Scientific name Canis himalayensis
Higher classification Canis
Similar Indian wolf, Arabian wolf, Eurasian wolf
The Himalayan wolf (Canis lupus chanco, syn. Canis himalayensis) is an evolutionary lineage of the Gray wolf distinguished from others by its mitochondrial DNA haplotype, which is basal to those of all extant subspecies of Canis lupus. The taxonomic status of this wolf lineage is in dispute. It has been suggested by several biologists in India for recognition as A critically endangered species of canid. Although the Indian government added the Himalayan wolf to its endangered species list in 1998, it still lacks legal protection in Tibet.
- The himalayan wolf
- Taxonomic confusion
- Captive breeding
The himalayan wolf
The mitochondrial DNA sequence of the Himalayan wolf forms one haplotype within the Tibetan wolf subspecies (Canis lupus chanco). In April 2009, the Latin binomen Canis himalayensis was proposed for this haplotype, as a separate species of wolf, through the Nomenclature Specialist on the CITES Animals Committee. The committee recommended against this proposal but suggested that the name be entered into the species database as a synonym of the name under which it was listed. The proposal was based on one study that relied on only a limited number of museum and zoo samples that may not have been representative of the wild population. Further fieldwork was called for.
The taxonomic reference Mammal Species of the World (2005) does not recognize Canis himalayensis, however NCBI/Genbank does list Canis lupus himalayensis.
Taxonomic confusion regarding the identification and recognition of wolves from the Trans-Himalayan region of India and parts of Tibet has persisted for the last 165 years. Brian Houghton Hodgson was the first to describe the Himalayan wolf as a distinct species, Canis laniger, noting its well-developed frontal sinuses, unusually elongated muzzle, distinct coloration and the woolliness of its under fur. William Thomas Blanford later combined C. laniger with C. lupus and elevated the Indian wolf to C. pallipes. Much later, Reginald Innes Pocock described both taxa as subspecies of C. lupus, making C. laniger and C. pallipes parts of the more widely distributed C. lupus chanco and C. lupus pallipes respectively. These views were widely accepted until genetic analysis indicated otherwise and revived the discussion.
Two studies have sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of the Himalayan wolf and found that it is basal to all other extant Canis lupus haplotypes and closest to the jackal, one of the closest ancestral canid species, suggesting them to be the derivatives of a more ancient independent wolf radiation. Later studies compared these sequences against world-wide wolf sequences and confirmed this basal position However, other researchers have questioned this conclusion, claiming that recent genetic studies have lacked in one or another aspect to provide a complete picture. The Himalayan wolf is present strictly in the Indian region of Ladakh and Spiti and differs from the wolf in Tibetan part. As these areas are part of the same landscape, the question of what ecological or behavioural barriers could be facilitating such strict divergence, particularly when no striking morphological differences occur between the wolves from Tibet and Indian Trans-Himalaya, remains unanswered. Another problem is related to limited data: none of the studies have collected samples from the Kashmir valley population, despite suggesting it as the area of potential contact of the closely related wolf clades. Instead, the samples have been collected from Indian zoos or museum specimens. In 2016, a study of mtDNA extracted from the fecal remains of 4 wild wolves from upper Mustang, Nepal, showed that they fell within the Himalayan wolf group but formed a separate haplotype to those previously studied, further supporting that the Himalayan wolf lineage was separate to C.l. chanco.
One study, based on a fossil record estimate that the divergence time between the coyote and the wolf lineages occurred 1 million years ago and with an assumed wolf mutation rate, estimated the time of divergence of the Himalayan wolf from the wolf/Dog ancestor to be 800,000 years ago. Another study, which expressed concerns about the earlier study, gave an estimate of 630,000 ago years.
It was therefore proposed that the Himalayan wolf be reclassified as a separate species Canis himalayensis.See further: Taxonomy above
In 2012, a limited genetic analysis of the scats of 2 wolves from remote and widely separated areas reconfirmed the basal lineage.
