A predator, par excellence, feared even by the tiger and the panther
The term ‘Dhole’ has its origin in Kannada language, possibly due to the fact that the animal was more common in the Karnataka region in the past. The current world population of the Dhole is estimated to be only about 2,500 animals. While Bandipur and Nagarhole in Karnataka has a fairly good share of the surviving population, Periyar Reserve appears to have a better and more visible population.
The Dhole is a pack hunter and this is where his supremacy lies as an efficient predator. The Dholes hunt together and sometimes merge with other groups to bring down bigger animals like Gaur and if provoked, even a tiger or a panther.
Kenneth Anderson, who was more of a naturalist than a hunter who lived in Bangalore during the last century, gives a very vivid description of the Dholes’ attack on a tiger in his book ‘The Tiger Roars’. It’s worth reading his description which is reproduced below:
“The wild dog of the Indian forest is the cleverest of all hunters and the implacable foe of every living creature. Once a pack of these creatures scents or sees a deer and gives chase, its fate is sealed. They hunt it down mercilessly and intelligently. The main body of dogs run behind their quarry, giving voice to a hunting cry that resembles the high-pitched call of a bird more than anything else, while a few dogs gallop ahead at a terrific speed and on both flanks of the quarry. These flankers then ambush the victim and worry it, if they are unable to bring it down themselves, till the main body catches up and completes the job.
I heard the clashing sound of horns against wood and a splendid sambar stag appeared. Foam flecked his mouth and sprayed backwards to his neck and shoulders, and his eyes were wide with terror as he galloped in headlong flight. The next instant there was a terrific roar and a mighty striped form launched itself through the air an directly on to the sambar’s back.
My earlier thoughts had proved correct. A tiger had been patrolling the parkland in search of meal. He had heard the wild dogs approach and knew they were pursuing a quarry that was coming his way. Ordinarily, tigers avoid wild dogs and fear them for their reckless bravery, their intelligence and their numbers. Probably this tiger would have avoided them too but for the chance that the hunted animal and his pursuers happened to be coming along in his direction. So before he quite realized what he should do about it, he took the decisive step.
The sambar’s back bent to the sudden weight of the tiger and he let out a hoarse bellow of terror. Their tightly entangled bodies sank from view into the long grass. I heard the sharp crack of bone as the vertebral column was broken skillfully by the tiger, and the drumming of the stag’s hooves upon the earth as the twitching muscles and nerves of his four legs continued to respond to the last message to flee. Upon this scene, the next instant, burst the pack of baying snarling wild dogs !
Recovering from their momentary surprise at seeing themselves forestalled, they quickly rallied. In a flash they surrounded the tiger and the body of the quarry they regarded as their own. I counted nine of them. The bird-like hunting call that had been coming from the pack only a moment earlier changed abruptly to a series of long and plaintive notes. I had heard these cries on an earlier occasion, many years before, in the far distant jungles of the Chamala Valley. There a pack of wild dogs had been chasing a tiger and this queer new cry was the same those dogs had made on that occasion. They were summoning reinforcements. Every wild dog within miles would hasten to their aid. It appeared to be an unwritten law of the species that no member dared disobey.
The tiger rose to his feet threateningly and I could see him clearly. His body turned slowly to enable him to see how many enemies beset him. His face was contorted hideously as he snarled and roared with all the strength of his lungs, and his tail twitched from side to side spasmodically, a visible indication of nervous tension, rage, doubt and an unaccountable fear of these unruffled, implacable and cruelly clever foes.
The circle of dogs stood fast, legs firmly yet slightly outspread, each member of the pack now making that loud, shrill summons for help. The roars of the tiger and yelping call of the nine dogs were pandemonium. The jungle echoed and re-echoed with the din.
The tiger realised that every second lost now counted in favour of his foes. In two bounds he charged the dog directly in his path. The dog skipped nimbly aside, while those behind leaped forward to attack from the rear. The tiger sensed this and whirled around, flaying wildly to right and left with his two forepaws. The dogs within reach of those mighty paws fell back helter-skelter, but one was too slow. The raking talons struck the dog’s hindquarters, his body was thrown into the air with one leg almost torn off, and the dogs behind the tiger leaped forward to bite off chunks of flesh from his sides. Once more the tiger whirled around, once again his enemies scattered before him, while those at the back and on both sides raced forward to bite him where they could.The tiger feinted and made a double-turn and the dogs from behind him that had rushed forward could not turn back. They met the full force of his powerful forelegs with their widely extended talons. Two quick blows and two more dogs were torn asunder. One of them tried to drag itself away, but its nearness to the tiger tempted him to make a false move that immediately offset the advantage he had just gained by his clever double-turn. He pounced upon the disembowelled wild dog and buried his fangs in its body.
