The last of deadly dogs?|Ed Malone||11/06/05 at 09:40:15|Obadiah|xx|0||Sunday, November 6, 2005

Far from wagging their tails, dholes or wild dogs of Bandipur, hunt to kill. Navnith Krishnan on these fearsome dogs which play an important role in the forest ecosystem.

The whistling sounds and yelps were distinctive, followed by sharp cries of a chital (spotted) deer and then there was sudden silence. "Dogs," I whispered to myself. The next bend, we saw the cause for the commotion. A chital stag lay sprawled, disembowelled, feeble movements of its front paws indicating that life was not yet snuffed. A dozen red dogs were feasting on the still-alive deer. We were very close to the dogs but they took no notice. We were coursing through the mud paths of Bandipur Sanctuary in Karnataka.

I recollected my experience in the nearby Mudumalai sanctuary some years back. A full-grown leopard was found dead, its head caught between two branches of a tree and hanged to death. Three fourth of its tail was gone. There were bite marks all over its body, mostly on the rear. When it was brought down by forest officials, it was revealed to be the handiwork of wild dogs. In its panic to get away, the leopard slid and caught its head between the branches. No other predator can instil in its prey the kind of fear that wild dogs do. A large pack can even tree a reluctant tiger!

Their methods are cruel by human standards. Once the prey is chased, encircled and caught, they disembowel it and start eating even before it dies. I have seen a pack of dogs chasing a full-grown sambar stag in the picturesque Periyar sanctuary. It jumped into the lake to escape. Two of the dogs followed it into the lake and bit both the eyes off before the deer could go far. The other dogs joined the two in dragging it out and eating it. It took less than one hour for the pack to polish off the entire kill.

Asiatic wild dogs, also known as dholes or red dogs, belong to the family of Canidae (Cuon alpinus). It is the only species in the genus Cuon. Around 17 to 22 inches in height at the shoulder and about three feet in length, they resemble domestic dogs, to which they are only distantly related. Within the canid family, the dhole is something of an enigma. It doesn't fit neatly into any of the sub-families (i.e. the foxes or wolf-like dogs) and is classified in a genus of its own- Cuon. Among its unusual features is a strange whistle call which it uses to re-assemble the pack when animals become separated in dense forest. The dhole also has more teats than most other dogs and has a shorter jaw with one less molar on each side of its lower jaw.

Dholes are mostly found in forest habitats in South Asia, but also range north into central Asia to the borders of Russia, east to Malaysia and south to Sumatra and Java. Within limits of India, three races are recognised, a trans-Himalayan, Himalayan and Peninsular .

Dholes appear in Rudyard Kipling's children's story Red Dog and in The Second Jungle Book as a threat to Mowgli's wolf pack. According to Kipling, it was so feared that even the wolf pack featured in the story had to move out of an area invaded by a dhole pack. Of course, in India, wolf and dhole packs seldom live together and therefore the encounter was purely fictional.

They are highly social and cooperative, and are generally seen living and hunting in packs of ten or more. Groups often contain more males than females, with usually just one breeding female. Occasionally, large groups of over 40 dogs have been seen, possibly arising from the temporary fusion of neighbouring packs. Sometimes several families unite to attack larger animals. They prey on sambar, nilgai, chital, blackbuck, and pigs. As a large group they can attack even gaur (Indian bison), leopard and even tiger.

Dholes were once killed as vermin in India; bounties were paid for carcasses, even eight annas per tail, right until 1972. Through much of its history the dhole has been trapped, shot and poisoned. Even today negative attitudes persist. With suitable areas steadily diminishing and cattle being grazed within the forests, livestock occasionally fall prey to the dhole. Though threatened with extinction, so far it has received very little attention. Unlike the wolf or African hunting dog, few people have even heard of it.

Like every creation of nature, dholes also have a role to play. Once dholes operate in an area all the ungulates leave the place, thus preventing over-grazing and subsequent damage to the ecosystem. Only with a better understanding can we fully value these unique dogs and their integral role in the forest ecosystem.

Habitat destruction (in India alone, more than 5 million hectares of forest have disappeared in the last 20 years) and fragmentation, human persecution and diseases have pushed these beautiful animals of our forests into World Conservation Union's (IUCN) endangered list. Bandipur sanctuary should be proud to have a healthy population of these unique and beautiful animals. But looking at the present predicament of other large carnivores like the tiger, there can be little room for complacency.