Salvador Lyngdoh: Wolf Biologist from the Himalayas. Ep # 2

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Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #2. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for exciting interviews and inspiring stories that keep you connected to our natural world.

My guest on Ep #2 is a man I first heard of in a high altitude Himalayan desert in Himachal Pradesh. A place, called Spiti. His name is Salvador Lyngdoh, I went to Spiti to look for wolves. Every time I asked the locals where I could spot a wolf, the name Salvador cropped up. Everyone knew Salvador as the man who collars wolves. I saw my wolf but I finally caught up with elusive Salvador at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun -very close to Landour, which is home of this podcast.

As you may have gathered, Salvador Lyngdoh is a scientist.  His work focuses on conservation of large carnivores in the Indian Himalayas. He is also involved with local communities and in assessing the socio-economic dependence and conflict in the region pertaining to large carnivores particularly wolves. He is also studying the interaction between traditional herder communities and wild ungulates in the region. He also teaches and trains various target groups at the WII. I have to warn you… this was a Skype interview.

Welcome to Heart of Conservation Salvador.  I am so happy you made the time, –many times today– to talk to me. Thank you.

Salvador Lyngdoh: Yeah…

Lalitha Krishnan: Salvador could you briefly tell us about your current project at Wildlife Institute of India? You also mentioned that you research carnivores in Arunachal Pradesh. Could you also tell us a little bit about that?

Salvador Lyngdoh: I joined the wildlife Institute around 10 years back as a student and I started my first project on large carnivores particularly the Asiatic wild dog –that was way back in 2009. We tried to understand the conservation status of the wild dogs in Arunachal Pradesh –how the species was distributed, and what kind of conflicts and threats the species faced in that part.

As you know the wild dog, is also an endangered species and it is estimated that less than 2500 mature individuals of wild dogs exist out there in the wild. Not much is known about the species- their distribution and strength. I started with that work initially and then on (I) moved on to another piece of work, which was in the highlands of Spiti – the trans-Himalayan part where I got introduced to wolves. With my senior colleague, Dr. Bilal, we started looking at wolves and tried to understand wolves in that landscape. During that course (of time), I have been trying to do some other work -some studies on snow leopards, some studies on clouded leopards as well. My work has been mostly in the Himalayan states. I’m particularly interested in carnivores in the Himalayas and looking at the ecology, the kinds of conservation threats and understanding more about these carnivores in human-dominated landscapes.

Lalitha Krishnan:: I don’t know how many people have even heard about these wild dogs in Arunachal Pradesh.  Is it the same ‘dhole,’ that you get in Karnataka or is it a different wild dog?

Salvador Lyngdoh: In fact, this is the same species of dhole. Dholes are very well distributed all throughout South East Asia and also much of Asia and even in the northern latitudes as well. It is actually, the same species of Dhole that is there in the southern part and central part of India. But at the sub-species level, some variation or differences in terms of its coat colour or those kinds of minor aspects exist. But on a large level, in biological science, we always recognize things at the species level. At the species level, it is the same dhole that is there down south, in central India or Arunachal Pradesh or in the Malayan peninsula or even in the higher latitudes, that is parts of Russia and parts of Tibet, and all of that.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great to know. I was thinking we should come back to start talking about wolves. One rarely sees wolves in India. As a public, we hardly know anything about them except for those the big bad wolf myths that we have been fed in fairytales etc. Would you tell us about the wolves species in general, the ancestry and about the species that exist in India or all of Asia?

Salvador Lyngdoh: The wolf in India is a very unique species. I’ll first start from where wolves are in the world. The wolf is probably the only terrestrial animal that has the largest distribution around in the northern hemisphere of the world. You cannot think of a single place where the wolf has not been distributed. Wolves are everywhere. Over the last century or so, wolves have been extirpated or have been eliminated or been persecuted heavily in many parts of Europe, the Americas, and in Asia as well.