The dogs from behind and both sides now fell upon him and covered his body, tearing out scraps of the living flesh. The tiger roared and roared again, but now there was a note of fear in each roar.
The huddle of tearing rending beasts disintegrated and the tiger had freed himself for the moment. There were now but six dogs around him and some of them were injured. But the tiger was bleeding profusely from the many wounds he had received. He gasped for breath. The dogs would not relax. From all sides they renewed the attack, yelping and snapping. The tiger roared again, but not nearly so loudly. The will to continue the fight was ebbing. He was definitely afraid.
Just then quite another sound could be heard above the pandemonium: the distant cries of answering wild dogs, not from one direction, but from several, all at once. Reinforcements.
The harassed tiger heard them too, and the fight went out of him. He turned tail and raced away with the six dogs, despite their wounds and exhaustion, after him.
Within a minute the reinforcements began to arrive. First three dogs, then another and yet another. They halted a moment at the scene of battle and sniffed the blood-tainted grass and the three mangled dogs. This roused them to a fury and they growled and snarled. Then they raced in the wake of the fleeing tiger and his six pursuers. Soon a larger pack of about a dozen dogs arrived on the scene. In a few seconds they had taken stock of the situation and followed the five that had preceded them. The fate of the tiger was sealed, for by now there were two dozen wild dogs on his trail. They would not relax their pursuit till they had caught him and torn him to shreds.
The sounds of the chase died away in the distance as I stepped from behind the tamarind tree to look at the three dead dogs and the scene of battle. The sambar stag that the tiger had slain lay untouched a few feet away. After disposing off the tiger, no doubt the surviving dogs would return and eat their fill.”
Kenneth Anderson in “The Tiger Roars”
Arguably the thrill of sighting a Tiger or a Leopard in its natural habitat is beyond words. While every common man on earth has heard of these large cats and their domination in the wilderness, not many even know of the Wild Dog (Cuon alpinus) which is probably the third most feared predator in the jungles of India after the two big cats. Though they closely resemble the domestic dogs, Wild Dogs differ in the behavior, habitat and style of living.
The Dhole was classified as a vermin during the colonial days and bounties were offered for its elimination. Thousands of animals were hunted and killed for several years by the local communities around Indian forests, Wild Dogs are known as blood thirsty predators. Their journey reached a stage where experts believed extinction was bound to happen very soon. Wild Dogs which flourished in the dry deciduous forests of India were nearly wiped out. In Schedule II of the Wildlife Act of 1972 Wild Dogs are a highly protected species and permission has to be obtained to kill any individual unless in self defence or if there has been reporting of them harming humans.
