Even a fleeting look across the Koppal landscape (of which Hampi is an integral part even though only parts of it fall within the Koppal administrative district) and you are most likely to see sown or fallow fields and pastoralist groups with thousands of sheep traversing the landscape. Only with a closer look will one realize that there are hidden unseen elements in these lands- the most enigmatic of which is the Indian Grey Wolf.
You may be just a few metres away but it would have disappeared into the agricultural fields and we would never know. It may also be scanning the landscape atop a tall rock or moving across some rare patches of grasslands, but so well blended that one will never get to see it. These wolves are not like the European or North American ones – grey, furry and large. They are some shade of taupe, just about mildly furry and rather lanky.
The Indian Grey Wolves are social animals, i.e. they live in packs and generally with one pair amongst them which gives birth to a litter of pups during the colder months. All members of the pack help in raising the litter and the pups start moving with the pack after they are above 7 to 8 months old. Koppal is also the land of the graceful blackbuck and these lanky wolves have to endure the chase to be able to take one down. But there is something else that the wolves of Koppal need- it is the ability to live with pastoralists and this is what makes this land so special. Environmental historian Dr. Rangarajan has summed Indian Grey Wolves in two words – the ‘unseen predator’, a species which appears and disappears at unexpected times. But there are some people who know these lands and its wolves very closely- they are the nomadic pastoralists.
These groups move across Koppal and beyond, tracking fodder and water. One might catch them taking thousands of sheep along the roadside, carrying their whole household on horseback, collared dogs moving amidst them. They can be distinguished from some local pastoral groups by the womenfolk who move along with the horses and young children and the men who herd livestock and wear brightly coloured turbans and gold in their ears. There is something unique about their relations with Indian grey wolves which is evident from some cultural narratives that one gets to hear. Some say that wolves are brothers and some say they are maternal uncles or ‘Sodar Mama’, both of whom deserve a small share in the livestock.
The story goes that wolves bless livestock by the occasional visits and the herd prospers if wolves take livestock on certain instances. The result of these beliefs is that there seems to be some level of acceptance towards wolves and their ‘need’ of taking livestock has been recognized and valued. So the next time we hear stories about ‘the big bad wolf’, ‘the cunning wolf’ and ‘the wolf in sheep’s clothing’, we might remember this story from the heart of the Deccan peninsula. It will remind us that there are such positive relationships between man and animal, right here in India.
These lands here in Koppal were India’s Africa, with antelopes and large carnivores and pastoralists moving across large swathes of dry grasslands. Today these habitats are in the form of small pockets which are hidden amidst large agricultural fields. There are antelopes, large carnivores and pastoralists too and they all are navigating this landscape, struggling to cope with large scale changes. In the process, wildlife numbers have plummeted and people have probably forgotten how to live alongside wildlife. So should we think of these landscapes as ‘conservation’ enabled ones? Will people’s changing aspirations accept the presence of remaining wildlife populations in these areas knowing that this is their only chance to persist?