What is unique to the wolf of the Indian part and of the Himalayan part, – extending it to China and Tibet, is that these wolves are of very ancient lineages. These wolves are much older than other wolves that are there in the world. So, when we look at that, these wolves have a very unique lineage and they have been well accustomed to this ecological setting that is there in India and the Himalayas. That way these wolves are unique.

We have two sub-species of wolves that exist in India – one is the Indian wolf, sometimes called the ‘Planes’ wolf’ which is there in the Deccan plateau, and (found) much south and also towards the East (it) was reported until parts of Bihar and West Bengal also. The other subspecies of the wolf is the Himalayan wolf, which is found largely in the high altitude regions. The Himalayan wolf is sometimes also confused with the Tibetan wolf, which is there in large in parts of Tibet and is also synonymous or confused also with the Mongolian wolf. But there is a lot of debate about the status of these wolves. Biologists and taxonomists like to delineate everything by species or that concept. But these species of wolves are continuously being debated about because of the unique habitat they have adapted to and because of their ancient sort of lineage that they have. They have often been proposed as a separate species – not as the same holarctic wolves that we say are in Eurasia or North America. These other wolves are much recent in time than our Indian wolves and Himalayan wolves. In that way, these wolves are much older but, lesser known, than the other wolves around the world. Wolves have been extensively researched and yet extensively persecuted as well in many parts of the world.  But in the Indian context, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of understanding wolf ecology and in terms of conservation of wolves as well.

Lalitha Krishnan: So evolutionarily speaking we’re saying the wolf has existed for a very long time but in the same breath, we’re s saying we don’t know enough about it. What could be the reason for that in our part of the world?

Salvador Lyngdoh: The reason we know less about the wolves in (our) world is that we have not looked at wolves in that context as we have looked for other species- for example, tigers or leopards or other charismatic species. Or even snow leopards which share the same landscape in the region. So, there is very little interest in wolves or understanding wolves in these parts.  Secondly, as you said, in the beginning, wolves are always considered as being a species that is always there. Often it is considered as a pest, often it is demonized and there are a lot of antagonistic views about wolves –these are some of the reasons not much attention has been paid to wolves.

Over the last few years, we started to realize that the populations of these wolves are declining. We didn’t know of the uniqueness of these wolves until 10 or 15 years back when some studies were conducted by researchers.  We came to realize that these wolves were uniquely placed in that whole evolutionary space. That’s when we also realized, that some more effort needs to be put into studying and conserving the wolf species. In the long run, we should not lose a species that we did not even realize existed or we need to take care of.

Lalitha Krishnan: You mentioned earlier, you’ve travelled across the trans-Himalaya and actually radio-collared wolves.  How does that even happen? How do you get close to a wolf? And what have we learned about wolves after radio-collaring them?

Salvador Lyngdoh: The wolf is such an interesting species. If you look at the wolf, it’s hard to imagine human civilization without the wolf. It’s from a very close relative of the wolf that we have the domestic dog. (It’s because of the dog that human civilization exists). The dog has done so much for us. It’s something like that drove this research in the beginning.

When you want to do scientific research, –when you want to go and study wolves in that particular landscape– there are a bunch of tools and a bunch of methods and equipment by which you can do that. An interesting way we can do this kind of study is if we can see how these wolves move and use their space. With the advancement of technology now, we can do that by fitting them with a radio collar of certain radio frequencies. With the advent of GPS technologies and satellites, we can get timely movements and know how these animals move.

That way you can understand the movements of these animals very closely. That led us to actually try to locate wolves, to find out where they are and to capture them and fit them with a radio collar. Once you do that, you get a lot of information on how far they move, how fast they move. What they do during the summer.  What they do during the winter. When you get that kind of information, you can understand how to prioritize your landscapes and try to see which landscape or which part of the landscape these wolves are usually dependent on or stay on for a longer time and understand about their seasonal movements. All of that gives you better insights on how to conserve the species. Also, it helps you work with field level managers suggest the areas that they need to prioritize. You can tell them which areas are crucial for the survival of the species, its prey and to some extent, limit conflict.

