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Wolves Too Close To Home

Shigar, Baltistan

As countless shimmering poplars, nestled into the lush river valleys below bold and unforgiving Karakoram peaks, sing a colorful ode to the fading summer with their turning leaves, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan begin to prepare for the long winter ahead. The challenges these weathered mountain people face during the cold months are many – chief among them the age-old conflict between themselves and the wild animals which descend from the mountains above, determined to find food for themselves and their young.

As hearths are lit and shepherds return with their herds from high mountain pastures where heavy snows will soon fall, the animals of the wild begin their own preparations. The brown bear searches for a den to slow its heart rate and begin a six-month hibernation until the arrival of spring. The Himalayan ibex moves to lower altitudes, in search of steep, rocky faces where heavy snow does not amass, and the herd might find enough vegetation to make it through winter. The snow leopard follows the wild goats, to those remote cliffs where it too can maneuver, growing itself a thick winter coat to keep warm in the months of subzero temperatures ahead.

Another apex predator also makes a move, descending from high-altitudes in search of food and respite from the cold. Without adaptations to catch prey on the cliffs or in deep snow, nor to survive the harsh cold of winters on the high mountains, the grey wolf moves down towards human settlements in the river valleys. Endowed with a unique and extraordinary capacity to plan, cooperate, and rapidly adapt to changing surroundings, the wolf uses these skills to target the most vulnerable and abundant source of food available – domestic livestock, occasionally left unattended by their human protectors.

The various and often complex relationships between humans and wolves date back tens of thousands of years. Indeed, our evolution as two species have been closely intertwined, as we have cohabitated many of the same spaces since the beginnings of civilization. The dogs we today keep in our homes as pets, ‘man’s best friend’, are the descendants of the same wolves that today prey on livestock and are considered by pastoralists around the world as ‘man’s greatest enemy’. With those wolves humans domesticated was formed a codependent relationship, in which, in exchange for food and care, these animals provided protection to our homes and our herds, and gave us companionship, loyalty and love. Those that were not domesticated also learned to rely on human settlements for food, though it would not be provided as willingly.

Across Gilgit-Baltistan, the issue of wolf depredation persists as a major threat to the livelihood of pastoralists already struggling to make ends meet. A single pack hunt can leave scores of a herd dead, landing a debilitating blow to already impoverished pastoralist families. Angry and without support from local government or NGOs, locals sometimes resort to killing wolves in retaliation and prevention of future attacks, using tactics such as poisoning of carcasses, shooting, trapping and killing wolf pups, which together pose a serious threat to the future of wolf populations in the region. The practice of poisoning carcasses is particularly harmful, as the carcass might also be found by any number of endangered carnivores, such as bears, foxes, eagles, snow leopards and lynx.

The wolf, an apex predator, is a keystone species, meaning it plays a critical role in maintaining the balance and overall health of the ecosystem in which it resides. The wolf plays its part in several ways: by managing populations of wild ungulates, preying on sick, old and weak individuals, which maintains a healthy gene pool within the ungulates of the region. The carcasses left by wolves also represent a vital food source for other endangered carnivores and scavengers. Wolves also keep wild ungulates on the move, allowing areas of delicate and limited vegetation to regenerate.

A deficit in scientific research, funding and general awareness leaves us with a very unclear picture of the current population size, behavior and spatial distribution of the grey wolf in northern Pakistan, inhibiting our ability to develop effective, research-based conservation efforts to manage this important species. Without an exact idea of how many wolves are killed each year in retaliatory killings by pastoralists, we lack the data necessary to trigger the sense of urgency needed to take real steps towards conservation action, or to know which areas to focus resources and interventions.

A lack of focus and discussion on the wolf as a species, as well as the issue of wolf-livestock conflict, leaves pastoralist communities vulnerable to the impacts of wolf depredation, and with limited options to protect their livelihoods without resorting to retaliatory killings. Straightforward solutions are, however, available to us to ease the burdens of such conflict, such as encouraging the use of predator-proof corrals, cracking down on the illegal hunting of wild ungulates, and developing livestock insurance schemes to compensate pastoralists for losses and reduce the financial burden a depredation incident might incur on pastoralist families and community.

It is time to begin building new understandings of the grey wolf in Pakistan, including on the impacts the population has on vulnerable and underrepresented mountain communities. The issue calls for a multipronged strategy which incorporates using modern technology to conduct scientific research, developing new media awareness campaigns to bring wolves into the conversations around wildlife conservation, and community development initiatives to ease the burden of depredation on pastoralist communities. As one of the most consistently demonized and neglected species in Pakistan’s environmental heritage, yet one of its most beautiful and ecologically important, it is time we come together and rally for new efforts to understand, highlight and conserve this iconic species.

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