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The Iranian Wolf

Debbie Causevic,
WCSRC Education Coordinator
Wild Canid Survival and Research Center

The Iranian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes), prominently featured in popular literature such as Richard Kipling's The Jungle Book, once ranged from the Middle East across Asia. This beautiful and unique animal is also referred to as the Indian or Asiatic wolf.

A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Iranian is smaller than its counterparts in Northern Europe and America. Standing 18 to 30 inches tall at the shoulder, Iranian wolves weigh between 55 to 70 pounds.

The short, pale color of their fur helps them to blend into the semi-arid landscape that they call home. Little or no undercoat keeps them cool in the hot climate of the Middle East.

Despite the differences that exist among different populations of Iranian wolves, they are unique from other subspecies of the gray wolf in their overall small body size, light pelage, habit of hunting small animals, and the fact that they apparently seldom howl.

Iranian wolves prey on a variety of small mammals including hares, mongooses, rats, squirrels, and ground birds such as partridges, quails, jungle fowl and lapwings.

Distribution & Range

Originally the range of Canis lupus pallipes extended across the Indian subcontinent and included parts of Israel, Iran, Turkey, and India. No good estimates exist as to how many wolves might have lived in the Middle East prior to the early 1900's. However, researchers are certain that their numbers have decreased dramatically over the last century.

Due to the fact that the range of Canis lupus pallipes covers several countries, it has been difficult to determine the number of wild wolves still alive. India is home to approximately 400 wolves, Israel 200-300, and even fewer in Iran and Turkey. Small populations of Iranian wolves might still exist across the Indian subcontinent.

Iranian wolves inhabit a variety of terrain, from arid desert landscapes to richer scrub forests. As a result, there are many physical and behavioral differences among individual populations of Iranian wolves. Wolves living in drier, harsher climates show adaptations to their environment such as their small body size, hunting individually or in pairs, and the habit of eating rotting fruits to quench their thirst.

Iranian wolf populations living in less harsh climates have larger prey available to hunt and as a result are slightly larger, and hunt in bigger packs.

Population Decline

While hunting and trapping by humans have played a part in the decline of this subspecies of wolf, the primary factors include drastic loss of habitat, decline in prey populations, and increase in human populations within the wolf's historic ranges.

Today, surviving Iranian wolves have retreated to less than desirable lands to escape encroaching human populations. Native prey populations have also decreased alarmingly due to human subsistence hunting. Many wolves in these areas have turned to scavenging and visiting local dumps to avoid starvation. Others have turned to preying on plentiful livestock that they share their habitat with.

Since so many surviving Iranian wolves are forced to share their habitat and their prey source with villagers, they are viewed by many locals as a threat. While many Iranian wolf populations are guilty of attacking livestock, much of the damage they are accused of is actually caused by wild dog packs.

Recovering Iranian Wolves

Although the range of Canis lupus pallipes crosses the borders of several countries, it is not afforded the international protection of other declining wolf subspecies. Israel has protected its small wolf population since 1954. India has been working to preserve its declining population since 1972. Even with government protection, the intense politics involving the Middle East peace process leaves little energy implementing government protection for these animals.

In an effort to find a way to preserve this beautiful wolf, scientists have been studying Iranian wolves. Researchers understand that in order to prevent this subspecies from becoming extinct, it will be necessary to work with the local villagers and livestock owners. Most of the villagers that encounter the Iranian wolf are so poor that their primary concern must be addressing their daily needs, and the welfare of these animals is often overlooked.

Today, researchers are focusing on realistic ways to save the Iranian wolf. In Israel a study involving the use of guard dogs to protect livestock from predators is underway. One thing is certain, efforts to save Iranian wolves must include obtaining the acceptance of the wolf by local people. Practices that help local people to generate money that benefit wildlife are likely to be the most successful, such as money generated from ecotourism.

Iranian wolves at the WCSRC

People often wonder how the WCSRC, located in St. Louis, Missouri became involved with efforts to preserve the Iranian wolf. Our founder, Dr. Marlin Perkins, was well known across the world for his concern for animals. In 1975, a researcher came across four orphaned Iranian wolf pups. They were found in a cave in Iran after their parents were killed by villagers. The young wolves were raised under the auspices of the Iranian Department of the Environment until they were six months of age. The researcher knew of Marlin Perkins and the efforts to preserve wolves at the WCSRC, so after a lot of red tape, the young wolves were shipped here.

Since the arrival of the Iranian wolves in 1975, efforts have been made to breed our Iranian wolves with other captive Iranian wolves. For a while, the program seemed promising. Unfortunately, as a result of few zoos having Iranian wolves, the program was ultimately not successful. The WCSRC currently has two male Iranian wolves. Both are old and will not be incorporated into a captive breeding program during their lifetime. The WCSRC is the only facility in the United States that houses Iranian wolves.