Biodiversity Nepal
For the Future Generation

Howl of the Himalayan Wolf

A distinct wolf species in need of recognition.

Geraldine Werhahn
174

The Himalayan Wolf (also called Tibetan wolf) is found in the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau & mountain ranges of Central Asia. The Himalayan wolf is a distinct lineage of the Holarctic grey wolf due to many genetic markers, one being uniquely adapted to high altitudes. Researchers have recommended the scientific name, Canis lupus chanco for the species, yet the existing evidence is to be verified by full genomes. 

Evolution

It is believed that the Himalayan wolf lineage may have split around 0.8 to 1.5 million years ago in early to middle Pleistocene during the evolution from the ancestors of wolf-dog clades to the Holarctic grey wolves. Rueness & his team suggest the Himalayan wolf may have existed before the grey wolves. Its unique high altitude adaptation above 4000 m at low oxygen level could be related to evolution attributed to past uplift of the region. Uplift of the Himalayas & the Tibetan plateau during the Eocene epoch might have led to the species isolation in this high topography.

Morphology

The Himalayan wolf has distinct white coloration around the throat, chest, belly & inner part of the legs, woolly body fur, stumpy legs, elongated muzzle, muzzle arranged with closely-spaced black speckles which extend below the eyes on to the upper cheeks & ears; & is smaller in size that contrast with the European wolves. 

A male wolf in Nepal Himalaya. Photo by Ryan Davy

Behavior

Werhahn & his team identified two distinct characteristics in this species incited by its unique genetics; it covers long dispersal distances & can easily hybridize with other wolves when conspecifics are lacking. Additionally, they have distinct vocalization. They are normally found in small packs compared to other wolves, with five members on average which generally comprise two adult parents & puppies. 

This species share a similar diet niche with snow leopards & are  important carnivores along with snow leopards & red foxes in the Himalayan ecosystem. Werhahn & his team found that the species prefer wild ungulate species over livestock. One of its most preferred prey is Tibetan Gazelle, a smaller wild ungulate found in considerable numbers in Nepal Himalayas. Other wild prey include kiang, naur, marmots, woolly hare, pikas & rodents. In the case of limited wild prey population, wolves prey upon domestic animals prompting a human-wolf conflict.

What’s at Stake?

The species is listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN National Red List. Although comprehensive studies are required, researchers argue that the population might be declining. Human-wolf conflict also seems to be a major concern in the Himalayan community primarily due to minimal conservation awareness towards wolves. Conservationists are concerned about the wild prey populations as habitat encroachment, high rate of livestock grazing & illegal poaching are the prompt threats to them. As the species is listed as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List, it has got little consideration from the international community.  

This special wolf species occurrence indicates a healthy & balanced Himalayan ecosystem, which is also one of the biodiversity hotspots. Evidence of the Himalayan wolves as a distinct species is getting stronger, so their protection needs a high recognition. Regardless, researchers still need extensive studies covering the entire Himalayan landscape to understand their distribution, ecology, behavior & genetic similarities with other wolf species.

 

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