A chilly misty morning beckoned me as I started to drive from my friend’s house, near the temple inside the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve, to K.Gudi (Kyatarayana Gudi) area for the morning safari. Being the first to cross the forest gate after the VGKK ashram, the only sounds that greeted me were the birds calling, the kluk-kluking of the Jungle Fowl, the echoing boom of the langur, the occasional bark of a muntjac and the soft whirring of my vehicle Swift. A lone bull gaur returning late back into the dense confines of the forest crossed my path and calmly stood staring at me as I quickly captured him in my camera and left him to trudge back to his lair.
Gaur spotted in BRT Tiger Reserve © M C Vinay Kumar
The recent rains had clothed the entire forest in an unimaginable green and the clouds swirling over the faraway hills harbouring the coffee estates caressed my lifting spirits and lightened my heart – why only me, no human being can fail to enjoy and appreciate the serene beauty of the forests.
A few kilometres before K.Gudi tourism area, my eyes lit up and spirits soared as I encountered fresh Dhole (also called the Indian Wild Dog – Kadu Nayi in Kannada) scat (carnivore faecal matter) and urine scattered on the road while my experience and association with wildlife told me that a sighting was imminent.
A sudden flash of white in the next bend alerted me and as I slowly turned the bend, saw two cars parked about 100 metres from me with their occupants intently watching some action around them. Sensing a ‘special sighting’ and with all my senses on full alert, I halted my car and slowly panned the landscape, when lo behold, there was this golden-brown fellow springing on to the road from my left while all the time giving me a curious who’s-this look.
First sighting of the dholes in BRT Tiger Reserve © M C Vinay Kumar
Oooooh! those next 15 minutes were a wildlifer’s dream come true. A pack of seven Dholes led by a pregnant alpha female mesmerized me (and hopefully the two car inmates too) with their antics. The sheer joy of sighting Dholes frisking about in the early morning sun was all I could hope for. They were oblivious to the cars and thankfully the other car inmates too behaved very sensibly and responsibly in not disturbing the flirtatious Dholes.
One sub-adult looked like he fell in love with me at first sight and approached my car within 2-3 metres, all the time emanating small whines – wow! those minutes. Even though stopping on these forest roads is prohibited, I selfishly justified my stop-over with the fact that I had no option but to do so lest I disturb the Dhole family in its morning siesta. The icing on the cake was the pregnant female who calmly tolerated our presence, recognized our intention to be non-intrusive and waited for us to silently enjoy the antics of the younger ones in the pack before herding them into the bushes.
The pregnant alpha female © M C Vinay Kumar
Dholes, cuon alpinus, dwarfed by the more charismatic species such as tigers, leopards, elephants, bears and so on, live in social units called packs ranging between 3-4 individuals to 7-10, but sometimes their pack-size has been pegged at 15-20 dogs. Known for their shyness, Dholes are most active during early mornings or late evenings and spend the rest of the day lazing beside a waterhole or a shaded canopy. Being coursing predators (one that hunts by running down its prey) and pack-hunters, Dholes have a high hunting success rate and are able to bring down larger prey such as Chital/Sambar.
Whistling and whining to communicate and to be in touch, Dholes tire down their prey during a hunt and once the prey is singled out, they bring it down and start devouring it alive stripping the carcass to the bones in minutes. Preferring open woodlands and grasslands and with a pack-support in place, they are known to scare off larger adversaries such as tigers or leopards to steal a kill. They are rarely known to have attacked human beings.
With a matriarchal family structure and a gestation period of 60-70 days, the alpha female generally bears about 5-7 pups in a litter but it’s endearing to see that the entire pack indulges in taking care of the pups. Once the pups are weaned, the elders in the pack tear and gobble up chunks of meat during feeding and once back in their dens, regurgitate the small chunks of meat to the pups. The pups become ready to join the pack in the hunt by the time they are about a year old.
Dholes, distributed across Central and Eastern Asia, are widely distributed across India, even ranging across the lower elevations of the Himalayas and incidentally some of the best parks to sight these wonderful species are our own Bandipur, Nagarahole, BRT, and Bhadra. These free-ranging species were once persecuted by humans for being pests but currently, loss/shrinkage/fragmentation of habitats followed by a declining prey base threatens the remaining Dhole populations.
Categorized as Schedule II species, scientific studies on Dholes have been scarce and hence there is an urgent need for further scientific studies on their ecology, population structure, family dynamics and so on.
With India’s forest cover at 19% of the total Geographic Area (GA) and just about 3-4% of this GA possessing a protected area status, wildlife habitats have been shrinking gradually and in the last 10 years the pace of shrinkage has picked up tremendously.
India’s inevitable gallop towards the status of a developed economy is paving way for innumerable developmental projects which were hitherto relegated to the back-burners, while the overall DEVELOPMENTAL agenda has full focus and priority of the government. But in this race for a DEVELOPED status, many developmental projects which are ill-conceived, with short-term gains and negatively impacting wildlife/wild places in the long run and reducing some of them to a highly threatened status and a probable extinct status too, have mushroomed across our country.
Key species such as Tigers, Leopards, Elephants, Vultures, Great Indian Bustard (GIB), Otters, Frogs, Bees and a host of other species, which play a key role in the long-term sustainability of our forests, are losing their habitats by the day and face mammoth ecological challenges for their basic survival. Forests are being continually ripped and concretized giving them no space and time for recovery, thus depriving our future generations of the various benefits that forests offer including the long-term hydrological security that they hold and provide.
Without careful planning and execution of developmental projects, we are at great risk of losing some of the natural platforms of the earth which are basic to our own survival. A holistic approach towards identification of no-go and yes-please areas for developmental projects is the need of the hour. Habitat degradation/ shrinkage/fragmentation on account of various anthropogenic pressures impact migratory paths, breeding habits, foraging practices, behavioural traits and so on of the remaining wildlife.
Dhole pack © M C Vinay Kumar
With a growing economy and a burgeoning population, the pressures on wildlife and wild spaces have grown exponentially. In the 80s and 90s, anthropogenic pressures such as firewood collection, grazing, poaching of prey species, etc. were a bane to conservation and while they continue to do so in the 20th century, ill-planned mega projects relating to dams, highways, mining, infrastructure, power generation and so on have thrown up bigger and harsher challenges to conservation.
And last but not the least, the various developmental activities relating to the so-called ‘Eco-tourism’ multi-crore industry which is rapidly expanding, is slowly and surely spreading its destructive tentacles into key wildlife habitats. While fully endorsing India’s tryst with realizing its full potential as a DEVELOPED economy, it’s strongly felt that only a pragmatic and balanced approach towards planning and execution of developmental projects will provide us with an opportunity to leave back safer and cleaner environs for our future generations.
A strong and well-informed political wing can direct scientific planning and implementation of developmental projects to create a win-win situation for both people and wildlife and at the same time ensure that government establishments work in synergy with scientific institutions of proven credentials to provide holistic solutions and alternatives to several ecological challenges. A responsible and pro-active media (both visual and written) can work wonders by capturing and reporting the factual position of project implementation while citizen science programs facilitate and galvanize public participation in such projects. Only then will we be able to retain our wildlife and wild places.
Let’s preserve our forests and wildlife so that our future generations are still able to see such Dholes in all their glory and magnificence.
Written by M C Vinay Kumar