Identity crisis

Classification debate hurts conservation of Himalayan wolf

By Dinsa Sachan
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageIT HAS been 165 years since a unique population of wolves living in the Indian side of the trans-Himayalan region was first described but its classification still remains contentious. It was assumed to be a population of the Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus chanco)—a subspecies of gray wolf. But genetic studies indicate that it is actually a different species; some biologists call it the Himalayan wolf.

The identity crisis is making conservation of Himalayan wolf difficult despite wolves having been included in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which offers highest level of protection to an animal. And it is clear, even by scattered surveys, that their population is declining. There are just 2,000-3,000 wolves left in the Indian peninsula.

Biologists from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in Dehradun looked at the debate surrounding classification of Indian wolves in the October 25 issue of Current Science. “Leveraging for conservation becomes easier if a species is recognised as unique. It also generates stronger awareness for a species that otherwise may go extinct without even being noticed,” says Bilal Habib, lead author of the article.

British naturalist B H Hodgson first described the Himalayan wolf as a separate species in 1847. He called it Canis langer and documented it as having well developed frontal sinuses, unusually elongated muzzle, distinct coloration and a wooly under fur. However, another naturalist, R I Pocock, later dismissed the notion saying wolves in the Indian side of the trans-Himalayan region are a population of the Tibetan wolf. But the Current Science article cites evidence from genetic studies done in 2003 and 2004 by scientists at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and WII to counter Pocock’s argument.

These studies show that the two wolf populations in India—in the Trans Himalayas and peninsular India—are not subspecies of the gray wolf but are different species altogether. The data also shows the Himalayan wolf could have diverged from the wolf ancestor around 800,000 years ago. If true, this would mean it was the first wolf species to arrive on the planet. This would make India and not Europe, as most reckon, the birthplace of wolves.

The 2003 study looked at genomes of wolf and dog species across the world, says lead author Ramesh Aggarwal, a senior scientist at CCMB. “The genetic variations of these two wolf populations show they are entirely different species,” he says. The study, published in Genome Biology in 2003, involved analysis of mitochondrial and genomic DNA samples from the animals.

However, Yadvendradev Jhala, a senior scientist at WII, who himself conducted and found similar results which were published in Proceedings of Royal Society of London in 2004, says evidence from genetic studies may not be too reliable. He says most of the genetic work done till date is based on mitochondrial DNA, which can be inherited only from the mother. Therefore nothing can be said about the species of the father, and therefore the genetic make-up of the offspring. “The important thing is that these wolf lineages are distinct from the rest of the world’s wolves and dogs and are far more ancient,” says Jhala.

The Wolf Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Geneva had emphasised the need to recognise the Himalayan wolf as unique in 2005. Chairperson of the group, L David Mech, says the naming debate arises because “classifying any species into artificial categories like species and subspecies is highly subjective. For example, in North America, scientists recognised 24 subspecies of wolves until 1995. Then those 24 were lumped into 5. Now a new paper proposes only 4.”

Habib says if the Himalayan wolf were a separate species then there should be an isolating mechanism based on geographic barriers or behavioural and physiological mechanisms that prevents them from interbreeding with the Tibetan wolf. He suggests collecting genetic samples from all Himalayan wolf populations and conducting studies to ascertain how many species are there. He, for one, has begun an extensive survey. “We will collect samples from all over India for genetic studies, and study the ecology of these animals as well,” he says. He has already collected about 50 samples and hopes to collect 50 more.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.