October 17, 2012

THE WHISTLING HUNTERS


THE ASIAN WILD DOG or DHOLE
Credit: Clement Francis
They are amongst the most feared predators of the East Asian wild. Though they lack the elegance of the Bengal tiger, the prowess of the Asiatic lion or the stealth of the leopard, their perfect co-ordination and excellent team work make them, arguably, the most successful carnivore of the continent. Armed with a keen sense of smell that helps them track and locate prey; a lean physique with long, slender legs and copious amounts of energy that comes in handy during chases; powerful paws and razor sharp teeth that aid in bringing down and tearing into antelope and bovines many times their size, these mammals, like their African counterparts, boast of a very impressive strike rate which is much better than that of the big cats. Their superb hunting skill apart, what makes them special is their solid social structure which focuses solely on raising the future generation. While they are the undisputed masters of their lands, rather unfortunately, this wonderful species fails to get the attention that other denizens of the jungle seem to get. For centuries they have been associated with brutality and death, have been despised and persecuted, leading to a sharp decline in the population across their range. Ferocious beasts yet caring parents, fearsome foes yet bankable companions, there is certainly more to Asia’s premiere wild hounds than what most of us know about them.

SCIENTIFIC CLASSIFICATION

Belonging to the subfamily Caninaea part of the family Canidae which is placed in the Order Carnivora, the Asian wild dogs are known as Cuon alpinus in Latin. Earlier, it was believed that the various kinds of so called 'wild dogs' that are found throughout the world were closely related to each other as they were thought to have descended from a common ancestor sometime in the recent past. However, recent evidence seems to suggest otherwise. The similarities between them, both in terms of physical characteristics and general behavior, is today, attributed to a phenomenon called convergent evolution, wherein animals distinctly related to each other develop same features because of staying in eco systems which are very much alike but in different parts of the globe. Macdonald and Ginsberg have identified as many as eleven sub-species of these canines in their book - Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs: An Action Plan for the Conservation of Canids (1990). These are specified in the table below:

SUB-SPECIES

CHARACTERISTICS

RANGE

C. a. dukhunensis South of the Ganga River (India) Reddish coat with black whiskers 
C. a. primaevus Nepal, Bhutan & Sikkim Longer, redder coat
C. a. laniger Southern Tibet & Ladakh Full yellowish-grey coat
C. a. adjustus North Myanmar & Indo China Reddish-brown coat
C. a. infuscus S Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia,Vietnam Dark brown coat
C. a. lepturus South of the Yangze River (China) Reddish coat with thick under fur
C. a. fumosus Western Szechuan, China & Mongolia Yellowish-red coat, dark back, grey neck
C. a. hesperius Eastern Russia & China Bright yellow, tinted coat, white underside
C. a. alpinus Eastern Russia including Amur Tawny red coat, greyish neck
C. a. sumatrensis Sumatra Short bright, red coat and dark whiskers
C. a. javanicus Java Short bright, red coat

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

The African wild dogs are much larger and heavier as compared to the dholes - a common name for their counterparts in Asia. Both have rounded ears. Males are bigger than the females. Gender identification is difficult even from short distances as the males do not have a clearly visible prepuce. Besides, there are certain aspects that make them unique among all canids. The most well known being the dental formula of (3.1.4.2)/(3.1.4.2). The six molars, each with a single cusp seem to have evolved for shearing wool. Also, the females have more teats as compared to other members of the canine family. Communication plays a key role in their daily lives. A variety of calls have been recorded, the most common being the whistle, which is made while traversing thick jungles, thereby earning them the nickname of ‘Whistling dogs’. Interestingly, they do not bark or howl.

SOCIAL STRUCTURE
Credit: Tarique Sani
Probably, the most important weapon in their arsenal is the closely knit society which is built on lines similar to that of the African dogs but varies from the wolves in numerous ways. Biologists are of the opinion that these creatures started living together to boost survival rate in a habitat that they share with other 'high profile' neighbors. Each pack, with numbers between 3 to 20 on an average, has a dominant pair which seldom engages in any show of authority. This may be due the fact that unlike the latter, the dholes live in regions which can sustain them round the year. The group led by the alpha male, patrols its territories regularly and fights do occur when two clans the border marking their respective areas. Not so surprisingly, it’s the total strength that determines the winner eventually.