You were talking of how the wolf has a negative connotation on many peoples’ minds. This is because of conflicts that happen because of large carnivores like wolves. They prey on livestock- sheep, and goat. That is why people have negative views towards them and in retaliation, many of them go out and kill wolves. If you can understand how they move, where they move, and prioritize those landscapes, in the long run, you can provide alternative measures by which you can reduce the conflicts at least.

Lalitha Krishnan: When you radio-collar a wolf are you in theory radio collaring the whole pack? Since wolves move in packs, I was wondering if by radio-collaring you get any indication of the population size… apart from their movements that is?

Salvador Lyngdoh: The wolves like you said are pack-living animals. That means they move in groups and the groups can vary from 2-3-4 and even 14 sometimes. In that landscape, I have seen up to 14 wolves also. When you actually radio-collar a wolf and track its movements it is often assumed that these are the movements of the pack in that area. It can be an indicator of how big the territory or size of the home range of the wolves is but it cannot conclusively tell you about the population. For that, you have to survey through other techniques and means that are available. It can certainly tell you for e.g. that if the wolves are travelling through a very, very large area then that means there’s very low availability of food resources for them. Hence, they may be moving over large spans of an area. But if they tend to move in a closer or smaller area, then you can say to some extent, that the resources they need are available in that area. In the case of the Himalayan wolf — as you know, the Himalayan landscape is a very harsh landscape. In that area, which is also a cold desert, it’s also a landscape where there is low prey density of prey and where low human density tends to be low. When you look at the whole context or ecology of that place, you can say that it can only support so much. Wolves in that area do move over large areas – often 20-30 kms. in one day. The population I would say, from our observation, is low in that area; just judging by how much the wolves move. But, we really don’t know how many wolves or packs or wolves are there in that huge area.

Lalitha Krishnan: It sounds like a lot of work – collaring and monitoring wolves. Do you know if wolves in countries around us are also being collared around Asia?

Salvador Lyngdoh: In Asia, there are wolves that are being collared for studies in parts of Iran and those parts. There are wolves, which have been collared in parts of Mongolia. In India, we’d have previous studies on Indian wolves in parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat –we’ve had wolves collared there also.  Even in UP, there were studies where wolves have been collared. In the context of the Himalayan wolf, this is probably the first study where we are trying to understand the ecology of these wolves in these landscapes.

In terms of wolf research by and large in the Asian context—if you want to ask that question also—we have limited studies in terms of wolf research but we have many studies in the Asian context on the many different aspects of large carnivores and their prey. But in terms of wolf research, we may have very limited studies.

Lalitha Krishnan: I read the article you wrote; ‘The Secret Lives Of Himalayan Wolves’ where you talk about Leika and Kunzum, the wolves that you radio-collared. What was that like? It sounds like such a personal experience…such an unusual experience.

Salvador Lyngdoh: Leika was the first wolf that we had collared in a small village in Spiti valley. The collaring itself was a very difficult exercise because wolves are so clever and so intelligent. You can understand why people love them also and for the same reason hate them. They are very intelligent, they have a very strong sense of everything-of smell-and they gauge things very well.  Collaring wolves has been very difficult but at the same time, it has been very fulfilling just to catch a wolf in that particular landscape because the landscape itself has been very harsh. You have a lot of physiological limitations as well when you work in that landscape. We would put our traps and baits, and we would wait and try for several days to catch a wolf. At the heart of it, we must also be very careful and be very concerned—as we were at that very point of time—that the ultimate goal is that the animal should never be harmed. If it is done at a high risk to the animal, then the operation itself is meaningless. We were very concerned about these risk factors. Keeping all these things in mind, you had a series of traps laid, you had to have your team ready…you had to have your veterinarians ready so that as soon as you do that operation you get the animal, you put a radio-collar on it and then let it go.  That was a good experience in trying to catch wolves. Once you collared the animal, it was up and ready to go. We had a lot of information that came from the animal. To our surprise—we never knew so many things about these animals. These animals move so far. They move so close to human habitation but very often, they also go really far. This information would not have been possible without technology. That’s the beautiful thing about technology and GPS Telemetry is that if you didn’t have this technology then you probably wouldn’t be able to track that animal or you wouldn’t be able to understand the kind of movements these animals make and how it uses its landscape in that context. With the aid of technology, we could understand a lot of things about these wolves.

