Running with the wolves

Conflict with predators is made-to-order in the Deccani grasslands

May 13, 2017 04:25 pm | Updated 04:25 pm IST

Mahendra Kattal and his flock.

Mahendra Kattal and his flock.

Mahendra Kattal nudged his sandal against the sun-bleached dog poop. “Wolf scat,” he said. We took a couple of steps across the rocky ground towards his large encampment, and he stopped to show me another turd. A few nights ago, a couple of wolves crouched at this spot and watched his camp, biding their time. They must have heard tender lambs bleating as they ran behind their mothers. Suddenly, a pack of dogs charged at us with their hackles up, barking ferociously, only to slink away at a sharp word from Kattal.

At the camp that they call Konkanwadi, women and young boys tightened a long length of net within which some 2,000 corralled sheep settled down for the evening. In the dim light of sunset, the net was barely visible. To the wolves, the huddled sheep must seem like so many juicy kebabs on hoof. Did Kattal and his people expect the flimsy net to protect their animals?

The shepherds’ living quarters were just as basic. Their families, including infants, lived under large peaked tents of blue tarpaulin sheets. No walls or doors to keep out the beasts of the night. Towering cave-riddled cliffs overlooked the camp. In an hour, wolves and leopards would emerge to stalk the land.

Conflict with these predators was made to order. Wolves took domestic animals and shepherds killed wolves in retaliation. The only way to conserve wildlife is to provide large reserves, to keep it out of reach of people and their hoofed property. Except this is not the scenario that plays out here in the Deccani grasslands.

Thermal camera image of a fox on the prowl in the grasslands

Thermal camera image of a fox on the prowl in the grasslands

Kattal’s marigold yellow turban and the horizontal vermilion streak across his wife’s forehead marked them as Dhangars, a nomadic pastoral community. They followed the monsoon from the Konkan coast, 300 kilometres east, to the Deccan plateau, and when the season receded, they headed back. As long as the Dhangars camped with their animals in the grassland, the wolves lived well. Chinkara and black buck, native herbivores, were too few and far between in these areas to sustain them.

Y.V. Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India, who studied wolves for his PhD. thesis, estimated most wolves in these parts lived off livestock. Had I examined the wolves’ scats under a microscope, I’d most probably have found them chock full of goat’s hair and sheep wool from Kattal’s flock.

Although the wolves filled their bellies at their expense, the Dhangars didn’t begrudge the predators. “When a wolf takes one of our animals, our flock will increase,” Kattal said. “It will be blessed.” I thought he was alluding to the ecological adage: predators take the weak and sick, leaving the flock fit and strong.

But, “Wolves are smart,” he said. “They don’t eat sick animals. They take only healthy ones.”

Living in harmony

Short of whistling the wolves over and feeding them by hand, his wada or settlement seemed like an open house. True, building sturdy enclosures in a temporary camp was impractical. Only the ragtag pack of scrawny dogs that set up an unholy clamour at any approaching human or animal stood between the wolves and the Dhangars’ livelihood. In the U.S., the mere thought of wolves in the vicinity of their animals turns sheep ranchers apoplectic with rage. I found Kattal’s attitude incomprehensible.

“So far I’ve seen 55 wolves this year,” he said.

“How could you tell one from the other,” I asked.

“I recognise them from the number of cubs in each group.” Even if he had seen the same wolves again and again, I was surprised by his nonchalance when he added, “I’ve lost 25 sheep to wolves so far.” For Kattal, the canids were as natural as the weather, and he accepted their presence unquestioningly. More than wolves, it was the bluetongue epidemic that kept him awake at night. He had lost 35 sheep to it already and two more were sick. He had a hectic time rushing on a motorcycle to the veterinary hospital in the nearest town, with sick and dying sheep. When the last of the sun dipped over the horizon, darkness was sudden and total. Not one electric light glimmered anywhere on the horizon. Two lambs had broken loose from their enclosure and followed us around the wada . A wolf could have crept out of the darkness and snatched one.

“No wolf will come close now,” he scoffed. “Aren’t we walking around? They’ll keep their distance.”

“Do wolves come after you go to sleep then?”

“No, they won’t dare because the dogs keep watch. When it rains, we all sit huddled in our tents. That’s when the wolves take our animals.”

In one corner of his tent was an illustration of Ahalyabai Holkar, the extraordinary queen of the 18th century kingdom of Malwa. I didn’t know until then she was a Dhangar. There was also a picture of Khandoba, the deity of the community, astride a white horse with Banai, his Dhangar wife.

Long after I returned home, reading Günther Sontheimer’s scholarly work on the Dhangars helped me understand Kattal’s words.

According to Dhangar mythology, a lovelorn Khandoba slaughtered 9,00,000 sheep and goats and offered to resurrect them on the condition that Banai marry him. When she acceded, not only did the animals prance to life but their numbers doubled. “Sacrifice creates life out of death,” Sontheimer wrote of the Dhangar worldview. “Sacrifice to wolves increases the herd.” Earlier, the Dhangars spilled their animals’ blood ritually as a sacrifice to wolves. Over time, they directed the annual animal offering to Khandoba.

When wolves took Kattal’s animals, they were only taking what was theirs.

The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin

(This trip was funded by a grant from the Foundation for Ecological Security, Anand.)

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