Nature Without Borders

The Man Who Cried Wolf

Dhangars are nomadic migratory shepherds spread across the dry habitats of peninsular India. Constantly on the move, they travel with thousands of sheep and share the landscape with other wildlife

Kalyan Varma
Environmental Photojournalist

THE FIRST MEETING

The monsoon had begun; it had rained incessantly since morning.

I saw him standing there, on top of a boulder surrounded by sheep, grazing in agricultural fallow, off the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway.

He was tall and lean, his well-built frame swathed in kurta and dhoti, the plain white of his attire offset by a dark brown shawl on his shoulder and a bright yellow turban—a long cotton cloth wrapped so many times around his head that it looked like a bird’s nest.

What caught my attention was his stance: one leg planted firmly on the boulder; the other bent with the sole planted just below his knee to form a triangle. For balance, he leaned on a stout staff.

Birdwatchers are familiar with that one-legged pose, particularly among resting water-birds who use it to relax the muscles of the folded leg and also to minimize loss of body heat and moisture.

It is equally characteristic of the Masai of Africa—in fact, the pose is so typical of the tribe that it features prominently in visuals advertising African safari holidays.

The similarity intrigued me. What did this man, in the middle of open fields in western Maharashtra, have in common with the Masai? Did he share just the pose, or were there other similarities in lifestyle, in his relationship with wildlife and with the grasslands that nurtured it?

Mahendra Kathal is a Dhangar—a community of pastoralists, among the last of the clan to cling to a centuries-old nomadic lifestyle. Nitya Ghotge, a friend of mine, who has been working with Dhangars, introduced me to him.

He was warm and welcoming; he took me to his makeshift shelter and offered tea. He was, he said, about to head out, to graze his sheep in the open grasslands.

The shelter was little more than a blue tarpaulin stretched taut on a central pole, with the four ends pegged to the ground. The floor was packed mud, smoothened; within, a few household items were stacked in one corner. A fire burned in a temporary hearth; Mahendra’s wife cooked while their children lounged around.

We sipped hot tea from battered aluminium tumblers. “Aap landga dekne aye ho? (Have you come to see the wolves?). Join us in three weeks and I will show you as many wolves as you want.”

The blue tarps are the only protection that the Dhangars have during the monsoon. They remove and pitch it back each and everyday. Mahendra's cousin Bhalu with his tent

As a wildlife photographer, I get that a lot—people telling me I can see something if I come to a particular place at a particular time, only for me to find when I get there after expending considerable time and money that the promise was far in excess of the reality.

Something about Kathal, however, made me believe in what he told me. I spent some hours with him that day, sloshing around in the rain and the mud as he walked around the pen, checking each sheep for injury or ailment before setting off for the day’s grazing.

Before he left, he told me that he would be heading east with his family and his sheep. They would cross the Western Ghats, then move on along a 300 km route towards central Maharashtra where they had their monsoon home.

MYSTERIES OF THE NIGHT

Mahendra called me three weeks later. He was nearing Dhawalpuri, he said. If I wanted to see wolves, I should join him as soon as I could; he had already lost a few sheep to the predators.

At the time, I was working on a BBC series on the monsoons, and Mahendra was part of the storyline. I hooked up with him on the road, my kit this time included a thermal camera. Wolves appear mostly at night; the heat-sensing thermal camera was my best chance to film them.