The only endangered large carnivore besides the tiger, the dhole deserves more attention
The dhole, or Asian wild dog, suffers from an undeserved bad reputation, says Arjun Srivathsa. It doesn’t lack in the looks department. Its rich russet fur and bushy black-tipped tail make it a handsome animal, an asset not lost on the researcher who is also an artist. It whistles through its nose to locate other members of its pack. It also whines, screeches, and growls, but it cannot bark or howl like a dog. Unlike tigers, leopards, and wolves, the dhole doesn’t eye people as prey.
Yet, throughout the colonial era, writers, hunters, and foresters slandered the species as a marauder of livestock and game. They claimed game animals feared its presence so much, they fled when they caught wind of its presence. Much of the prejudice reserved for the animal appears to come down to its manner of hunting.
A solitary dhole can snatch a hare on its own. But when a pack brings down large animals like sambhar, nilgai, and gaur, the dhole’s weak jaws are incapable of snapping the neck or choking the windpipe as tigers and leopards do. Instead, the pack eviscerates and tears chunks of flesh immediately even as the prey’s piteous agonised screams rend the air. The messy kill appears inhumane and unsportsmanlike. Since dholes most often hunt by day, when their behaviour is more visible, horrified human observers branded the species as savage and bloodthirsty.
Across the country, hunters shot the animals on sight for bounties. Diseases and loss of forests added to the dholes’ woes. Villagers stole their kills, forcing the tired animals to hunt again. Entire packs were exterminated, and swathes of land cleared of them. Despite humans behaving abominably towards them, the animals may have benefited farming communities.
In the early 1980s, poisoning of dholes across Bhutan led to wild boar numbers increasing. Farmers were forced to stay awake at nights to keep watch over their crops. Since the 1990s, dholes have recolonised many areas of the country, keeping pig numbers in check.
Typically, species that hunt as a pack such as the African wild dogs prefer open savannas. Dholes, however, rely on forests even more so than tigers, which can survive in a variety of terrain, says Srivathsa. Even as jungles disappear, the animals avoid areas where livestock graze or people harvest wild produce. Instead of prey making themselves scarce in mortal fear as colonial hunters alleged, perhaps the long history of persecution makes dholes sensitive to the presence of humans.
When Srivathsa had to choose his study subject for his doctoral research, he opted for this species.
“The dhole is the only endangered large carnivore besides the tiger,” he says. “But why is no one studying it? Why isn’t more conservation work being done? Why doesn’t it receive more awareness? I wanted to bat for the underdog.” Before he began his project, only three to four researchers had studied the species over the previous four decades.
During his fieldwork, Srivathsa watched a pack of seven dholes attacking a chital doe at Bandipur National Park, Karnataka. Two held its mouth while the others attacked its hindquarters. Death came in minutes. They took turns standing on guard while the other feasted.
“The whole thing was like watching a speeded up film,” he recalls. “Within 15 minutes, the standing chital was reduced to just bones. In real life, you only get glimpses of what’s happening. It’s not as gory as watching a wildlife documentary which offers a clear view.”
Sated, the animals sprawled under bushes for close to an hour to catch their breath after the exertion of the hunt and the frenzy of feeding. Then they all rose, yawned and stretched, and melted into the forest. Instead of being disturbed by the episode, Srivathsa continues to remain sympathetic.
The daunting challenge of re-branding the species’ horrendous public image is bound to keep Srivathsa occupied for years to come.
Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.