A shy killer

Contrary to popular perception of being savage, dhole wild dogs are quite shy

Published: Monday 30 June 2014

A shy killer

Photographs: Ramki Sreenivasan

Rudyard kipling, in The Second Jungle Book, wrote disparagingly about the dhole wild dog, which does not bark but makes a whistling sound. He invoked fear of the animal with lines such as “the dhole of the Dekkan—Red Dog, the Killer!”

But there is hardly any species in the wild more misunderstood than the rust-coloured dhole resembling part fox, part dog, with its black bushy tail standing around 50 cm tall. Dholes have been persecuted since time immemorial—trapped, shot and even poisoned by humans.

The extreme dislike for the species stems partly from the way dholes kill their prey. Though smaller than big cats and with much less physical strength, they kill big prey by biting off chunks of flesh and tearing the animal apart while still alive. They mostly hunt during the day, and hence are more visible to humans, who in turn term the dogs savage.

However, conservationist A J T Johnsi-ngh’s research of the species in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve from 1976 to 1978 reveals the other side: “Dholes are extremely shy of people. At times, they even ran away from their kill when approached by humans. Even with pups around, the mother dhole ran away with a growl when I got closer.”

Dholes are found in the widest range of climates, from Siberia to India and Java to China. They are now either extinct or extremely rare in China and Siberia. In India, they are found in Garwhal and Kumaon areas, but their sightings have been erratic.

“The dhole is genetically different from a dog; it does not fit into any of the sub-families like foxes or wolves and is classified in a genus of its own—Cuon. In a way, the term wild dog is a misnomer,” says Bhaskar Acharya, a conservation biologist with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, and an expert on the species. The dhole has a shorter jaw than a dog with one less molar on each side of its lower jaw.

Dholes mostly hunt during the day, and hence are more visible to humans, who call them savage

“Prior to the 1970s, dholes were eliminated as vermin in India and bounties were paid for carcasses until 1972, when the Wildlife Protection Act was introduced,” says Acharya. In fact, records show systematic killings of wild dogs to keep their population under control. According to naturalist E R C Davidar, the bounty was raised from Rs 10 to Rs 25 to encourage their killing. In the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society in 1949, Pythian Adams, representing the Nilgiri Game Association, called the dhole a “perfect swine”. “Except for his handsome appearance, the wild dog has not a single redeeming feature, and no effort, fair or foul, should be spared to destroy these pests of the jungle.”

According to International Union for Conservation of Nature data, today less than 2,500 wild dogs remain in the wild and there is no known dhole population above 250 anywhere in the world. Of the nine subspecies, three are found in India-Cuon alpines laniger in Kashmir and Ladakh, Cuon alpines primaevus in Garhwal, Kumaon, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan and Cuon alpines dukhunensis in the south of the Ganga.

“Only the Cuon alpines dukhunensis is doing well and this can be attributed to the presence of large protected areas in central, eastern and southern India,” says Johnsingh, who served as dean at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

Habitat destruction resulting in a smaller prey base and human-related threats have pushed the species away from their original habitats. The life history of dholes resembles that of African wild dogs, the South American Bush-dogs and wolves.

There has been a fast decline in the number of these species because of various factors. “Throughout the world, the major cause of mortality of wide-ranging large carnivores is conflict with humans on the edges of protected areas. Carnivores are killed through hunting, poisoning, collision with vehicles and diseases transmitted from domestic animals,” says Acharya.

Dholes are one of the most remarkable but least studied carnivores, with few specific scientific studies conducted on them. For a long time, the scientific community depended on anecdotal tales of dholes narrated by village folks and British officers in colonial India. Many a mythical yarn was spun around the species. One was that the animal attacked people if they ran away.

It was Johnsingh’s path-breaking study of the species that revealed that dholes are not as savage as conceived; instead they are extremely social and cooperative, and liked living in organised packs. When a pack is not hunting, dholes are sleeping or at play enhancing social bonding, sharpening hunting skills and establishing rank. To verify the popular myth, Johnsingh observed a pack of nine dholes emerging from a forest and coming towards him in Bandipur. When the pack was about 50 metres away, he decided to see their reaction and ran in full view towards a climbable tree. The dholes, instead of attacking him, turned back and ran into the bushes.

Even Kipling exaggerates when he writes the dhole runs its prey to the ends of the earth. Johnsingh also busted the myth that dholes hunt in relays. “During my research, I observed 48 chases and 44 of them ended within 500 metres. Team spirit and speed enabled dholes to kill prey within short distances,” he says.

The questions that arise are—what prevents the dhole from living once again in prey-rich areas like the Corbett Tiger Reserve? What are the diseases that periodically wipe out the dhole population from Kanha National Park? How are these diseases transmitted? A few months ago, a dhole pack was sighted for the first time in the Jaldapara National Park in north Bengal. In northern India, the species was last reported in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in 2004.

Misunderstood in the past, even today the dhole remains a pack of contradictions. For some they are providers, for others predators. For scientists, they play an important role in the ecosystem. It is only long-term study and monitoring which will help save this enigmatic species.

Ananda Banerjee is a conservation journalist, author and graphic artist. He is a media fellow with the Forum of Environment Journalists of India – Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment


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