Yangyel Lhaden

A recent study on grey wolf distribution by the Nature Conservation Division (NCD) has found that the grey wolf occupies less than seven percent of the country’s area.

This contrasts with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which indicates that the wolf range covers more than 50 percent of the country.

The study, the first of its kind, published in Oryx, an international journal of conservation by Cambridge University Press, on May 6. Titled “Distribution and potential habitat of the vulnerable Himalayan wolf Canis lupus chanco in Bhutan”, the study was conducted by, Darlo Letro, and Sonam Wangdi, and Tashi Dhendup  employees of the NCD.

The rare Himalayan wolf, a subspecies of the grey wolf that inhabits the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, possesses unique genetic adaptations to high altitudes. It is categorised as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with fewer than 4,000 mature individuals remaining.

According to the study, the wolves present in the country are likely of the Himalayan subspecies found in Nepal and Tibet.

“While geographical proximity suggests this might be the case, genetic confirmation is necessary,” said Tashi Dhendup, head of the Tiger Centre.

“With the completion of the recent IUCN Red List assessment for Himalayan wolves, we are eager to engage with the assessment team,” Tashi Dhendup said. “By sharing our findings, we hope to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of this vulnerable species.”

 The team used data from nationwide snow leopard and tiger survey to map presence of grey wolf and compiled 32 records of wolf presence from camera-traps and estimated a potential habitat of 2,431 square kilometres or 6.3 percent in the country.

The altitudinal range of grey wolf presence was between 4,281 and 5,090 metres above sea level.

Twenty-five wolves were recorded from Wangchuck Centennial National Park, four in Paro Forest Division, two in Jigme Dorji National Park and one in Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve.  The majority of wolf records occurred in alpine meadows (18), followed by juniper forests (six), rocky outcrops ( three), scrubland (three), and one each from ridge and screed slope.

“Our study breaks new ground by being the first to map wolf distribution and identify potential habitats within Bhutan,” Tashi Dhendup said. “Our research aims to bring much-needed attention to the Himalayan wolf, a previously overlooked keystone species critical for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.”

Little was known about the Himalayan wolf and the study aimed to address this knowledge gap, Tashi Dhendup said.

While the wolves are often seen as charismatic apex predators elsewhere, in Bhutan, they are lesser known among the larger large carnivores, according to Tashi Dhendup.

 “Although their presence is documented, their distribution and habitat preferences remain unclear. Human-wildlife conflict involving wolves is a reported issue, but published information on the species in Bhutan is scarce,” Tashi Dhendup said.

Wolves are responsible for keeping prey populations in check in the country’s high alpine ecosystem to prevent overgrazing and the subsequent degradation of vegetation.

“Disruptions to wolf populations can lead to cascading consequences. This includes unchecked prey numbers causing overgrasing that harms other species,” Tashi Dhendup said. “Moreover, reduced competition from wolves could increase smaller predator populations, potentially introducing new threats to the ecosystem.”

A study from a few years ago, conducted in two gewogs within Wangchuck Centennial National Park, revealed that wolves were responsible for at least 24 percent of livestock depredation cases in a year.

“This highlights the need to manage human-wildlife conflict while recognising the vital role wolves play in maintaining ecological balance,” Tashi Dhendup said. “We recommend fine-scale habitat analysis and genetic studies to understand population structure and connectivity to develop conservation strategies for this threatened wolf.”

Tashi Dhendup said that the study was just the beginning and the team were engaging with experts, both within and outside Bhutan to explore avenues for collaboration. “Through these partnerships, we aim to deepen our understanding of wolf ecology in this region and inform effective conservation strategies for these fascinating predators.”