The dhole remains an enigma, even as it struggles for survival
Dholes are one of the most remarkable, but least studied carnivores, with very few long-term scientific studies conducted on it
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Bangalore: It was last seen in north India a full 10 years ago, at Ranthambore in Rajasthan.
Last month, it was sighted at Jaldapara National Park in north Bengal.
“It” is the Red Whistling Dog of the Deccan, popularized by Rudyard Kipling in one of his Jungle Book stories, as the ferocious red dog, packs of which cut through (and down) anything in their way.
At Nagarhole in Karnataka, this writer once ran into a pack of them, with their kill. Even tigers steer clear of the dogs—Kipling was right about their fierceness—which are shy of men.
Their reputation, though, had meant that the red, rust-coloured dhole (Cuon alpinus), which has a bushy black tail and stands around 50cm tall, has always been persecuted by men. Dholes don’t bark, but make a whistling sound.
“The term wild dog is a misnomer as dholes are genetically distinct from dogs; also they do not fit into any of the subfamilies like foxes or wolves and are classified in a genus of its own—Cuon,” says Bhaskar Acharya, conservation biologist with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), and an expert on the species.
Dholes are one of the most remarkable, but least studied carnivores in the world with very few specific long-term scientific studies conducted on this species. The long history of its persecution—being trapped, shot and poisoned by humans—is well documented in India. “Systematic killings of dholes were promoted citing them as a nuisance to human sport (as they preyed on popular game such as deer). 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,” adds Acharya.
In a paper presented in November 2013 at Yale University, titled Preserved Tiger, Protected Pangolin, and Disposable Dhole: The Animal Aspects of Wilderness in Princely India, historian Julie Huges discloses more such prejudices.
According to her research, a record dated 1893 in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society mentioned dhole as “red demons” and described them as producing “a kind of fiendish hysterical yapping”.
“In Dungarpur State (now in Rajasthan), during Maharawal Lakshman Singh’s reign (1918-1989), even though the dhole was not common, Lakshman Singh considered it unwelcome and offered a reward for its destruction. There was no doubt that wild dogs are excessively destructive to game and cannot even claim utility as scavengers unlike hyenas,” she wrote.
In peninsular India, sportsman and naturalist E.G. Phythian Adams (popularly known as Python Adams), representing the Nilgiri Game Association (NGA), called the dhole a “perfect swine” in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society of 1949. “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,” wrote Adams.
“A virtual war was declared on this animal,” wrote naturalist E.R.C. Davidar in his book, Whispers from the Wild.
An entry in one of NGA’s annual reports read: “If wild dogs are to be kept under control, it is very necessary that members should make greater efforts to destroy them and their pups.” To encourage this thought, the bounty was raised to Rs.25 from Rs.10, an attractive sum in those days, according to Davidar.
Much of the fear of dholes comes from the way they kill their prey. They do not possess the strength of big cats, but dholes kill prey larger than themselves by biting off chunks of meat and tearing the animal apart. They hunt during the day, which means that several of their hunts have been witnessed by people who tagged the beasts as bloody and savage killers.
For long, the scientific community had to depend on anecdotal tales on dholes mainly from British officers in colonial India and many myths surrounded the species until A.J.T. Johnsingh’s path-breaking study of the species in Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka between 1976 and 1978.
The study disclosed that dholes are not bloodthirsty as portrayed; instead they are extremely social and cooperative, living in organized packs. When a pack is not hunting, the dholes are sleeping or at play, bonding socially, sharpening their hunting skills and establishing rank.
Among the many myths that were woven around the dhole was one that said it attacked people running away from it. In contrast, Johnsingh observed a pack of nine dholes emerging from the thicket in his direction in Bandipur. When the pack was 50m 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.
Another myth that he busted was that dholes hunt in relays; clearly, Kipling was exaggerating when he wrote that the red dogs run their prey to the ends of the earth. “During my study, I observed 48 chases and 44 of them ended within 500 metres; team work and speed enabled dholes to kill their prey within short distances,” says Johnsingh.
“Dholes are extremely shy of people and when I approached them, even when they were on a fresh kill, they growled and ran away. At the den site, even with the den-bound pups around, the mother dhole ran away with a growl,” adds Johnsingh.
The dholes inhabit the widest range of climates of the canid family, from freezing cold to tropical heat, from Siberia in the north to India in the west; Java in the south to China in the east. However, they do not exist in the islands of Japan, Sri Lanka and Borneo. They have either become extinct or are extremely rare in China and Siberia.
According to Acharya of ATREE, dholes resemble wolves, African wild dogs and the South American bush dog in their life history traits. Their numbers have declined sharply—due to fewer prey base, habitat destruction and the human threat. “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, collisions with vehicles and diseases from domestic animals,” adds Acharya.
Of the nine subspecies of the dhole, three exist in India—Cuon alpinus laniger in Kashmir and Ladakh; Cuon alpinus primaevus in Garhwal, Kumaon, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan; and Cuon alpinus dukhunensis south of the Ganges. “Only Cuon alpinus dukhunensis, distributed south of Ganges, is doing well and this can be attributed to the presence of large protected area landscapes in central, eastern and southern India,” says Johnsingh.
According to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), fewer than 2,500 mature wild dogs remain in the wild across its entire range and there is no known dhole population above 250 anywhere and no known population fully secured within a conservation area.
In India, conservationists remain sceptical about these figures.
Johnsingh laments that in its association with man, the dhole has been the loser. “After 35 years of my study, there are still lingering questions—what prevents the dhole from staging a comeback in prey-rich areas like Corbett Tiger Reserve? What diseases periodically wipe out dhole from Kanha National Park and how are these diseases transmitted? What is the genetic status of different dhole populations?” he asks.
Today, the dhole remains an enigma.
Then, it has always been that.
As Davidar wrote in his book: “The wild dog is a bundle of contradictions; tribal hunter gatherers welcome them as providers; to the ignorant they are drones living off the fat of the land; to scientists they are predators, not parasites, and play an important role in the ecosystem and to dog lovers they remain a puzzle.”
This is the first part in a series in which Mint looks at species that are less talked about, and struggling for survival.
Mint’s wildlife writer Ananda Banerjee is the recipient of the fellowship from the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, to study these species.