With their thick bushy tails, russet coats and ‘foxy’ appearance, they could be mistaken for jackals or even a fox. But despite many similarities and the fact that they belong to the same dog family Canidae, these animals are decidedly different and in a class by themselves — plucky, bold and very clannish. Welcome to the world of one of the most feared predators in the wild — the dhole, also known as the Asiatic wild dog or the Indian wild dog.
Native to south and south-east Asia, in India the dholes (Cuon alpinus) seem to prefer dry or moist tropical forests. Dry thorn forests, grasslands with scrub trees, and alpine steppe regions are other areas they inhabit. Males weigh up to 20 kg, with females weighing a little less. With a height of up to 55 cm, their body length is 90 cm.
Wild dogs live as one big family (clan) and often branch off into packs to hunt. A pack can consist of anywhere between five and 30 individuals. Together, they emerge as a lethal killing unit with chital, sambar, bison, wild boar, Indian hare and langur forming part of their diet. Their teamwork ensures 70 per cent success while hunting. Once prey is spotted, they give chase for long distances, relentless and untiring in their pursuit with some whistling commands thrown in. Finally the tiring quarry gives in and the pack surrounds it and brings it down. These animals can even swim and are known to hunt and kill deer in water. They are not shy to attack large animals such as bear, panther, tiger, bison and elephant calves.
The first time I set my eyes upon them was in the 1980s in the Nagarahole forest.
In the shade of the bamboo trees, sat this wild dog pack with its puppies, looking ever so adorable. But then little did I know about their predatory instincts.
Twenty years later, I got a good look at them again. We were on a safari at the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. After having sighted nothing for hours, a slight detour made all the difference with us catching sight of a sambar a couple of wild boar, a lone elephant, bison (13 of them) and many other animals. Content with that, we were returning when we saw two dholes, resting under a shady tree along a muddy forest track. Soon more began to appear, one after the other. We counted five in all. After some time the pack of five went to a forest stream flowing nearby and quenched their thirst. Then one of them found some creature in the forest stream and the pack became alert, jumping with caution with their bushy tails raised, from boulder to boulder and back into the stream, splashing water all along and whistling now and then.
On another occasion, we found some bones of an animal near the main office at Muthodi forest. On enquiry, the range officer there explained that a pack of wild dogs chased a large sambar in the day time and, having killed it, devoured it in front of the office itself.
Wild dogs produce a large litter of up to six pups. Young ones are blind and helpless and in the care of the mother. Parents bring meat to the den and feed the young ones with regurgitated food. In a year, they are fully grown after which they are taken along while hunting. The pack can run up to 60 km per hour. Young ones are allowed to feed first.
But for all the enviable reputation as hunters and predators, the dhole population has seesawed, being prone to parasitic diseases and those spread by domestic animals as well as habitat loss.
During confrontation, tigers kill one or two wild dogs. It is the food of the leopard as well.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared the dhole an endangered species.
Wild life photographers Krupakar and Senani, one-time ‘guests’ of Veerappan, have in their more than 10 years of research documented the behaviour of the dhole, for which they won the prestigious Green Oscar award.