High-altitude wolf in Himalayas is unique

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Himalayan wolf

The Himalayan wolf is photographed in its trans-Himalayan habitat, 5,000 meters above sea level in far north-western Nepal.

The Himalayan wolf is a unique wolf adapted to the harsh life in Asia’s high altitudes where low oxygen levels challenge all life forms.

The discovery is based on recently announced research by the University of Oxford.

The Himalayan wolf is considered an ancient wolf as it evolved prior to the contemporary gray wolf which is found in North America, including Montana and Wyoming, as well as Eurasia. Very little is known about the Himalayan wolf, because science and conservation have overlooked these high-altitude wolves as just another gray wolf until recently. As a result, very little research had been conducted and no conservation action has been in place, risking a silent population decline of this wolf.

Research published in the Journal of Biogeography, reveals the wolf’s evolutionary uniqueness based on many different genetic markers; including a genetic adaptation to cope with the high-altitude environment, which is an adaptation not found in any other wolf.

The Himalayan wolf is a top carnivore in the Asian high-altitudes, which hold some of the last intact large wilderness areas on Earth. Conservationists argue that protection of the Himalayan wolves is critical to preserve their ecosystems since they help keep an ecosystem healthy and balanced. The Asian high altitudes hold the water resources for billions of people in southeast Asia.

“The outcome of this research is absolutely astonishing,” said lead researcher Geraldine Werhahn of WildCRU, Department of Zoology, in a press release. “When we started out in 2014 it was surprising how little was known about these wolves inhabiting a relatively large region of our planet. At the time the scarce data available was indicating a genetic difference, but we had no explanation for why these wolves are different from a gray 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. 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. Much still remains to be revealed about their ecology, behavior and population size.”

The researchers observed where the wolves chose their den sites and found that in Nepal the Himalayan wolf pack sizes are on average five animals and hence smaller than usual gray wolf packs. These insights into the wolves’ social life combined with observations on the livestock herding practices in these high-altitudes helps to identify areas of conflict between herding and wolf pup rearing and propose mitigation action. 

The studies used wolf scat sampling for genetic and genomic research to understand their evolutionary history based on a wide array of different genetic regions. It also used the scat for a dietary study, investigating what prey species the wolves and other carnivores have eaten. The researchers studied which prey species and at which amount were eaten by the wolves and compared that to the abundance of these same prey species in the landscape to understand what the wolves had available and what they have actually taken.

The researchers found that the Himalayan wolves use more wild prey species than livestock when considering their availability and identified the main prey species for the Himalayan wolf. 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 sometimes kill livestock. This is a key finding for developing conservation action for the Himalayan wolf, with solutions being to restore and protect wild prey populations and working toward sustainable livestock herding practices.

The main conservation threats appear to be the killing of wolves in retaliation for livestock depredation, as well as for selling body parts in the flourishing illegal wildlife trade. Livestock is a major livelihood of many local communities in these harsh high-altitude environments, and losses of livestock has serious financial consequences for people. Improving livestock protection and sustainable management can mitigate depredation conflict. Illegal wildlife trade involves many wildlife species found in these regions, with the animal parts often traded for high prices. 

Local people expressed the wish to be closely involved in conservation work. Community conservation groups have proven successful in Himalayan areas.

These research findings can now be used as a basis to formerly recognize the Himalayan wolf as its own wolf taxon (giving it a scientific (Latin) name). This formal taxonomic recognition paves the way to assign it an IUCN conservation status. These are the two pivotal steps now required to advance the conservation of these wolves and their habitats.

More research is planned to explore behavioral and more detailed ecological aspects around these wolves, while also piloting a conservation action plan with the local communities for the Himalayan wolf that will be applicable across the Himalayan region in the long term.

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