They live in subterranean dens, which may be simple burrows or a complex network with multiple entry and exit points. The right to breed is the exclusive privilege of the leading pair. The litter consists of four to eight pups on an average. Protecting them from all sorts of danger is the collective responsibility of all members. They are suckled for the first two months during which the mother stays back while the rest forage for food. The responsibility to feed her is borne by others. From the third month, adults start regurgitating meat for the young ones at the den site. Sometime later they start joining the clan on its daily trips. They may live for ten to sixteen years in captivity.

HUNTING AND FEEDING

Another fascinating thing about these hounds is their disciplined approach to hunting which is a treat to the eyes of any nature lover. It usually takes place during the dawn. Though chases are generally short, they may even last for hours in some cases. While on pursuit, one member takes the lead whereas the others hang around, taking turns as the individual in front gets tired. They are known to drive herbivores into water bodies where their movement is hindered, giving these dogs, who are also pretty good swimmers, an added advantage. Once the prey is caught, one dhole will grab its nose while others will bite into the back and legs, forcing it on the ground. They kill by disemboweling and start devouring their victims even before it dies. 

As they are found across much of eastern Asia, there is little surprise over the different kind of species they eat. Local ungulates constitute a major portion of their diet. They also consume lizards and fowls. In India, they prefer chital (Spotted deer). Other animals that regularly feature on their menu include sambar, nilgai (Blue bull) and wild boar. One of the reasons for them to be so successful is the diversity of fauna they kill which includes small mammals like rats and hare, medium sized ones like antelope and occasionally, even bovines like gaur. Besides, like most canines they are omnivorous and eat fruits and other vegetable matter readily. This certainly gives them an edge over their competitors.

RANGE: PAST AND PRESENT

Once upon a time, they were seen from Russia in the north to Indonesia in the south, from the CIS in the west to Siberia in the east, encompassing vast areas of central, southern, eastern and south-eastern Asia. They were sighted in a variety of habitats including the dry deciduous jungles of India, the thick ever green forests of Indo China, meadows of Siberia and even the mountains around the Pamir knot. According to British writers, the wild dogs were widespread in south Asia, except for the Thar Desert. Indiscriminate persecution has reduced them to few pockets in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. They may still occur in Bangladesh. It has become extremely rare in China and North Korea. In south-east Asia, they have been observed lately in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Sadly though, with no reports from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Mongolia for quite some time, it is assumed that the species is extinct here.

REASONS FOR DECLINE
Credit: Sharath
Unfortunately, since the earliest times, people throughout Asia and Europe seem to have harbored a deep sense of hatred towards them. From medieval tales to Rudyard Kipling’s stories, these creatures have always been depicted as bloodthirsty hounds, equally feared by men and beasts. Myths and misconceptions about them are still galore, the most common being that they urinate in the eyes of their victim to make them blind prior to killing them. Over the years, there has been a rapid decline in their count. This is primarily because for a considerable amount of time, there was meager knowledge about them and the role they play in the eco system. With just 2,500 mature individuals left in the wild, they have been classified as ‘Endangered’ in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List.

Though they were never considered to be a popular game animal in the British era, sport hunters were not averse to shooting them or their puppies whenever they encountered them while on their infamous expeditions. In 1920s, as the game in the sub-continent started becoming increasingly difficult, partly due to trophy taking and partly due to industrialization, the Englishmen put the blame squarely on the wild dogs, who by this time had got a reputation of being successful predators. During the next few decades, as bounties were placed on them, thousands were exterminated from various parts of the region. In the northern areas including Russia, China and the CIS countries, they were persecuted for their fur, which although not considered the best, does have considerable value in some places. In Bhutan, they were nearly wiped off by poisoning in a bid to safeguard cattle under a program which had government backing.

