November 12, 2012

PROJECT DHOLE


THE NEED OF THE HOUR
Credit: Ramesh Anantharaman
Four decades ago, the population of the biggest of India’s famed big cats – the Royal Bengal tiger had fallen to just 1,800 – a drastic decline of about 95% since the turn of the century when there were approximately 30,000 of these in the jungles of the country. In fact, all the people familiar with the political conditions unfolding in the sub-continent during these years and its direct impact on the ecology will hardly be surprised by this statistic. When the British held their sway over the region, it was the dream of every servant of the Raj – from the Viceroy to a lowly bureaucrat to be a part of the renowned, or should we say, notorious, hunting trips – the favorite pass time of the English elite, generally organized by the princes, keen to impress their colonial masters in return of favorable deals and grander titles. While a number of species including lions, leopards, cheetahs, antelope and several kinds of birds were hunted, no other animal was as prized as the stripped feline whose trophies decorated the homes of the rich and the powerful in Britain and other parts of the western world.

In the post-independence era, the killings continued to fuel the demands of international illegal trade in tiger products, most notably, the skin – a symbol of style and status and the bones which have considerable value in ancient Chinese medicine. Besides, the need for more land to satisfy an ever growing human population and facilitate industrial growth led to the destruction of thousands of acres of virgin woodlands. It was at this critical juncture, when their numbers had dropped below two thousand, that the then PM Indira Gandhi decided to act and after consulting matter experts and conservationists, launched one of the most popular conservation program of all times – Project Tiger. Though it is true that this scheme has not been as successful as it was expected to be during the time of its inaugural, considering the persistent allegation of inflated figures and the fiascoes of Sariska (2004) and Panna (2009) reserves, there is no doubt that it is a major landmark in the protection of any fauna across the world. 

Like the tiger in 1973, another of our top predator, which has been an integral part of our forests for ages, is today, staring at the brink of extinction. The Asian wild dog, commonly known as the dhole is a highly social canine, native to the woodlands of eastern and southern Asia. Gifted with an agile yet sturdy body, and living in a society that even cares for the young and the vulnerable, they are the masters of their territories, possessing a strike rate better than many of its other, much more 'high-profile' neighbors. Unfortunately, following centuries of persecution and an inexorable 'witch hunt', it has been listed as ‘Endangered’ by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) with reports indicating that there are only about 2500 mature individuals left in the wild, out of which more than half are found in our country. Its range, which once stretched from Russia in the north to the islands of Java and Sumatra in the south, from India in the west to the Korean peninsula in the east, has shrunk exponentially in size, reducing it to the confines of a few pockets, scattered in southern and south-eastern Asia.

While it is protected under the Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, there is certainly more to be done in this regard considering that it has suffered from years of persecution for a variety of reasons, sometimes as trivial as to safeguard the numbers of antelope which were popular game animals during the colonial era from being preyed upon by these canids. Though killings have become close to negligible over the years, the odds are still stacked against them, thereby warranting the need for much stricter measures to be put into place for their conservation. With time running out and the threats for their survival still looming large, it is imperative that the government formulates a policy on the lines of the Project Tiger, customized for the dholes. Of course, this idea may seem to be little weird for some, others may dismiss it as ridiculous but I strongly believe that such a step is mandatory if we want the future generation to witness this ‘spectacle of nature’. Below, I have tried to justify my stand on this issue and hopefully, after going through it, many more may feel the same, thereby helping the cause.
Credit: Ramki Sreenivasan / Conservation India
Why do we require a Project Dhole? How do you justify spending tax payers hard-earned money on a creature which is not a favorite with the tourists? Probably, the biggest reason for the decline of these dogs is that even today, a majority of the people – especially the urban populace is not aware that such a species exists and in rural regions where the awareness level is relatively higher, there are still innumerable myths and misconceptions about them. The relentless manner in which the packs chase their prey, devouring it even before it dies; is seen by many as 'barbaric'. No wonder that since time immemorial, they are despised, looked upon as symbols of brutality and cruelty. In fact, ancient texts and medieval tales are filled with references to these canines, mostly portraying them, either as the antagonists or their associates. Even today, many of us who have grown up watching Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book remember them as the blood thirsty hounds that invaded the Seeonee hills only to be defeated by the wolves under the leadership of Laila, thanks to Mowgli’s bravery and Kaa’s experience in episodes 40 and 41.

A Project Dhole, for one, will be a great PR exercise for these mammals. With a portion of the total budget for the program being utilized for advertising, the Asian wild dog will be all over print and electronic media, earning them much needed attention. As the knowledge increases, the curiosity will also rise, giving a fillip to more detailed research on these dogs and their behavior. This in turn will reveal new insights into the lives of these elusive creatures, helping in quelling the numerous superstitions surrounding them. Hence more and more people will gradually realize their importance from the ecological point of view. Besides, many will start flocking to sanctuaries and national parks in which these are found, boosting eco-tourism and providing employment opportunities to the locals - giving them enough reasons to refrain from harming these canines. Most importantly, it will definitely contribute in building an army of volunteers keen to protect them, thereby keeping the authorities on their toes and most importantly, facilitate in building consensus against any move or project that can be detrimental to its interest in the future.

