The unique world of the Himalayan wolf

The Himalayan wolf has been little understood, despite being a top carnivore in the Asian high-altitudes.

Both science and conservation have tended to overlook it, seeing it as just another grey wolf, according to researchers from the UK, China, Nepal and Austria. But their recent work shows otherwise. 

Writing in the Journal of Biogeography, a team led by Geraldine Werhahn from the University of Oxford reveals the wolf’s evolutionary uniqueness based on numerous genetic markers, not the least being adaptation to cope with the high-altitude environment – which, they say, is not found in any other wolf.

“Now we know that these wolves are different from genetics to ecology, and we have an indication of what the reason may be: the evolutionary fitness challenge posed by the low oxygen levels in the extreme high altitudes,” says Werhahn. 

“When we started this research, we thought this wolf is found only in the Himalayas, but now we know that they are found in the entire high-altitude regions of Asia comprising the habitats of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.”

Werhahn also leads the Himalayan Wolves Project, which believes it has “generated solid evidence to support the Himalayan wolf meriting at minimum subspecies (Canis lupus himalayensis) status”.

The main human threats the wolf faces appear to be retaliation for livestock depredation and selling body parts in the flourishing illegal wildlife trade. 

In their recent work, Werhahn and colleagues used wolf scat sampling for genetic and genomic research to understand the wolf’s evolutionary history and investigate what prey species it and other carnivores have eaten.

Livestock is seasonally often more abundant in the habitats than wild prey species, which poses two problems.

First, the wolves encounter much more livestock than wild prey. Second, livestock competes with wild prey for food and space and often displaces wild prey species. As a result, the wolves are left with little choice but to kill livestock.

This is a key finding for developing conservation action, the researchers say, with solutions being to restore and protect wild prey populations and working towards sustainable livestock herding practices.

Livestock is a major livelihood of many communities in harsh high-altitude environments, but the researchers say local people expressed the wish to be closely involved in conservation work.

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