thing is true, that this ‘blind’ belief is doing a much better job than billions of dollars that are being poured into conservation.

The documentary shows how Bent Ear's pups are poisoned and killed and later, a new litter is born. Did you try to prevent the poisoning from happening? If not, then why?

The wolves are hated by local villagers with sheep and goats. They are not traditional shepherds, but ones who have started rearing them for just a generation or two. They naturally have no relation with wolves or traditional beliefs about them, and will do anything to get rid of them. In this landscape, these local shepherds are scattered all over and it is impossible to monitor them. We did not even know for almost fifteen days that the sub-adult wolves were dead and who poisoned them. I think tragedy is a part of the life of wolves. The story of survival and revival of wolves all over the world is as fascinating as it is heart-breaking. It is difficult to blame these people, who live in abject poverty. The arid landscape with scanty rainfall presents really harsh conditions for the survival of the human beings too.

You film primarily deals with Canis Lupus Pallipes in Peninsular India. Why did you decide to restrict yourself to this particular region?

We always enjoy doing an in-depth story after prolonged research. That is our style. We do not go to a place with a ready script or story. Also, we do not enjoy just documentation; we let the story unfold in the field. For this, it is important to identify individuals, understand them, and tell the story that we actually experience. All these aspects require you to work a long time in a small area, and then be able to tell a global story. That we finally selected this area in particular, was because of Bobby. He could ultimately zero in on this area as there were frequent sightings of a dominant wolf, and logistically, it was favourable to us. We would camp in open fields. In many places, we were attacked by people from the nearby villages as they would suspect us to be treasure hunters or child lifters or people who had come to steal their kidneys. We would escape narrowly many times; these factors also played a role in finding a favourable place where Bobby’s contacts would work better.

What would be the total population of Indian wolves in India? Would you like to take a guess?

We found it very difficult to estimate the numbers, even just in the area where we worked. Their distribution is very uneven and scattered. Their denning areas are vanishing fast, and their natural prey base is close to zero. As they live in human habitat, and steal livestock, they need to be stealthy and elusive all the time. This means the whole pack is rarely seen in one place. We only managed to estimate the number in the pack that we were following, after almost a year. On rare occasions when they manage to see the wolf that has come to take a sheep or goat, the shepherds always only see one, or a maximum of two wolves. All these factors put together, estimations done based on indirect sightings or questionnaire surveys, may not give precise numbers. The official estimate for Karnataka is around 500, and 3,000 for India.

An Indian Wolf (Canis Lupus Pallipes)  Credit: Krupakar and Senani

Before this, much of your work has centered on the Dhole, the Indian Wild Dog. How different is the experience, filming wolves compared to dholes?

Since Dholes are social animals, we would read a lot of scientific papers about social animals, from blind moles to babblers to wolves. This would help us understand the behaviour of the dhole better. This had also kindled our curiosity about some interesting behaviour, history and myths surrounding wolves. Dholes, at least where we worked, were completely forest animals in a proper forest ecosystem. It took us almost 15 years to understand them, but still only partly. The language of the forest was a part of our life. Here, in case of wolves, it was a completely contrasting atmosphere and habitat. These apex predators were living in an area where there was no natural ecosystem or hardly any natural prey, playing mostly hide-and-seek with humans. It was a challenge and fascinating experience to just even find wolves, which would appear and disappear like ghosts. They were always living with people, but running away from them. In that sense, we had more unusual hurdles here, than those that a regular wildlife filmmaker comes across. But by the time we ended this project, we had definitely seen another side of India, an insight into the real India.

Do you think the Indian wolf can survive in the years to come?

At least where we worked, they might be losing the battle. It looks like their future seems to be hanging by a thin thread of belief of these nomadic shepherds. But even this nomadic lifestyle and culture will change in a couple of decades. Sheep rearing will be more scientific, more like chicken farming. In the area we worked in, the wolves have started hybridising with domestic dogs, which seems to be a recent phenomenon. This, I think, is an indication of a decline in population density, though it is very difficult to assess a viable population, especially considering their very large home ranges. This close contact with dogs also makes them vulnerable to infectious canid diseases, which can locally wipe out populations. But all over the world, every time wolves were eradicated by human beings in one area, they came back in another place. Their resilience is unmatched. Hope they will prove us wrong again!

Talk to us about your new project on snow leopards.

This has been the ultimate challenge for many. We would like to give it a try too. We are doing research, finding it very interesting. But we haven’t got very far yet. We will take our time before we start actual filming, as usual. Bobby is there with us this time too, so we are hoping for the best.

 

Walking with Wolves (2015)

Producers: Bobby and Krupakar

Co-cameraman/Editor: Joseph Raja

Writer: Nima Manjrekar, Susan Western

Director/Cameraman: Senani Hegde

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