I’m smitten and it’s unchartered territory for me. This whole yearning, trailing, nearly obsessive wolf thing, I got going here. Somewhere in my subconscious, I still carry this image of Farley Mowat transporting jerry cans of vodka in the guise of aviation fuel as he prepares to fly out in search of wolves alone, in sub-artic Canada. He lived like the wolves, urine marking his territory and eating mice when there was no caribou.
I can picture Jiang Rong*, the young Chinese student, during his harsh posting in inner Mongolia, stumbling on the pack of wolves that inspired his most fascinating novel in the thick of the Chinese revolution.
You may have heard of Mark Rowland, the philosophy professor, who kept a wolf called Brenin−posing as a pet dog−in the US for the whole duration of its lifetime. Rowland got away with it. Running and living with Brenin, nursing him through sickness, Rowland finally, gave him the noble burial he deserved and went on to write about lessons learned from the wild. I never wanted this book to end. That just about sums up my limited reading on wolves; all of which sound like romantic fiction but isn’t.
As much as I enjoyed these true accounts, by very real wolf adoring people, what set me off on the wolf trail is a mere conversation in a remote Himalayan village, which I had visited with my family. There were suggestions of smoking out wolves from dens and killing of cubs for a price. All hearsay but nonetheless, one conversation led to another that left me all the more bothered and restless. I have always been a sucker for the underdog. As you probably guessed, the wolf in my narrative is one and I think it deserves a second chance.
There was one problem. I was clueless on where to begin. For starters, I had never heard of a Himalayan wolf till then. I am neither qualified nor trained to a conservationist. But I am beginning to wish I were. It’s a sure pass to visit areas that are habitats or off limit and also work with experts in the field. It was too late for regrets. I made a deal with myself. I decided to go look for wolves and convince myself they exist before chasing ghosts. The determining factor would be actually spotting one. I needed a sign. The chances were bleak. No one I personally know has seen Himalayan wolves** or knows anything about them. Or, unusually, had any good counsel for me.*** Was I chasing rainbows? A few local folks in the area thought so. “It’s impossible,” they said. “You need to stay in one place long enough.” “Don’t believe what so and so says.” “You may see dogs.” “Come back next winter.” “I guarantee you won’t see one where you’re going.”
I had a single day, a single window to try and stay true to the wolf and myself. I turned a deaf ear and marched on regardless, in search of my elusive underdog. It wasn’t easy. On a cold evening, I travelled to an unfamiliar village, the base for my ascent to a high altitude lake at approx. 15000 ft. Starting out at 3:30 am, I trekked under a star-dusted sky accompanied by Kunga, a local. The territory was new to both of us. In no time at all, we were both cold and lost. I was clambering up−sometimes on all fours−a 60º scree slope that felt more like 75º. I moved on mindlessly, like a determined, migrating beast. By the time I ascended to the top, I was so breathless I wondered if was high-altitude or plain exhaustion that would kill me first.
Then, in one instant, all thoughts and doubts were erased. I stood frozen to the spot. There, before me, in the first light of dawn, I saw running one after another across the dry lake, a pack of what looked like wolves. Not one but three or four. Could they be dogs? They certainly looked like wolves. Almost immediately, I heard a short bark to my right and then, a howl.
I felt the surface of my skin suddenly chill in response to my first wolf howl in the wild. I turned to see a solitary wolf, classically silhouetted on a rock, head thrust back towards the sky, communicating our presence to the rest of the pack. In a matter of seconds, they were all gone. Just like that. My mirage disappeared as rapidly as it had emerged leaving only footprints. Luckily my companion saw them too. We looked at each other, idiotic grins morphing our faces. I got my sign. A whole pack full! Suddenly, I was hungry for more.
**The Himalayan wolf is a newly discovered species distinct from the Tibetan wolf. (Wikipedia)
***I am extremely grateful to Mr. Chauhan, Range Forest Officer at Kaza who encouraged me to make the effort and also to Spiti Ecosphere for providing me volunteering opportunities to interact with locals and understand their perceptions towards wildlife.
Do also read this beautifully written story ‘Shadows of Wolves’ on Medium by Jonathan C. Slaght in the series East of Siberia. It was originally published at blogs.scientificamerican.com on February 6, 2017.