It’s hot. Even though we are well into October the sun beats down on us mercilessly as we trudge through the scrub vegetation, trekking over rocks, through verdant groundnut fields into the valley of Mahuadanr. My guides for the day–forester Ajit Narayan Singh or his deputy Bachendra Chaube lead the way, slashing at thorny scrub and branches, pointing to a lonely hare that skips across our path. It is well into noon when we reach our destination , a huge boulder bearing the inscription ‘maand 1’ or ‘Cave 1’, for tucked at its base is a cave—the lair of the wolf. “Come next month,” they say, when its winter, that’s when they breed, here, and you can see them with their pups..”
I hope.
Much maligned (who doesn’t know the story of Red Riding Hood & the big Bad Wolf), and persecuted, the wolf has been exterminated across many of its ranges, worldwide. In India, too, cubs are smoked out of their dens, and then clubbed to death; or poisoned. Coupled with habitat loss and decreasing prey, wolf populations in India have taken a severe beating and are currently estimated at around 2,500.
This, the Mahuadanr Wolf Sanctuary, is perhaps the only one in India created to protect the critically endangered Indian wolf though I halt, ponder at the word ‘sanctuary’ which implies that the place is a haven, with the protective, benevolent hand of the state over it. But Ranchi is far, Delhi… even further; and Mahuadanr? It’s simply fallen off the map, relegated into nothingness, unlike the glory that surrounded its birth. The sanctuary, a conglomeration of fragmented, old zamindari forests, owes its existence to Bihar’s legendary forest officer S P Shahi. A keen conservationist, he first began visiting the valley in the early 1970s and identified Sarnidhi and Urambi hills as “colonised by a pack of wolves.” He spent many days-and nights there, observing, photographing, studying the wolves. “The valley,” Shahi writes, in his book, Backs to the Wall, “is being notified as a wolf sanctuary and will perhaps be the first of its kind in the country.” He understood the need for a deeper study of the wolves’ habits to arrive at effective strategy to save the critically endangered Indian wolf.
Sadly, the sanctuary has failed its vision. The neglect is appalling—staff shortage is as much as 90 per cent, leaving little scope for monitoring and protection. The few daily wagers employed have not been paid for months, a routine state of affairs. The management sits at Daltonganj, about 50 km away. The distance isn’t just measured in miles; the sanctuary is far from being on anyone’s priority list. Though Mahuadanr isn’t part of the Palamu Tiger Reserve, it comes under the jurisdiction of the field director. Officer visits are rare and there is no protection and management strategy. Why are areas designated sanctuaries when it is not followed up by any conservation effort or action? Even something as basic—and effective—as compensation for livestock killed is not being practiced. The biggest threat to the wolf today-apart from habitat loss—is that it is killed in retaliation. Given that there is hardly any natural prey, and villages in proximity, the dominant item on the wolf’s menu is goats and sheep. Speedy compensation helps ease the angst, and the anger. Yet, the staff is not even aware that there is provision for compensation.

I despair…how can we conserve this creature, as rare as the tiger? My answer lies in the impressions on the bank of the meandering river Burrah. Dog-like. Bigger. Well-established in the wet mud. The Mark of the Wolf—resilient predator, ancestor to the pet canine at home, and dating its linage back to over four lakh years…and yet, we are dooming it to extinction.

Appeared in The Sunday Guardian, Nov 21, 2010

(a bit edited)