Besides, developing countries like India, China and Vietnam which are among the fastest growing economies in the world. The financial prosperity has led to clearing of vast tracts of forests to make way for farms or housing projects. As such, wilderness supporting lots of species, including these canines, is disappearing at a rapid rate. Habitat fragmentation is also a major concern. Another factor that has adversely affected their numbers is that the herbivore density in many places they inhabit is very low. Finally, they are particularly susceptible to diseases like rabies and canine distemper which are passed from feral dogs which are known to socialize freely with them, sometimes even feeding from the same carcass.

They mostly refrain from attacking humans and prefer staying away from settlements. However, they share their territories with other tertiary consumers, namely tigers and leopards. Both these cats will easily over power a solitary dhole that crosses their path. A tiger can even annihilate a small group at once. Nonetheless, their bravery can be inferred from the fact that a medium or a large pack can harass theses felines, sometimes even causing their death. The cubs and infants are particularly at risk in this three way contest. As compared to tigers, they seem to take a more aggressive stance towards leopards, probably because both seem to hunt similar kind of animals.

CONSERVATION STATUS
Credit: Ramki Sreenivasan / Conservation India
Though their persecution in India continued post-independence, the tide started turning in their favor when they were accorded 'protected' status under the Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972). Thus India became the first country to save them. Today, over half of all wild dholes are found here. Ironically, a majority of these are found in reserves notified for saving their nemesis - the tiger. They are found in sanctuaries in southern and western India where antelope population is sufficiently huge. The twin national parks of Bandipura and Nagarhole in Karnataka, the Munnar Forest Division and the Periyar Reserve in Kerala and the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra are the best places see them. They are also sighted in few pockets in central, eastern and north-eastern regions.

Lately, there has been a considerable volume of scientific research done on the behavior of these canids in Southern India. However, when compared to other, so-called 'charismatic' carnivores, there is a lot to be done here. Like in the case of the big cats, the government, in consultation with canine experts and conservationists needs to formulate policies on the lines of Project Tiger, aimed at saving the dogs. A census, using latest technology needs to be taken with utmost priority. The results of such an exercise would provide a perfect base for the successful implementation of any planned measure in the near future. Educational programs, especially aimed at children will aid in dispelling myths and help people realize their importance.

In the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan, the major threat to the survival of the species is the man-animal conflict. At a time when wild prey is becoming rather difficult to find, the dholes raid villages and take away precious livestock which are an important aspect of the local economy. Farmers retaliate by either shooting or poisoning them, leading to the destruction of entire packs. In Nepal, they are included under Schedule I of the National Parks and Wildlife Protection Act (NPWCA) of 1973. Nonetheless, it has made little difference and the mammal is said to be on the brink of extinction in the country. Ambika Khatiwada, a graduate from the Institute of Forestry in Nepal and his team have been studying them in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA) along the China border for some time and trying hard to garner public support for their cause.

In early 1990s, it was believed that the wild dogs had completely disappeared from Bhutan after hundreds were killed by farmers and herdsmen. Luckily though, they have made a comeback. A team led by Dr Jan Kamler - a wild canine expert from Kansas, which had the support of the Royal Family has collected reliable evidence of their existence in at least three sanctuaries within the kingdom. The findings of the team have thrown light on their importance in the ecology. It is high time that the Bhutanese lawmakers includes them in the list of completely protected animals under the Forest and Nature Conservation Act of 1995. Besides, in both of these countries, community based initiatives like patrolling and safeguarding cattle need to be taken up. Till the time a long term policy is put into place, the officials should consider adequately compensating the locals for each livestock taken by these creatures to prevent retaliation.

In Myanmar, they have been seen in eleven different areas throughout the country. With tigers being exterminated from most parts of the junta ruled state, dholes and leopards have become the new overlords. Kate Jenks, a scholar from US has been carrying out extensive studies on these animals in neighboring Thailand. Using camera trapping, she along with her team has found their existence in many sites here. They have become extremely rare in Malaysia where sightings have become few and far between. They still occur in parts of Sumatra and Java in Indonesia. But there is no proper legislation aimed at saving them in the four south-east Asian nations mentioned above. A particular cause for concern is that as many as seven of the eleven forests in Myanmar where this species has been spotted have not yet been designated as preservation areas. Also, there is an immediate need to recognize places outside wildlife parks, both in Thailand and Malaysia where they may still exist so that steps can be taken to preserve them. It is high time that the authorities here plan and put into action an effective strategy to conserve them.

