Mahuadanr Wolf Sanctuary in Jharkhand is the only sanctuary in India dedicated to wolf preservation. It exists because of the efforts of a forgotten Indian Forest Service officer – SP Shahi.

There are about 3,100 grey wolves left in the country. Like many endangered species, loss of habitat poses the primary threat to their existence.

“Back then, the preferred habitats of wolves — scrub and open forests and grasslands — were swiftly converted into agricultural land. Thus their habitat was rapidly declining,” says wildlife historian Raza Kazmi.

“Simultaneously, a policy of elimination of wolves was followed on a wide scale by the British authorities and the killing continued into independent India,” he adds.

“Shahi, unlike most forest officers of his era — to whom the mosaic of ravines of the Mahuadanr valley was a ‘wasteland’ — recognised the importance of what today we call ‘Open Natural Ecosystems’ for wolves.”

Shahi began his career in 1942 as a timber supply officer in the Bihar Forest Department, and saw a meteoric rise thereon.

In 1960, at the age of just 43, he became the first chief conservator of forests, the youngest in the country. He would go on to serve as a forest officer with distinction till his retirement from service in 1976.

Shahi lobbied the government for years to create a wildlife sanctuary to preserve Mahuadanr’s wolves. He managed to eke out 63.25 sq km of wolf habitat and got it notified as the Mahuadanr Wolf Sanctuary.

The sanctuary was created by focusing on wolf denning sites, which meant that the sanctuary is discontinuous and consists of many enclaves.

“One of his favourite dens was ‘Urumbhi’, a cluster of large rocks where he spent many days and nights — both during service and even after his retirement — observing ‘his’ wolf packs, their breeding, and overall ecologies,” says Kazmi.

This system also allows villagers to graze their goats and move about in the landscape through the discontinuous patches of land that are not part of the sanctuary.

“On a managerial level, he simply had the staff instructed to manage the sanctuary in a way that did not create hostility against wolves due to restrictions on the resource use of villagers. That mantra continues to this day in the sanctuary’s management,” Kazmi explains.

Shahi’s death in 1986 was earlier seen as a devastating blow to Mahuadanr, given how forest administrators left it uncared for.

But fast forward to 2013, when Kazmi says he began “retracing some of Shahi’s trails in Mahuadanr using his old field notes”, he found “wolf signs, spoor, and trails all across his erstwhile field sites”.

These wolves survived largely as goat-rearing pastoralists freely accessed the Mahuadanr valley. Shahi’s decision to ensure their grazing rights had paid off.

In fact, last year, forest authorities released images of a new generation of Mahuadanr wolves from the dens of Urumbhi. This is where Shahi first observed these wolves more than 50 years ago, which led him to the path of notifying this sanctuary.