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As the moonlight cuts silver streaks across the thorny desert, Yadavendradev Jhala crouches next to a large cactus bush waiting for his “wolf family” to arrive. The wildlife scientist has been tracking this particular pack of wolves for days across the scrubby wilderness of the dome-shaped landmass the locals call Kutch, which translates literally to turtle.
Suddenly, his companion – the local tracker – taps him on his shoulder. Jhala jerks his head up to see the shining eyes of the alpha (dominant) male in the enveloping darkness. A few metres ahead a smaller animal, the alpha female, forages in the shadows. But Jhala quickly senses something isn’t right – the rest of the pack is missing, so too are the litter of pups he knows the alpha couple have had.
Next morning, under a glittering-blue sky, an investigation of the pack’s den confirms his fears. It has been burnt and stuffed with thorns. Hours later, they track down the “killer” in the nearby settlement – an 18-year-old shepherd who had lost two out of his six goats to the pack. The boy had simply followed the drag marks of the goats, discovered the den and blocked it with boulders. Later, he’d returned with more accomplices, smoked the pups out and smashed their heads with a lathi.
How come the scion of one of India’s royal families wound up as one of the country’s premier conservation biologists? How did you end up in an interesting, offbeat and cool career such as this?
It’s a rather complicated story! My grandfather Joravarsinh was, indeed, the ruler of the Wadhwan state in Saurashtra but I was actually brought up in Bombay. Most of my vacations, however, were spent in Gujarat following herds of blackbuck, on horseback. In grade 1, when we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, I had the oddest ambition – of becoming a zookeeper! I guess the jump from that to what I do was not so huge!
What about academics? You need to be steeped in academia to do what you do.
I actually enjoyed school and studying. I happened to top the BSc. and MSc. degrees in zoology and started my career as a lecturer in the subject at St. Xavier’s College. After a training stint at the Smithsonian, I obtained my Ph.D from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, on wolves and blackbuck in Gujarat. I also secured a post-doctoral fellowship on reproductive energetics at the Smithsonian and moved on to teach wildlife science in different parts of the world. I joined the faculty of the Wildlife Institute of India in 1993 and have since continued my research on wolves and blackbuck and expanded to study hyenas, lions and tigers.
That’s quite remarkable. Is this going to be a trend in India? Is the scope for this kind of career expanding?
It must be. Over the years I have personally trained over 300 professionals from several developing countries and supervised 25 Masters and 10 Ph.D. students. There are many like me who take great satisfaction from imparting scientific training to those who could, in the future, help restore ecosystems and help species to recover.
Were there specific individuals who triggered the direction you took?
I think it was always within me to pursue wildlife as a career. As a child, my mother, Iladevi, goaded me into academics while my father instilled a love for nature in me. Although my parents were keen I take up medicine, I had my heart set on wildlife science. At the Smithsonian Institution, I met primatologist par excellence Dr. Rudy Rudran who quickly became my mentor. He is one of the many outstanding people I have met who moulded me to become the person I am. Dr. Robert Giles Jr., a legend in wildlife management, was also a key influence.
What do you do?
Wolves have been a keen area of interest for wildlife researcher Yadavendradev V. Jhala for more than 15 years. Jhala, who teaches animal ecology and conservation biology at WII, had commenced his research on Indian wolves in 1988 as part of his Ph.D. work at Virginia Tech. When he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s, he shared his interest with Robert C. Fleischer and Jesus E. Maldonado, his colleagues there. “The project became intriguing to Jesus and myself, and when we realized we could help out with training and the ancient DNA part, we were very happy to collaborate,” Fleischer says.
The specific objective of the wolf research project was to collect relevant scientific information on the ecology of Indian wolves and study of their characteristics and evolution. Jhala approached the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) which agreed to finance the five-year project from the U.S.-India Fund, set up in 1987 to support joint scientific research. WII and USFWS signed an agreement to this effect on February 28, 1996. The project was later extended for two more years.
“This kind of killing of wolves is a common occurrence,” says Jhala, who is known for his iconoclastic studies on Indian wolves. Of late, he says, villagers have started using poison (spraying it around the den); Jhala’s studies indicate that 70 per cent of all recorded wolf mortalities were due to this. “If this trend continues, we will soon lose the entire carnivore guild of Kutch.”
Wolves, even though they’re known to be a hardy race, are on the endangered list of Indian wildlife. Once they roamed around large parts of the country, scouring the landscape in numerous packs. Today, the northern tip of Kutch holds the biggest wolf population in the country – and even that is threatened.
How can we address these issues?
Unless one man can do something about it. Jhala’s plan to save the Indian wolf is twofold. By his research, he plans to paint the wolf in a totally new light that bridges the “unbridgeable” chasm between man and animal; the wolf isn’t the cunning, dangerous vermin that eats livestock and carries away the occasional human baby but is a supersmart carnivore that is capable, like us, of feeling happiness, pain and anger.
The other thrust of Jhala’s struggle is to build a national management strategy for wolves. His five-year study (it will continue for another three) has painstakingly collected data on diet, pack behaviour, gene pool and habitat.
Jhala’s plan for this proud animal is to use this data to identify a handful of ideal wolf fortresses – and then efficiently manage them with a good conservation plan backed with scientific data. Given the voracious human appetite for land, even he knows achieving this would be nothing short of a miracle. “But,” he adds, “one has to keep trying.”
The plight of the wolves only symbolises the tragic fate of Indian wildlife today. At the dawn of Independence, forests draped the country like an elegant green gown – covering more than half the land – nourishing and protecting wildlife.
Today, this very gown is in tatters, slashed by human interests, covering only 4 per cent of the country. Human beings are the only ones who possess the power to snuff life out of all other species in the world.
It’s a formidable power, one that can so easily turn malevolent – and how we handle that capacity defines our nature. Unfortunately for us Indians, we’ve been more than malevolent – we’ve been natural born killers. Where we’ve failed is to understand that the earth is one intricate ecosystem of links by which all life is shaped. Lose one species, and a thousand others will be on the brink eventually threatening our survival.
So this isn’t a story about wildlife. This is about us. More specifically, a few among hundreds of others who have decided to fight it out to the end – so long as there are animals in the wild. These are people like Jhala who battle – day in and day out – in the little swathes of forest that hold our wildlife.
Unsung, unheralded, unnoticed, they lead their lives with courage and conviction – fighting at every step a callous government, a corrupt Forest Department and a continually growing human population. They are our Heroes of Wildlife, though they hardly see themselves as such. To them, success would come only if millions of other Indians joined in their struggle.
Driven by nothing but a deep concern that comes from within, they know that all they can look forward to is a continuous struggle, with no rewards. But talk to them and their visions grip you – the mind experiences a kind of electricity, there’s a thrill of beginning again, of seeing a new world where man and animal learn to co-exist in peace. They know that the war for most species has already been lost – it’s just a matter of when (not if) they will fall into that dark abyss of extinction.