An eerie whistling pierces the still air in the Central Indian highlands. In one fluid motion, some fifty-odd spotted deer raise their heads, sniffing the wind, ears twitching nervously. The whistling abruptly stops, and then takes up again, louder this time. The deer are spurred into motion, tails flashing up to reveal white undersides, eyes wide. They bound across the highlands, streaks of russet and white, apparently successful in their flight, when one of the last ones, an elderly doe who is struggling to keep up with the herd, stumbles, nearly crashing onto her knees. There is red everywhere, blooming in patches on her flank, on her back legs, spraying in the air as she wildly attempts to run faster. But a patch of red materializes on either side of her, heckling her, jaws snapping. Red paints the landscape – red for the blood that streams out of the dying doe, and red for the wild dogs that bring her finally to her knees.
South Asia’s red dog, the dhole, is known by a plethora of names. The whistling dog. The Asian red dog. The Asiatic wild dog. The mountain wolf. A long-since deviated member of the canid family tree, the dhole is more closely related to the African painted dog than to the wolf. With a different dentition pattern and a different number of teats, the dhole is only a dog in name and in behaviour, not according to genetics.
Habitat, Ecology, and Behaviour:
Perhaps the world’s least studied canid, the dhole faces heavy persecution from farmers and villagers in its range countries, where it is viewed as a pest and as vermin. Although the dhole is rarely involved in cases of human-wildlife conflict, unlike wolves and big cats, it is immensely disliked and easily dismissed. This wild dog is one of three canid species in the world specially adapted to hypercarnivory, a diet exclusively comprised of meat. Thus, sufficient ungulate prey is key to the dhole’s ongoing persistence in its range countries, and to prevent cases of livestock depredation due to low natural prey numbers. Human disturbance, poisoning, disease from feral dogs, and habitat fragmentation pose great threats to the survival of this unique wild dog. Historically, dholes ranged throughout South and Southeast Asia, but today, only scattered populations remain in forest pockets. India is the last remaining stronghold of the dhole, though the species has not been extensively studied and more research is required to verify population sizes. The Western Ghats and Central India contain most of India’s remaining wild dogs, although occasional dogs have been spotted in other parts of the country.
The dhole’s strength lies in its pack. Packs can range from as few as two individuals to an average of 15 dholes, although reports exist of packs as large as 100 dogs. The dhole communicates with an eerie whistling call, more like that of a bird than of a dog, while hunting, and produces a range of vocalisations during other times. Prey is surrounded and disemboweled while still alive, earning the dhole a bad name as an unethical sportsman. But, in the jungle, anything is permissible in the race to survive. However, it is to be noted that dholes, unlike wolves, are more gentle and expressive to other pack members, even allowing pups to eat before the hunting adults, a unique trait among members of the dog family.
Dholes in Popular and Scientific Media:
Dholes have not received much popularity through the media as well, although scientific research and documentaries are now working to reverse this bad PR. One example of a negative portrayal of the dhole is in Rudyard Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book, in the story “Red Dog”, where Mowgli’s wolf pack faces an attack by a bloodthirsty pack of dholes. Indeed, the novel paints a terrifying image of the dogs, heralding their arrival in the Seoni forests with a warning about “the dhole, the dhole of the Dekkan – the Red Dog, the Killer.” The rest of the story portrays the dhole as a relentless killer, finally vanquished by Mowgli and his pack of virtuous wolves. Ironically, today, neither the wolf nor the dhole are well-loved by people. Yet, as more scientific research, such as that by Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, Dr. Krithi Karanth, and Arjun Srivathsa of the Wildlife Conservation Society- India programme, on the ecology and behaviour of this rare canid has the potential to shed light on the true nature of the dhole and to increase support for its conservation.
After all, if man’s best friend is the dog, then perhaps we should show more favour towards this wild dog than we have thus far.
Acharya, B. B. 2007. The ecology of the dhole or Asiatic wild dog (Cuon alpinus) in Pench Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. Saurashtra University, Gujarat, India.
Andheria, A.P., Karanth, K.U. and Kumar, N.S. 2007. Diet and prey profiles of three sympatric large carnivores in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, India. Journal of Zoology 273: 169-175.
IUCN. 2015. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-4. Available at: www.iucnredlist.org. (Accessed: 19 November 2015).
Johnsingh, A.J.T. 1982. Reproduction and social behaviour of the dhole, Cuon alpinus(Canidae). Journal of Zoology 198: 443-463.
Srivathsa, A., Karanth, K.K., Jathanna, D., Kumar, N.S. and Karanth, K.U. 2014. On a dhole trail: examining ecological and anthropogenic correlates of dhole habitat occupancy in the Western Ghats of India. PLoS ONE 9(6): e98803.