Wolves in north Gujarat and north Saurashtra will soon be joined by their captive cousins from Junagadh once they finish a basic course in surviving the wild. In a first, the Gujarat Forest Department is set to shift 10 Indian grey wolves from a conservation breeding centre at Junagadh’s Sakkarbaug Zoological Park (SZP) to forested areas in north Gujarat and north Saurashtra.
Officials said the release of the captive-bred predators, the Canis lupus pallipes or the Indian peninsular wolf, is an attempt to check the population of wild herbivores, including blue bulls (nilgais), wild boars, etc., which have been causing significant crop damage in these parts.
Work is on in full swing to construct soft-release enclosures at one location each in north Gujarat and north Saurashtra, nearly 200 km apart. These regions boast of an existing population of wild wolves, but with their population dwindling, the relocation is a bid to boost their numbers.
The facilities in north Gujarat and north Saurashtra will comprise a four-hectare fenced enclosure for ‘rewilding’ the predators and a two-hectare enclosure for the herbivores that will be used as prey to teach them to hunt, said forest officers.
A top forest officer said, “The plan is to release the captive-bred wolves from SZP into these soft-release facilities, rewild them and help them get used to the wilderness for about six months. After that, they will be released into the wild in October-November, during the start of their breeding season, when chances of acceptance of new members into packs remain high.”
Abhishek Kumar, Deputy Conservator of Forests and Director of SZP, said the 20 wolves identified for the project have been undergoing the rewilding process for a year now.
“The 20 wolves identified for the project have been kept in separate enclosures and are forming packs. Each pack has a member of the wild origin that was brought to our facility for treatment after an injury or some other reason. This member can take the lead in the rewilding programme. While they are yet to learn hunting, they are already learning how to eviscerate their prey, etc.,” he said.
Talking about the project, V J Rana, former director of SZP and a key force behind the wolf breeding programme, said, “In the protected forest areas (PAs), mega predators like lions and leopards act as bio-controls on herbivores like blue bulls, wild boars, spotted deer, blackbucks, etc. Outside PAs, where lions and leopards are not common, wolves are the only natural predators of blue bulls and wild boars.”
Rana explained that with wolf numbers declining over the years, mostly due to the maldharis (pastoralists) hunting them down to protect their goats and sheep, the population of wild herbivores went up significantly. This, in turn, led to complaints from farmers about wild herbivores raiding their crops.
“There is no natural predator other than wolves for wild asses since jackals, the other comparable predator, can kill only newborn ungulates (large hoofed mammals),” Rana said.
A 2021 state government circular highlighted that the population of blue bulls was estimated to be 33,000 in a north Gujarat district where these wolves would be released.
According to the first comprehensive pan-India survey of wolves in 2018-19 led by Prof Yadvendradev Jhala, then dean of animal ecology and conservation biology department at Wildlife Institute of Indian (WII), the population of wolves in India was estimated to be 3,100 — Gujarat’s wolf population was estimated to be 494, the third highest after Madhya Pradesh (772) and Rajasthan (532). The study underlined Saurashtra, Kutch and north Gujarat regions as prime wolf habitats.
Prof Jhala cautioned, “Captive-bred wolves habituated to humans can be a disaster in the wild if released without due care. The wolves should be able to hunt, kill and consume prey before they are released in the wild. If wolves are already used to humans, they need to be deconditioned against humans and livestock, and fed only wild prey.”
While captive-bred wolves have been successfully released in the wild in the United States, Nityanand Srivastava, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden of Gujarat, said it’s a first for India.
Srivastava said initially a pack of five wolves each — three females and two males — will be released in these soft-release facilities under SZP’s technical guidance.
“In these enclosures, the wolves will learn hunting and other skills to survive in the wild. Once they acquire these skills, they will be released in the wild. If things go as planned, these soft-release facilities will become a gateway for releasing more wolves in the wild,” he said.
Bharat Jethva, a wildlife biologist who has done research on wolves in the state, suggested that public outreach will be a key factor for the project’s success. “I hope the forest department will look into factors that led to the decline in the wolf population in the first place, like persecution by maldharis, infrastructure projects, habitat loss, intensification of agriculture etc. If wolves don’t find enough wild prey, they will turn to livestock of the maldharis and this can exacerbate the man-wolf conflict,” said Jethva.
SZP, one of India’s oldest zoos, is the coordinating zoo for the conservation breeding programme for wolves by the Central Zoo Authority (CZA). Breeding of these predators has been done at SZP since 2009, after the forest department requested the CZA to include them in the programme due to a “major decline” in their numbers in Gujarat. There are 86 wolves at SZP presently. After their numbers touched 39 at SZP, Gujarat in November 2021 decided to release some of them in the wild.
The WII study estimated that the density of wolves was one individual per 100 sq km and an average pack comprised three wolves. It also found that the density of wolves was low in territories dominated by apex predators like lions and tigers, but high in semi-arid scrub, grasslands and open forest systems.
The CZA and the WII are also working on conservation breeding of endangered cat species (Asiatic lion, Bengal tiger, snow leopard and clouded leopard), canine species (Tibetan wolf) and bustard species (great Indian bustard, lesser florican).