In 2016, a study of mitochondrial DNA sequences of both modern and ancient wolves generated a phylogenetic tree which indicated that the Indian gray wolf and the Himalayan wolf were the most basal, and included a subclade of wolves from China and Mongolia falling within the Himalayan wolf clade.
Morphological appearance of the wolves from different parts of India shows certain dissimilarities. Skulls of the two males from Chumar, Ladakh were measured by Allen (234 and 236 mm), which are the largest for wolves in India, but smaller compared to North American wolves, which can measure up to 290 mm. Canis lupus pallipes has the smallest skull length, measuring maximum up to 220 mm. Zygomatic widths of the skull of wolves from Ladakh (129 and 128 mm) were also comparatively larger than those of peninsular wolves from India (90.2–109 mm). Upper cheek teeth, i.e. canine to last molar of two wolves from Ladakh measured 105 and 98.4 mm, which is larger compared to those of peninsular wolves and Arabian wolves (93.6–97 mm and 81.3–93 mm respectively)14–16. The wolf from peninsular India appears smaller in size and more brownish in colour, whereas wolves from the Himalayan regions are large and whitish. Peninsular wolf weighs 25 kg on an average, which may be the lowest among all wolves, whereas wolves from the Himalayan region weigh about 35 kg, similar to Tibetan wolves. The wolves from Upper Mustang, Nepal are characterized by their "distinct white coloration around the throat, chest, belly and inner part of the legs; woolliness of body fur; stumpy legs; unusual elongation of the muzzle, a muzzle arrayed with closely-spaced black speckles which extend below the eye on to the upper cheeks and ears; and smaller size compared to the European wolf."
The Himalayan wolf appears to represent an ancient isolated line of wolves consisting of a small population of fewer than 350 animals. The wolves are found in India, Nepal and Tibet.
In 2004, the wolf was spotted for the first time in Nepal in the Upper Mustang region.
There are two major threats that continue to bear down on this vulnerable wolf species. The first and foremost is the human factor. The local people in the region continue to persecute and kill this wolf because they sometimes prey on their livestock. Although they are legally protected in India, they are not in Tibet even though most of its other charismatic vertebrates are under its protection.
The second major threat to the Himalayan wolf is global warming and climate change. Because of this, the glaciers are being reduced and the temperature is rising. To make matters worse, the remote wilderness is also being disrupted by human activities and pollution which also threaten the existence of the wolves.
It is estimated that about only 300 such individuals exist today.
The future of the Himalayan wolf is uncertain. The systematics of wolves from the Indian subcontinent remains controversial and needs further study.
Even though wildlife conservation scenarios in India have improved, there still remains a gap with some important species and populations left ignored so far. Despite being one of the large mammals with apparently very low population size, wolves in the Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan landscape are one such example. Even though wolves have always been in close proximity with human-settlements and are largely associated with conflict for livestock depredation, and their status, ecology and behaviour have been studied in different parts of the world, the results have been quite area specific. The wolf populations dwelling in the Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan region have been mostly unexplored in this regard. Their scarce populations and evolutionary uniqueness have been underlined in some recent studies. Lack of information about their basic ecology in this landscape is a severe hindrance towards a sound conservation plan for these animals.
The Himalayan wolf is listed as an endangered species in certain areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. A large portion of the wolf population in these areas exists outside of the protected area network, which is alarming for the initiatives of their conservation and suggests that management for conservation in these areas should equally consider the area outside protected areas.
Eighteen Himalayan wolves are being bred in captivity. They were captured in the wild and are now being preserved in the trans-Himalayan region of India, at the Darjeeling Zoo in Shiwalik Hills on the lower range of the Himalaya in West Bengal, and in the Kufri Zoo with Kufri Himalayan National Park located in Himachal Pradesh province. By 2001, four of the zoological parks of India kept 21 individuals.