The first hour of our morning safari in Madhya Pradesh’s Pench National Park featured a fleeing civet cat, solemn langurs, grazing deer and a patient eagle. Everyone was hoping to sight the famed tigers and leopards, with our fellow hotel guests boasting of having seen the entire feline brigade and their progeny on every safari. Suddenly, we were alerted to a pack of wild dogs in the vicinity, the guide telling us enthusiastically that this was a rare occurrence.
This sounded suspiciously like a consolation prize but his excitement was infectious. Another visitor, visibly weary at the absence of tiger sightings, told her guide in resignation, “Theek hai, kutta hee dikha do (Fine, at least show me the dogs)!”
Soon, reddish-brown shapes appeared in the distance, like a shimmering heat haze. Their sleek and slight frames became defined as they approached the gaggle of jeeps—intelligent faces, pointed ears , bushy black-edged tails, looking like longer-legged foxes, or, rather, foxy foxes! They stopped cautiously to the side; one, however, settled down amid our jeeps. “Listen! They are whistling,” said my husband. Sure enough, light gasps of a whistle were audible.
Dholes are dogs like no other. Of slight build, weighing 12-20kg, “they are excellent hunters, apex predators along with tigers and leopards. They have even been known to bring down a tiger”, our guide informs us. Dholes are remarkable leapers, reportedly jumping to heights of 7ft, swimmers and runners, abilities that come in handy as they pursue their prey, able to chase it for several hours. If those leading the chase tire, others in the pack take over the chase.
For these are social animals. Living in packs of 2-25, they work as a tight team, feeding and caring for each other, allowing their pups precedence at a kill. They also interact with other packs; inter-pack aggression is reportedly rare.
They are, in fact, unique. They do not bark, instead they whistle, cluck and shriek to communicate. Unlike other canids, they have only two molars on each side of their lower jaw, which may enable them to eat more quickly and shear flesh off their prey easily. Six-seven pairs of teats, separating them from female canines with five pairs, is likely an adaptation to support their large litters, often 10 pups or more.
THE DHOLE RANGE
A dog with many names, including Asiatic wild dog, whistling dog and red dog, the dhole belongs to the canid family. Found in eastern and southern Asia, from dense forests to alpine regions, clustered in India in the Western and Eastern Ghats, central Indian landscape and the North-East, these social carnivores share space with tigers, leopards and wolves across their geographic range, targeting medium- to large-sized ungulates, a dietary overlap with their big cat neighbours. Endangered, and among the least-studied carnivores globally, their existence is threatened by shrinking habitats, prey scarcity, conflict with humans, and disease.
Dholes have uniform markings, making it hard to differentiate between individuals and sexes. “When we sought to determine global dhole population size in the 2015 IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List Assessment, we did not have a reliable estimate, based on species-appropriate field and statistical methods, from anywhere across their range,” says Arjun Srivathsa, DST INSPIRE fellow, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, member of the IUCN Dhole Working Group and the Wild Canids-India Project, started by researchers from various organisations to pursue studies to better understand dholes and form science-based conservation plans. “Our ‘guesstimate’ predicted a global population of 4,500-10,000 animals, of which 1,000-2,000 is adult, mature individuals capable of reproducing. These numbers need to be and will be revised soon,” he says.
Dholes are the only carnivores in India, besides the tiger, in the IUCN’s endangered category. Various misconceptions have given them a bad reputation—like their image of vicious hunters, eating their prey while it is still alive.
“There’s hardly any predator that is a ‘gentle’ hunter,” says Srivathsa. “Dholes hunt prey that is 8-10 times their body size. Without the jaw strength to bite the nape and incapacitate their prey, they must eat their prey alive to subdue them.”
THE MANY DANGERS
Historically, too, they got a bad deal. Since dholes hunted valuable game species like deer and other herbivores, British sport hunters resented them. So they were treated as pests and bounty-hunted until they came under the Wild Life (Protection) Act in 1972.
Their hunt of livestock, too, has always brought them in conflict with humans, largely in the North-East, Nepal and Bhutan. “The practice of bounty-hunting of dholes continues in parts of North-East India, where they come into conflict with local communities when they hunt mithun—a culturally important local breed of cattle,” says Priya Singh, a Bengaluru-based researcher focusing on wild felids in the North-East.
These aren’t the only dangers they face. There’s the threat of stray or domesticated dogs passing on rabies, distemper and other fatal viruses. “Disease is an aspect we understand little about. It could be a silent killer wiping out populations of dholes outside Protected Areas, such as parts of central India,” says Girish Punjabi, conservation biologist, Wildlife Conservation Trust.
But there is hope.
Since habitat and prey loss are major dangers, conservationists are working to see how connectivity can be maintained among dhole populations and their territories. Srivathsa and other experts have mapped connectivity hot spots across India and identified tehsils where targeted conservation efforts will maintain or improve connectivity for dholes. They published their findings in the Journal Of Applied Ecology in October 2021.
Results from such studies show promise for these underdogs. “Dholes are gradually being recognised as an important species by the conservation fraternity,” says Punjabi. “The forest department is also encouraging studies on the species. This should eventually show up at the policy level as well.” Srivathsa agrees. “There’s more happening with dhole research and conservation awareness now than a decade ago and (there is) increased funding interest to support this work.”
India’s tiger conservation efforts can also be beneficial to dholes in the same territory. “There is habitat protection, regular patrolling and scientific monitoring in these areas. People living around such areas may have access to compensation schemes in case of losses due to attacks by wild animals. This benefits not just tigers but all other wildlife, including dholes,” says Singh. “However, dhole ranges extend beyond tiger reserve networks and lack this conservation attention.”
Increased awareness is crucial. “Research studies show that conservation interest for species among the public arises from awareness. Dholes are not readily charismatic like the elephant, rhino or tiger,” says Srivathsa. “The species needs narrative-building and more research.”
Srivathsa and his peers are working on more efficient methods to assess dhole numbers. They have extracted DNA from dhole scat samples in Kerala’s Wayanad sanctuary to identify individual dholes. Combined with statistical spatial capture-recapture models, they estimated dhole numbers and density, approximately 50 within sanctuary boundaries. They published their findings as an article, The Truth About Scats And Dogs, in the Biological Conservation journal in April 2021. “We are trying to expand and implement this method across a larger landscape within the Western Ghats. Hopefully other researchers can replicate it in other parts of the dhole range,” he says.
What would happen in a dhole-less world? “Dholes are apex carnivores, at the top of the food chain. Losing them would, in ways that we may or may not fully comprehend, alter the ecological balance in nature,” notes Srivathsa. In the 1980s, when conflict led to dholes being wiped out in Bhutan, the country saw an overwhelming increase in wild pig numbers. Monetary losses from the crop damage caused by wild pigs even led to dhole rewilding efforts that continue today.
On my second safari in Pench, our jeep screeched to a halt when two dholes shyly scampered across the path. One of them paused on a fallen tree trunk, looking back towards us, red fur aglow in the sun, before strolling away. I would like to believe that parting look was not a final goodbye.
Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.