I had spent two seasons trying to catch the previous animal (Leika). Similarly, we had collared Kunzum, another female wolf. We went and laid our traps and the next day, lo and behold, we caught a wolf, a very curious wolf that too (Kunsum). Both animals gave us a lot of information. Recently we also managed to catch another wolf for our study. Both the earlier wolves were female wolves and we wanted to also understand how the male wolf moves. We had caught a beautiful male wolf, which helped us understand better, how male wolves move in that landscape.

Lalitha Krishnan: I wanted to ask about the conservation status of the wolf. Why is not listed as an Endangered Species?

Salvador Lyngdoh: There is an international organization called IUCN the International Union for Conservation of Nature by which the wolf is listed as a Least Concern (LC) species because it is well distributed throughout the world. If you look at its status in the world, it’s not listed as an endangered, but, by Indian law, the wolf is protected as a Schedule I species, which puts it at the same list or hierarchy as species like the tiger or the dhole. So, by Indian law, the wolf is supposed to be protected or supposed to be a Schedule I Species.

If you really want to understand the conservation status of the wolves in India, I would say the wolves in India are facing a lot of threats. I think they are declining every day. Their populations are probably declining. Why? This, in fact, needs to be investigated. We need to understand more about wolf populations and conservation threats around the species and also its prey.

Lalitha Krishnan: Have you seen the wolves in the Deccan plateau that we were talking about earlier?

Salvador Lyngdoh: Yeah, In fact, my colleague Dr. Bilal (Habib) and I have an ongoing study also in Maharashtra where we are trying to understand the movements and dispersal of wolves. I have sighted wolves from the central Indian part a couple of times. In that landscape as well, wolves are very unique and very different from the wolves we find up in the Himalayas. In the Himalayas, it’s cold and it’s a harsh terrain so the wolves are well adapted to that. All of those things make the wolf in that particular landscape a very unique wolf – a different wolf altogether. It is sometimes also called the ‘golden wolf’ because it looks golden.

The central Indian wolf, if you look at it, is a wolf that is well adapted to semi-arid conditions or hot conditions and forest conditions to some extent. That wolf is a lean, thin wolf with slender legs. That wolf is mostly grey or darker in colour.

These wolves look different; they’re each, uniquely adapted to the landscape that they represent and each of them has their role in their different landscapes –one in the central Indian part and one in the Himalayan part.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much Salvador. You’ve enlightened us so much about wolves. Is there anything more you’d like to add?

Salvador Lyngdoh: I’d like to share my thoughts on the conservation of species in the environment of the Himalayan context. Over the years in the Himalayas, I have seen a lot of developmental activities…. tourism is booming, infrastructure is coming up… Obviously, even the population or the inhabitants or people who are living there are also gradually getting used to new things. The economy is growing and some of them are changing their lifestyle—there is a lot of change and shift in lifestyles in these particular areas.

