Species

Himalayan Wolf: The Howler of Hanle

Searching for the elusive Tibetan wolf, in the Changthang Plateau of Ladakh

By Subhashini Krishnan

It had been a long day. After hours of surveying the area for free-ranging dogs, we were returning to the base camp in Khuldo, one of the many tiny hamlets in the Hanle region of Ladakh. The skies were greying, the car used for fieldwork had begun to stall, and there was a sudden drop in temperature that added irritation to my tiredness.

I was on a four-moth project to study the density, ranging, and inter-species interactions of wild dogs around Hanle, but the real reason for my Ladakh sojourn was the Tibetan wolf. A whole month had gone by, and I had seen lots of Tibetan wild asses and few red foxes, but not a single sighting of the wolf. Even the heater in the car did little to ease my longing.

The wolves of the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan systems have been a bone of contention for many biologists as they are interchangeably called Himalayan and Tibetan wolves. They inhabit the upper reaches of Himalayan ranges in Nepal, and the trans-Himalayan regions of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Jammu & Kashmir. The wolves are well-versed with life in these adverse high mountains, and yet, little is understood about them and the roles they play in their habitat.

One of these habitats is the village of Hanle in the Changthang region of Kashmir, India. Located at an average altitude of 4,300 meters above sea level, Hanle is part of the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, and known for the Indian Astronomical Observatory located on a hill in this village. It has also gained the attention of wildlife enthusiasts for the presence of the endangered black-necked crane, Pallas’ cat, and sightings of other trans-Himalayan fauna in a high-altitude wetland-grassland habitat.

In summer, tourism drives commercial ambitions, which brings wealth and opportunity to the community but also threatens the characteristic life and culture of Ladakh. In landscapes as fragile as this, attempts to squeeze more than the ecosystem can deliver can be problematic with lasting effects.

A blanket of snow envelopes Hanle in January, and the landscape remains largely white until April, when summer begins, thawing the ground, and bringing tourists to this remote village. Photo: Subhashini Krishnan
A Tibetan wolf on a winter day in Ladakh, Kashmir. Adult wolves are known to cover around 20 km in a single day. Cover Photo: Saurabh Sawant

As we drove back to Khuldo that day, past the rocky slopes by the river Hanle, a sudden movement at the top of the hill caught my attention. It wasn’t the first time I felt this surge of excitement, but prior investigations had revealed only rocks tumbling downhill, so I was largely indifferent. I told Kesang, the field assistant, to check it out as I slowed the car, and he began describing, “Looks like a fox, but bigger, and not red”.

These words were more than enough for me to turn off the engine, quickly grab my binoculars, and train the lens on the moving object going uphill, despite my shaky hands.

There it was — the wolf, finally!

The joy and warmth that spread to my numb fingers, was exhilarating. With bated breath, I stared at the creature as it stopped, and looked directly at me. That sight of the wolf, with its intelligent eyes and silhouette against the greying skyline became an indelible memory for me.

A Tibetan wolf curiously inspects the human presence in its territory. Known interchangeably as Tibetan or Himalayan wolves, these genetically-unique wolves await formal classification. Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Going by anecdotal evidence, the wolves of Changthang are the dominant predators in the region, largely due to the rarity (or even absence) of snow leopards. The wolves depend primarily on marmots, hares, and small wild ungulates, though occasional accounts of wolves taking down wild asses have been recorded.

The wolves are also known to depend on livestock, mules, and horses domesticated by the Changpas, the semi-nomadic livestock herders from the region. This enables their proximate existence to humans, and it is interesting to ponder upon how these animals have coexisted with human systems in this challenging yet beautiful landscape. Despite the fact that there is little awareness about the importance of their conservation, and appreciation of their roles in the ecosystem.

Wolves are the principal predators in the region and packs have been known to hunt kiang, the largest members of the ass family, which is native to the Changthang Plateau. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Wolves are the principal predators in the region and packs have been known to hunt kiang, the largest members of the ass family, which is native to the Changthang Plateau. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Thankfully, I spotted the wolf a few more times after that first sighting. Once the villagers learned of my interest in wolves, they became my eyes and ears for wildlife activity. I learnt that the wolf on top of the hill belonged to a pack of six that specialised in hunting larger prey like wild ass and horses. One cold sunny day, in mid-February, I got information about a wolf in the open; alone and feeding on a dead horse. I rushed to the spot, and first saw her from nearly 350 meters away. Keen not to spook her, I crawled towards her to get a better look.

At first glance, I could tell that she was starving. From her nervous glances and fidgety movement spurts, I acknowledged that satiating her hunger was currently more pressing than the risk of being vulnerable in the open. Even the vultures and ravens that attempted to partake gave up as she voraciously consumed her feast. All by herself.

Wolves are pack animals and a number of romanticised accounts of wolf packs abound in English literature. However, by considering natural history observations from this landscape, we can get an outline of the wolf pack behaviour in this region. A typical pack primarily consists of a dominant male and female along with yearlings and new-born pups. Lone male wolves are known to exist— when they are in between packs, or trying to establish their own pack—but there are no records of solitary females. And yet, here I was looking at a lone female wolf, who had reportedly been roaming around Hanle since November last year.

Despite its seemingly barren appearance, the high-altitude grassland-wetlands of Hanle draw a unique assemblage of mammals and birds, including the Tibetan wild ass. Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Despite its seemingly barren appearance, the high-altitude grassland-wetlands of Hanle draw a unique assemblage of mammals and birds, including the Tibetan wild ass. Photo: Saurabh Sawant

For nearly three hours, she gave the meal her undivided attention, tearing the flesh, licking the blood, and chewing through the meat. Using her forelimbs, she would hold the carcass down and separate the flesh with her teeth. Her efforts to bite through the hard muscle were visible, when she engaged her carnassials with squinted eyes. As was her joy at gobbling up the softer pieces of meat, when she looked up with her tongue lolling out of her snout.

It felt like a perfect dream was unfolding in front of me. Inching as close as 30 m from her, I lay flat on my belly on the cold soil, with my hands propped up to hold the binoculars. She had definitely recognised my presence but did little to move away from the carcass. Every day after that, for the next four days, I got the opportunity to witness her, observe her, and find new insights in my life through her.

In the life of the wild, there is no such thing as a minor situation or small event. Every minute and every detail is significant, and the cost of misinterpretation is nothing less than life. The opportunities for pleasure are enormous, but the awareness and discipline to face life in the moment is a lesson that the wilderness offers.

Before I left Hanle, I got to see that lone female wolf one last time feasting on a cow carcass — quite a glutton she was! Another pair also graced me with (occasional) appearances, coincidentally, just when I needed encouragement to get through my work in the winter. Every time the winds of Hanle howled, George RR Martin’s quote came to mind: “That night the wind was howling almost like a wolf and there were some real wolves off to the west giving it lessons.”

A wolf scavenges on dead cattle around the village of Hanle. Though they are excellent hunters, the wolves will not forgo access to a quick meal. Photo: Subhashini Krishnan

Subhashini Krishnan

is interested in canid ecology and evolution. Always ready to answer the call of the wild, her perfect day involves a good cup of coffee followed by tracking paw prints and howls in the wilderness.

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