In the ‘Jungle Book’, written in 1894, Mowgli was raised by the wolves in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, who were at the time in abundant numbers across the length and breadth of the country. But if Rudyard Kipling were to write the ‘Jungle Book’ in 2016, Mowgli would be dead because the wolves would not be in that story.
Why? Because the wolves are fast becoming extinct from India.
Their numbers have dwindled down to mere hundreds in even those states where they were once in thousands.
Rajasthan, for instance, has just 300 wolves while in neighbouring Gujarat there are 50 less. There were 2000-3000 wolves in India according to a study conducted in 2004.
One must note here that in India, wildlife studies are not done properly. In fact, there is no way to ascertain the exact number of the wolf population. So, it is likely that the number of wolves might have gone down in the last 12 years.
The biggest reason behind this fall in the numbers of wolves is the widely known man-animal conflict. Human expansion into the wild is bringing them and their livestock in closer conflict with wild animals. Wolves are known to hunt smaller prey, yet a lone wolf can kill a calf – a pack can bring down a fully-grown bull.
Why do wolves attack livestock? They are compelled to because of the fast depleting numbers of smaller prey like rabbits, hare, and other animals. The smaller prey is disappearing because of, again, the disappearance of forest cover to rampant – and mindless – development.
Another reason is the image of a wolf in the minds of people.
In India, as in many Western mythologies, the wolf is seen as a cunning, nocturnal, and evil animal – a harbinger of something bad. This negative image often makes people kill a wolf the moment they spot one.
Of course, the image of the wolf did not appear out of the blue. Between the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter or the 20th, the British killed between 1.5 to 2 lakh wolves. The reason was frequent attacks on humans. The wolves often carried off children – an undisputable fact.
Despite being an animal assured the highest protection as a Schedule 1 species in the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the wolf is now no more the feared hunter it once was.
In Rajasthan, a forest department official saved four wolf cubs but could not trace the mother. He is certain that the mother has either been killed off by villagers or chased far away.
“Villagers often kill the wolves by setting fire at the entrance of wolf dens. The smoke enters the den and chokes them,” the official told TOI.
In 2014, Abi Tamim Vanak, principal investigator for Indian Savannah Project of Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment (ATREE), told Down to Earth that one way to save the wolf population would be by preserving grasslands, which do not attract the “attention of our conservationists or policy makers”. But wolves need huge tracts of lands, which is impossible given the pace of India’s development.