Himalayan wolves are smaller than the gray wolves native to North America and Eurasia, with stumpier legs and longer snouts. They also have white fur around their throats, chests and bellies, according to a news release about the study.
Scientists debate whether Himalayan wolves are simply a type of Tibetan wolf — which is a subspecies of the gray wolf — or part of a totally separate species. Research team member Bibek Yumnam from the Wildlife Institute of India told The Huffington Post that the new analysis suggests Himalayan wolves should be classed as a subspecies.
But what really makes the wolves so special is that DNA evidence suggests they come from a genetic line that split from the “wolf-dog clade” — the ancestral group predating the gray wolf and domestic dog — between 800,000 to 1.5 million years ago.
“Due to the fact that they evolved in isolation without mixing from other wolf and domestic dog lineages and their critically endangered status, it is prudent to focus conservation efforts as an evolutionary distinct entity,” Yumnan said in an email.
It’s unclear how many Himalayan wolves exist. A 1995 report estimated that there were only around 350 left in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classed the wolves as “critically endangered” on Nepal’s National Red List, noting that it’s possible there are only 30 to 50 individuals left within the country’s borders.
The Red List notes that the major threats to the animals include habitat loss and conflict with humans, some of which Chetri’s team observed. They interviewed about 400 locals, many of whom were livestock owners or herders, and learned that the wolves are widely considered a serious threat to livestock. As a result, some communities hunt the wolves in order to protect livestock.
Comprehensively mapping the animals’ range could help promote peaceful wolf-human relationships, since that information could help herders avoid wolf-heavy areas, Chetri told HuffPost. He also floated the idea of “livestock insurance policies” that could make farmers less fearful of the wolves attacking their animals.
But what’s most important to the wolves’ survival is studying them while there’s still time.
“Long-term research on the ecology of the species is urgent,” he said.