Known as Dhole, the Wild Dog population has seen considerable growth in the last decade. While hunting of Wild Dogs has nearly stopped, they are thriving in the forests of Bandipur, Nagarahole sanctuaries and they are occasionally sighted in and around Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Silent valley, Periyar and other places around. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources states that less than 2,500 mature individuals remain in the wild and this trend of a decline in population is bound to continue. Wild Dogs feature in the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. Other than in eastern India, the dhole is rare or extinct in Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Assam. About 10 years ago, a pack was seen in Goalpara district near the Bhutan-Assam boundary. In 1953, a pack was reportedly seen by forest labourers in Garampani Wildlife Sanctuary, Assam. The dhole is still widespread in the Garo hills of Meghalaya. In the forests of Arunachal Pradesh, dholes are frequently sighted in Nandhapa Tiger Reserve, but are rare in other areas. The dhole is extinct or extremely rare in the hill tracts of Nagaland (Bombay Natural History Society has not received skins from Nagaland since 1931). In West Bengal, dholes are occasionally seen in the Mahanadi Wildlife Sanctuary, the Jhalda-Baghmundi Matha zone of the Pundia forest division, and the Cooch Behar forest division. They have not been reported in the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. The status of the dhole in the Himalayas is much more precarious. The last skin from Sikkim was collected in 1931. In recent years, the dhole has not been recorded in Himachal Pradesh. In 1977, a pack was seen in the forests around Dudhwa, Uttar Pradesh. Dholes are probably extinct in other parts of Uttar Pradesh. Dholes are rarely seen in Chitwan, Nepal, and Langtang National Parks. The status of the dhole within India has been reviewed recently by Johnsingh (1987). The dhole is extinct in the Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat. There is no reliable information from Kashmir. The dhole is nearly extinct in Ladakh, a pack of four individuals in Rumbak valley in Hemis High Altitude National Park being the only recent sighting.In southern India, dholes have been sighted in forest areas of Adilabad, East Godawari, Khamman, Kurnool, Mahabudnagar, Srikakulam, Vishakhapatnam, and Warangal districts. The dhole is a common predator in the Bandipur and Nagarhole Wildlife Sanctuaries in Karnataka. In Kerala, occasionally seen in the Wynad Sanctuary, the Nilambur Valley, Silent Valley, the Elical mountain range, the Siruvani mountain range, the Nelliampathi hills, and in parts of the Nettar Wildlife Sanctuary. Dholes are frequently seen in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. In Tamil Nadu, dholes are seen in the Kalakadu-Mundanthurai Wildlife Sanctuaries, the Anaimalai Wildlife Sanctuary, the Nilgiri Tahr Sanctuary, and the Mudumalai-Sigur area.
Wild Dogs are distinguished by its reddish color, hairy black tail and rounded ears at the tip. With less than 3 feet in length and 2 feet in height, the major strength of the Wild Dog lies in its socializing behavior which makes it a highly successful predator. While females weigh as much as up to 10-14kg, the males are larger and heavier who can weigh up to 15-20kgs.
Considered as one of the most social canids, Wild Dogs often live and hunt in packs of 5-12 animals. Wild Dogs are territorial and often work together in every aspect of their existence in the wilderness. Wild Dogs are known to hunt together and sometimes even merge with other groups to bring down bigger mammals like gaurs. With a strong belief in unity, Wild Dogs have occasionally been capable competitors to Tigers and Leopards. Wild Dogs display tremendous care for young ones and often help out pups of other females while feeding and hunting.
Surprisingly, Wild Dogs never bark but their means of communication include growling, chuckling, screaming, whistling and hissing. Usually, Wild Dogs hunt in the day and chances of them encountering cats like Tigers and Leopards are very slim. Wild Dogs live in packs of 10-12 individuals generally. But there have been several packs with sizes more than 20 sighted. Often Wild Dogs merge with other packs and achieve the most difficult of hunting spectacles.
Sambar deer, nilgai, spotted deer, black buck, pigs and wild boars are commonly hunted species by the wild dogs. When need arises, larger groups dare to attack Indian bisons, leopards and tigers during rare occasions. Wild Dogs swim very well and often drive their prospective prey in to water. Some times Wild Dogs do hunt in pairs or individually when the requirement is much lesser. Unlike the larger cats, there is nothing clean about the way Wild Dogs hunt. With limited physical capabilities Wild Dogs often kill prey like spotted deer by repeatedly biting them in groups and letting the prey die due to blood loss. Chital constitutes as the major resource of food for Wild Dogs while Sambar is their next preferred choice of meal. Wild Dogs do consume rodents and small herbivorous mammals like hares very often.
Interestingly only one pair in a pack will breed at any given point. One great lesson to learn from this character of Wild Dogs is their sense of understanding and willingness to work as a group. The reason why only one pair breeds at a time is to make sure, the success rate of breeding is high and other members of the pack can provide maximum help and attention to the young ones. Wild Dogs display amazing sense of roles and responsibilities in their daily life. For instance, while a mother is taking care of young ones in a den, there is a sentry on guard outside and others probably are out to hunt meat for the young ones.
Some of the major reasons for the decline in population is habitat loss due to agriculture, infrastructure development, killing of Wild Dogs by humans as they are treated as a dangerous predators, diseases such as rabies etc. Other reasons include competition with other species such as Tigers and Leopards.
Pic 2 by Maximus
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