In China, the dholes are relatively common in southern Tibet. It is highly probable that they may have been wiped off from most other parts of the nation except for the Jiangxi province in the south-west, from where a capture was reported. Nonetheless, they are listed under Section II of the Chinese Wildlife Protection of 1988. The exact status of these or for that matter, most animals, in North Korea is unclear. In Indo China, the major causes for concern are habitat fragmentation and starvation due to low density of herbivores. There are no proper laws to tackle persecution in this part of the world and in countries where legislation exist, they seem to be ambiguous. In Vietnam where they are protected under Decree 18/HDBT, there are spotted in jungles and sometimes even around small towns in the interior. In the Nam Et-Phou Louey (NEPL) Conservation Area in the north Laos, Dr. Kamler is conducting a researching on these canids. They are known to exist in at least four wildlife parks inside Cambodia. The Srepok Wilderness Area, dubbed as 'the Serengeti of SE Asia' is a home to many endangered species.

KRUPAKAR & SENANI: THE DHOLE MEN
Credit: V Ram Narayan
No article on the wild dogs is complete without mentioning the names of two popular wildlife photographers - Krupakar B S and Senani Hegde, who have spent years studying these creatures in the states of Karnataka and Kerala. Hailing from Mysore, their documentary entitled 'Wild Dog Diaries', which runs for 47 minutes, provides a deep insight into the lives of dholes. Released in 2006, the film which was shown on the National Geographic Channel (NGC) has received both, public admiration and wide critical acclaim. It was screened at wildlife festivals in Japan, France and Singapore, bagging numerous awards. Another masterpiece from the duo is the 150 minute film - 'The Pack' which has been shot over a period of 10 years in the Nilgiri Range. It is the bible for everyone who is interested in these canines. Shot for Discovery Communications and later telecast on Animal Planet in 2010, it is the first Asian film to win the prestigious 'Green Oscar'. 

In the late nineties, keeping in mind their dismal numbers and depleting habitat, several scholars had predicted that these hounds would not see the turn of the new millennium unless drastic measures were put into place. In spite of a lack of political will to save them, these gritty mammals have defied the odds and in countries like India, they seem to be doing better. While the battle has been won, the war still continues. It has been mainly due to the efforts put in by people like Krupakar, Senani and others across the globe that such a miracle has been possible. And most importantly, awareness among the masses regarding them and the need to save them has only helped the cause. It is very important that we keep up this momentum and help protect these canines. They have suffered for centuries due to human activities and it is only fair we rectify our mistakes by doing all what we can to conserve our best friends from the jungles

For more on the dholes
(1) Project Dhole - The Need of the Hour (Link)
(2) Finding the Dhole - In Search of the Elusive Canines (Link)


SOURCES

(1) Wikipedia - Dholes (Link)

(2) IUCN - Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs (Link)

(3) WWF Global - Dhole (Link)

(4) Kate Jenks (Link)

(5) Wild CRU - Ecology and Conservation of Dholes in South East Asia (Link)

(6) Masth Mysore - Krupakar-Senani's documentary "The Pack" nominated for BBC Wildscreen Festival (Link)

(7) Crypto Mundo -  Discovering the Dhole (Link)

IMAGES

(1) Credit: Clement Francis (Link)                     
Original: India Nature Watch - Dholes by Clement Francis

(2) Credit: Tarique Sani (Link)
Original: Flickr - Dholes at Tadoba by Tarique Sani

(3) Credit: Sharath (Link)
Original: Isharath - Kabini!

(4) Credit: Ramki Sreenivasan / Conservation India (Link)
Original: Wild Ventures - 10. Dholes by Ramki Sreenivasan

(5) Credit: V Ram Narayan (Link)
Original: India Nature Watch - Wild Dogs with kill by V Ram Narayan