Secondly, the dhole, like the tiger is a top predator. Though it may not be the undisputed 'King of the Jungle', it does occupy a prominent position at the higher levels of the food pyramid, controlling the numbers of the herbivores and upholding the principle of the 'Survival of the Fittest' by eliminating the weak and the sick. Moreover, their conservation will also require the safeguarding of their present habitat - the deciduous forests of southern and western India which are also home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna. Thus while it is true that the dhole will be the prime beneficiary of this undertaking, it will also be good for the maintaining the fragile balance in ecology, thereby justifying the high costs involved. Also, with less than three thousand of them left in the wild and the threat of epidermic wiping off isolated populations in many regions still hanging over their heads, it is crucial that concrete measures are taken to save them at the earliest. Finally, as we were the first country to ban their persecution, it should be us that should lead the world in the conservation of these hounds.
Credit: K P Krishnan
Considering that the majority of them are found inside Project Tiger reserves, is there a need for a separate scheme specially for the dholes? As I have pointed out earlier, the project will generate a lot of public interest about this species, something which is of paramount importance. Even if it gets half the amount of attention that our national animal has got since the launch of the Project Tiger, it will be prove to be, perhaps, the greatest milestone in the protection of these canids. While it is true that Project Tiger has proved to be a blessing for a variety of plants and animals that are found within the confines of the sites covered under it, including the Asian wild dogs, there is an urgency to do more to get them out of the precarious situation in which they find themselves. Like in the case of the big cats, several other steps are necessary to secure a future for them including a nationwide census using the best methods, identification of the regions where they are found and most importantly, solid research - all of which can only be done, if and only if, the idea is implemented with utmost priority. 

How will the Project Dhole help the mammal? What are the different steps that can help in its revival? The different measures that will be a part of the undertaking and the way it will help the cause include:-

a) Census: Though there are reports indicating that there are about two and a half thousand wild dogs in the world, there are no reports regarding their precise number within India. Probably, the most important task that needs to be taken up as a part of this scheme is the use of latest technology to find out the exact number of this species in the country. The data thus collected will serve as a base for the planning and implementation of any move for their conservation in the future. The stats will also be important to do a comparative analysis to assess the success of the program over the years. 

b) Research: Though they are amongst the top carnivores of Asia, there is meager knowledge about the animal and its behavior. As such, the project will provide a wonderful platform for experts to conduct detailed study, helping provide valuable insights and squash all myths about them. With the dhole being a territorial animal travelling several kilometers each day for patrol and hunting, the radio collar, can come in handy during tracking them. Also, a new research center should be established where data analysis can be done and routinely published in magazines so that it is available to the public. The twin national parks of Bandipur and Nagarhole in southern Karnataka can be the ideal location for this as it is a popular haunt for dhole lovers across the world.

c) Re-introduction: It is a great tragedy that these canines which once roamed freely across most of India, except for the Thar, are today restricted to a few national parks and sanctuaries in different parts of India. The isolated populations are at the risk of threats including forest fires, low prey density and epidermic diseases. As these canids are territorial, the presently available area may not be able to support packs in the future. Thus, there is a need to re-introduce some mature dogs to wilderness where they were formally found and disappeared later due to human activity. Besides, inbreeding within closely related individuals may lead to weak immunity and other genetic disorders in the newborns. Next, some dogs need to be swapped to prevent the stagnation of the gene pool. 
Credit: Manish Varma
d) Resolving the man-animal conflict: In many areas, especially the hills, these dogs are known to regularly invade villages and take away precious livestock. The farmers retaliate by either poisoning their kills or shooting them. The project will focus on ways to minimize the problem and till the time some long term policy is put into place, the farmers must be adequately compensated for their loss. Rehabilitation of people living inside dhole habitat should also be taken up. Also, essential measures can be taken to minimize contacts between these and feral mongrels which are a potential sources of highly contagious diseases.

e) International co-ordination: With the wild dog facing threat of extinction in all countries where it is found, the project can act as a stage for sharing the information that has been collected in different research centers. The information collected under the program can be used to organize similar schemes in other parts of the world. Since the mammal is found in forests along the borders of several ASEAN nations, an international committee is required to protect the animal and fight evils like poaching.

For more on the dholes
(1) The Whistling Hunters - The Asian Wild Dog or Dhole (Link)
(2) Finding the Dhole - In Search of the Elusive Canines (Link)



IMAGES


(1) Credit: Ramesh Anantharaman (Link)
Original: India Nature Watch  Comfortably numb!!!!!!!!! by Ramesh Anantharaman

(2) Credit: Ramki Sreenivasan / Conservation India (Link)
Original: Wild Ventures  13. Dholes by Ramki Sreenivasan

(3) Credit: K P Krishnan (Link)
Original: Lenscape

(4) Credit Manish Varma (Link)
Original: India Nature Watch – Not for the light hearted - Tadoba by Manish Varma