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“Wolves in Pune!” was the standard bewildered response my friends shot back at me, when I made my intentions of seeking out wolves—wild, untamed wolves—in the vicinity of Pune known to them. Their reactions weren’t remotely surprising. Wolves—highly elusive canids, living in socially active packs—and Pune—a sprawling city, did not sound like things that could peaceably co-exist, not even to me. But as is often the case with nature, offer it the minutest scope for survival and it will flourish with defiance and aplomb—a spirit that had been embodied by free-ranging wolves of Pune. Having lived in this city for three long years, an equally enthusiastic friend and I finally made up our minds to pay the wolf’s lair a visit, for never had either of us seen a wolf in the wild, and we were itching to catch the faintest glimpse of one.
We kicked off our quest for the wolves a good hour and a half before dawn, as a late arrival couldn’t be risked. With the onset of summer, temperatures had begun to soar, forcing the wolves to restrict their movements largely to the early hours of dawn, and cooler spells of the night. As soon as we were out in the open, we knew why—there was a nip in the air. It seemed like optimum conditions for a wolf to be up and about. In less than three hours, it would get scorching hot! We headed for a village named Saswad, which lay on the outskirts of town, and a cluster of hills adjoining it, was where the wolves were said to prowl.
While the car bobbed and bounced along the gravel-laden roads that cut through the villages, the hills looked tantalisingly close, and had almost made me question the veracity of the tales. How on Earth were wolves, pack animals that needed vast, unrestrained, open spaces, and a sizeable population of humans living cheek by jowl, almost eking out a living at each other’s doorstep ? Where were the encroachment-free, isolated stretches of grassland I had heard about, where the wolves lived?
Just as these thoughts were beginning to unduly worry me, the car veered off the path and on to a barely discernible dust-track, and a few sudden jolts and shuffles later, I realised that I had foolishly let my misgivings get the better of me. A five-minute detour was all it had taken to lose sight of the bustling human settlements that stubbornly refused to leave us. We were finally here. This was it—an unsullied expanse of unbroken tranquillity, where the wolves of Pune could reign supreme.
The grasslands spread out as far as the eye could see, like a sea of ochre, swaying rhythmically in the morning wind. I was thoroughly unaccustomed to this; it might seem like an odd thing for someone with a habit of frequently tramping the wilds to declare but as luck would have it, grasslands had never featured in any of my previous jaunts. And they proved to be unlike anything I had ever seen—devoid of any overlying tree cover. The dearth of dense, voluminous undergrowth had blessed us with that elusive thing—good visibility! The habitat stretched for a couple of miles ahead of us, and for a change, the view was uninterrupted and unfettered. We drove the car to a vantage point and intently scanned the ground ahead for signs of wolves or other fauna, but not a blade stirred. Nothing indicated the presence of Saswad’s famed denizens, or anything else, for that matter.
However, one must never make the mistake of assuming that the grasslands are bereft of any animal life. That would be nothing short of a libel. And I suspect the Forest Department, the custodians of the lands, seem have been taken in by the same, baseless misconception. Flourishing patches of grasslands lying in the immediate vicinity of the villages have been ludicrously split open in an attempt to ‘re-green’ what they perhaps consider to be a barren tract of land, devoid of all forms of life—crude example of yet another human ecological blunder. Luckily, before irreparable damage was afflicted, the ill-thought tree planting initiative was brought to a halt by citizen groups who realised the department’s folly before they did! Sadly, the scars they’ve left in the form of partially dug up trenches still remain.
The grasslands are literally teeming with animals—hyenas, wolves, chinkaras, foxes, blue-throated lizards. Barring the ubiquitous chinkaras, all the other species are scarcely seen, but not due to a paucity in their numbers, but because that’s how they are. To the hidden predators, their homes are nothing less than vast, open, uncluttered spaces, where having to wrest a living rests solely on their ability to employ the indispensable element of stealth. And their capacity for that is something I can personally vouch for. When my companion brought the car to a screeching halt while negotiating an incline, and said “fox,” gesticulating animatedly with one arm outside the window, it took me a good ten seconds to locate the creature of petite proportions: its head rested atop a rock, gazing inertly at us. It kept a close watch over us before the sudden opening of a door caused it to lose its nerve, scramble its way up to the top of a ledge, and scuttle across to the other side, out of sight.
The chinkaras that had so far also proved elusive, now began to spill out of almost every nook and cranny, just as the rising sun began to herald a new day by gently spilling forth its first rays of light. The chinkaras had come out in such force that I unknowingly spooked a group of six of them by suddenly emerging from the top of a rise. They scattered at stupendous speeds. So rudely shocked were the animals that a couple of them even voiced their alarms—a peculiar, sneeze-like call.
Of the wolves there was no sign, and we surmised that the unfavourable weather conditions might have played a role in its absence. Or so we thought, before a warning call was sounded, informing us that a wolf had just been spotted! We hastened to the spot, unmindful of the damage being done to the car by the bumpy terrain. But alas, the much sought after canid had slinked off into the inner reaches of a ridge. However, sparse consolation came our way in the form of a photo, which had been taken minutes before we arrived, and had captured the lithe prowler in all its glory; its glassy eyes—a paler shade of blue—had me spellbound. They radiated an intelligence that was cold, scheming and measured, a kind I had never seen in any creature of the wild before.
Few are aware that the plans for a new airport in Pune are being mulled over, the consequences of which could prove disastrous for the wolves, as the site being considered for the project lies dangerously close to their homes. It could dramatically alter a landscape that’s been their refuge for centuries. An extract from Shivaji and His Times, a book chronicling the life of the great Maratha warrior reads as follows, “The desolation caused by man preying on his species favoured the growth of wild beasts. The Puna district, especially the Sahyadri hill-side forming its western border, was now infested by large numbers of wolves, which thinned the population and hindered cultivation.” A little less than half a millennium later, the tables have very nearly turned, while a complete turn - in the form of a newly built airport - threatens the last wolves of Pune, with an unholy fate.
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