KOPPAL: You won’t find a little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf here. Or for that matter, the wolf which comes huffing and puffing to the house of The Three Little Pigs. But, yes, you will see real wolves in the land of Koppal, and not the fabled villain. It is home to the Indian Grey Wolf.An ancient stark, rocky landscape of the central Deccan Plateau in Karnataka, Koppal district, supports extraordinary wildlife—from apex predators to grassland prey—that is unseen in other districts.
Unfortunately, this unique landscape with its varied habitat and wildlife, has not received any protection despite surviving extreme circumstances amid human settlements. However, Indrajit Ghorpade and his Deccan Conservation Foundation (DCF) have stepped in to make a difference and do their bit for its protection. Since they took off in 2014, they have recorded, documented and also brought in awareness about the species/habitat and the need for its protection.
A varying habitat from rocky scrub outgrowths to steep cliffs to grasslands, Koppal is home to the Indian Grey Wolf, sloth bears, the Indian Fox, civet cat and the Indian Leopard. For Ghorpade, who heads the foundation, the task is not easy as this job involves protecting animals from ritual hunters and tribal poachers, even transforming them into conservationists.
Moving from the ancestral farmhouse of Ghorpade at Hagedal, we traversed this varied landscape with Suraj Revadigar, project coordinator, and field assistant Durganna. It was a revelation for us as we crisscrossed black cotton fields, the grasslands and the dennings in the rocky scrubs and sight blackbuck herds; observe scats, footprints and snares too.
With 35 years of experience, Durganna, the eyes and ears of DCF, points out every kind of species. The foundation has four watchers who give information about sightings, poaching, pug marks, etc from Sangnal, Mandalmari, Karmudi, Bankapura, Byrapura, Hindargi and Hirebankal. In fact, wildlife can be seen in small patches of 300-400 acres in Mandalmari, Hosur and Makkali. DCF has deployed camera traps in Mandalmari, Yellappana Kallu and other villages to study the diverse wildlife amid human settlements.
As we traversed through Mandalmari and Sanganal, it’s time to take a peek into Tholahalla where studies of wolves in this area have revealed some three to four packs taking shelter here. Four packs have been recorded here with breeding pairs, sub adults, adults and pups.Once, the DCF team found a blackbuck limping and moving around when the Indian Grey Wolf made its first appearance before them. Like a hunter, they tracked the wolf even as a female wolf followed. They waited for her to climb on the bund and in the beautiful golden light, the first picture of the wolves in this landscape was captured.
Rama, a poacher once, has become a conservationist, thanks to the DCF. And it was he who pointed to the presence of wolves in the rocky scrubs in Mandalmari. In a rocky crevice, five-day old wolf pups were found and they were whimpering as it was time for their mother to feed them. Ghorpade says, “Sitting on top of a rocky den, we found the mother wolf walking in they recognize humans and it almost walked straight and was a sight to treasure. I had seen the wolf after 20 years in these parts.”
Their persistence paid off as shepherds too confirmed the wolves’ presence. They also informed the DCF that the wolves were hunting their sheep. In 2016-18, researchers from Wildlife Conservation Society, who were doing a study of grasslands, found a connect between sheep-wolf-shepherds.Ghorpade says that traditionally, shepherds respect the wolf and in fact, call them their maternal uncle. According to the shepherds, sheep meat is tastier as there is an adrenaline rush when wolves are found in their midst and so shepherds support the protection of wolves.
“Despite studying in a public school, I stayed true to my roots in Koppal,” says Ghorpade and adds, “I grew up amid pioneering naturalists and photographers visiting our place, flourishing with bird and animal life. My family was associated with wildlife conservation for long.”It was in 2014 that Perumal, the legendary photographer, took Ghorpade to Bandipur and it was the start of a new chapter in his life – being exposed to the intricacies of photography. “I started getting photographs and this was because of my intimate knowledge of wildlife outside protected areas.
I captured herds of blackbucks on my camera, it was a healthy environment where the jackals and wolves used to howl. And travelling the whole day……we observed the blackbucks. Durganna, my childhood companion, would drive me around in this landscape and would sight birds and other wildlife easily,” says Ghorpade.
Presently, the DCF is aiming to save the habitat with its varied wildlife as poaching and ritual hunting are rampant here. The areas identified for protection include -- Mandalmari, Sanganal, Mudhol, Sulekere, Bankapura and Hanumansagar. They have taken up numerous programmes through talk shows, workshops in schools and colleges to educate/bring in awareness among the future generations to save precious wildlife.
Moving further up in the landscape, we climbed across the rocky cliffs of sandstone in Hanumasagar. A variety of birds including sand grouse can be seen while it is a hunting ground for a variety of raptors. Here, Pangolins dominate. In 2015, Ghorpade was appointed honorary wildlife warden for Koppal district and has served two terms.
However, under the aegis of DCF, it has been his endeavour to chalk out a different role. He adds, “A lot needs to be done for research and documentation. WCS researchers’ visit was just a chance one as part of grassland study. …We are on our own and doing our work with bare minimum funds. It is a common sight to see tribals go for hunting with dogs. So, the aim of DCF is to make the local people custodians by making them aware of the need to save wildlife in their backyard. Our focus is to tell students about our natural heritage and take pride in it.”
Urging the Karnataka Forest Department to come forward to give protection to the rich Koppal landscape, Ghorpade says, “There is a need for a wolf census in Koppal. It is not possible to create Bandipur or Nagarahole in this landscape, so we are advocating creation of micro-habitats – by giving them protection with no human disturbance. Yellapana Kallu can be a beginning ….Apart from this, the cotton black soil landscape which once supported the Great Indian Bustard has disappeared today. Just like we need a roof, this habitat too needs it. Natural corridors have been cut off and fragmented, thereby affecting the genetic diversity of the populations. We need to leave our legacy, create a grassland institute and give researchers a chance to re-contribute by way of such support. “
The Ghorpade royal family shares a common ancestry with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Basically Marathas, they got the title Ghorpades after capturing the Khilna Fort, 400 years back. One of their ancestors dug roots in Gajendragad area and hunting was part of their lifestyle till 1972 when the Wildlife Protection Act was enacted. Growing up amid this habitat, they accrued intimate knowledge about wildlife
Memory cards in these traps are checked regularly for monitoring wildlife species. Large number of images has revealed presence of large carnivores, leopards, wolves, jackals, fox, mongoose, porcupine, civet cat, jungle cat, rusty spotted cat, Indian eagle owl, striped hyena, etc
The Tholahalla Wolf Pack was first sighted in 2014-15. It comprised eight wolves with an alpha male and female. In 2018, six were poisoned and killed. Now only one male and female are left. However, the good news is they have started breeding
Starting from January this year, the Foundation has intensified its educational programmes-- taking up
another 100-120 schools. Awareness campaigns about local wildlife are also taken up in select colleges