In the long run, especially in the Himalayas, if we want to conserve or want to sustain or retain the beauty of the Himalayas, then we need to think deeper into how we can maintain and sustain these landscapes. One good indicator of maintaining and sustaining these landscapes is wildlife. If you have wildlife that is still there and available in these landscapes then that is the best indicator that the landscape is still intact. Once the wildlife is gone from that particular landscape then you can understand a lot of change has happened. If you go to a city you will never see such wildlife and you know that the landscape has changed. The more natural it is or pristine it is, the only way to gauge it/save it is to conserve and try to get your cues from wildlife. Species like the wolf species or species like the snow leopard and many prey species and bird species are good indicators of those aspects.  In fact, this has been proven is many studies which have been conducted in the Americas where restoring wolf populations in a particular park has actually changed the entire ecosystem. This is the story about Yellowstone where direct linkages were found between the wolf presence in that particular park and ecosystem health. Because of the wolves in that particular park, the prey was not overgrazing; because they were not overgrazing—because their population was regulated— the vegetation was able to grow. Because the vegetation was able to grow well, it regulated the soil. Because the soil was being regulated, erosion was reduced. When erosion was reduced, the rivers were clean. Once the rivers were clean, the salmon were doing well. So all of these things are very interconnected. There’s a cascading effect when you look at large carnivore conservation or apex predator conservation. So we need to look at the Himalayas as a very delicate system. It’s often called the Third Pole. We need to understand that what makes that system stable and what sustains that system is the kind of assemblage or these biotic—when I say biotic, I mean, plant species and animal species all combined—and the abiotic—climate and whatever physical conditions combined—make that system very unique.  That way wildlife is a good indicator and wildlife health is a good indicator of an ecosystem or an environment that is good and is healthy at that point in time.

Lalitha Krishnan: Salvador what you said is so significant about taking our cues from wildlife. We’re nearly reaching the end of this episode and as is the tradition—a two-episode long tradition—I request you to share a conservation word or term that you like or you think our listeners might find interesting.

Salvador Lyngdoh: A scientific term that I really like is: ‘keystone’. It’s like the keystone in a house…for an arch. If you have an arch, you have a keystone there. The keystone holds together a lot of things in an arch… if you have a bridge or something. The keystone is the stone that holds together the structure of the bridge. If you remove the keystone the whole bridge and arch collapse. That is one thing –that certain species or elements are keystones for conserving- many things revolve around that. Many things are also connected because of that. For e.g. you have fig species which are keystone species. A lot of animals and birds depend on the fig species.

Sometimes they are also called ‘framework species’- ‘Framework’ as they build the framework for everything. If you have these species in the beginning, then what happens is, ultimately the natural flow come in and it attracts a lot of animals and dispersers…those who feed on it ultimately disperse seeds. That’s how they act as a framework and support the entire framework also.

Keystone is one word I really like when you try to understand ecology in that sense. Sometimes keystone species can be called framework species.

Another term like that which I really like is ‘Trophic cascade’. We were talking of Yellowstone wolves and how they have a cascading effect. At the top level, you have these predators that regulate the prey population …the elk and the moose. In the Indian case for e.g. you have tigers that as top predators regulate a lot of the prey in the ecosystem. That way they control a part of the forest health as well by preventing the prey population from going over the carrying capacity as we call it. That way we try to understand how everything is connected with each other. I’ve given you three words. Keystone, framework and trophic cascade.

Lalitha Krishnan: Those are great words and maybe in our next interview—which we’re sure to have—you can give us three more. Thank you so much Salvador for an amazing and enlightening talk.

Salvador Lyngdoh: You’re welcome Lalitha.

The end.

Lalitha Krishnan:(It’s been a real pleasure and I sincerely hope to have Salvador Lyngdoh on Heart of Conservation podcast again. There are so many more questions I have about wolf conservation.)

Contact Salvador Lyngdoh:salvadorlyngdoh@gmail.com

Salvador Lyngdoh’s Research gate profile: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Salvador_Lyngdohresearch gate 

Read Salvador Lyngdoh’s Sanctuary Asia’s article on wolves here: http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/conservation/field-reports/10694-the-secret-lives-of-himalayan-wolves.html

An article on wolves by Lalitha Krishnan

http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/conservation/field-reports/10800-on-the-wolf-trail-lahaul-spiti-to-lower-saxony.html

Music by hillside birds.