“But of all the Pack of two hundred fighting dholes, whose boast was that all jungles were their jungle,…..,not one returned to the Dekkan to carry that word.”
And thus the bloody story of the Red Dog in Kipling’s Jungle Book ended, with every last one of them slaughtered. Unfortunately, the story is not unlike the grim reality that this vanishing species currently faces. Due to both, their historical reputation, and the seemingly ‘ruthless’ behavior, dholes were considered vermin by many, leading to a witch-hunt of these canids through most of the 20th century.
Dhole feeding on a sambar deer kill. Image: Tontan Travel
Apart from being hunted out of disdain, or due to the conviction that dholes posed a threat to ‘game’ species (a colonial hangover of sorts), they have also been culled in large numbers to protect livestock. People who share spaces with large carnivores have traditionally seen them as a threat to their livestock and hunting activities. With a boom in human population, the demand for land has led to degradation of wild habitats and engendered bitter conflict between people and wildlife, with losses on both sides. Since dholes require a high meat-based diet, their survival depends on their habitats supporting substantial densities of prey species. With a reduction in forested areas, decline of wild prey populations, and perhaps due to competition with other carnivores, dholes are compelled to prey on the more easily accessible livestock.
The loss of precious livestock affects their owners not just financially but, in many places, psychologically as well. For instance, a large number of Mithun, a semi-domestic bovid that plays a large part in the economy and culture of communities living the North-east region of India, falls prey to carnivores, particularly dholes. In these areas, perhaps a lack of awareness and absence of effective compensation schemes has led to retaliatory killing of dholes– through direct persecution or poisoning of livestock carcasses. It is also likely that diseases spread by feral/domestic dogs are impacting dhole populations in many parts of India.
Human-induced disturbance threatens dhole populations. Image: Kalyan Varma
Although dholes share space with other large carnivores, their ecological niche is as important as any of the other species we are scrambling to save. The role of predators in keeping prey species in check, for a biodiverse and balanced ecosystem, has been well documented. For instance, the ecological importance of dholes was demonstrated in a study from Bhutan. During the 1980s, dholes were culled to local extinction by the government. With the removal of this apex predator, the population of wild pigs exploded, resulting in the destruction of crops on an unimaginable scale. When dholes were reintroduced in the area, the number of wild pigs reduced to a manageable level. Therefore, the local communities in these areas look upon dholes in a relatively more favorable light, and actually admit to the importance of having large carnivores around.
Dholes are classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and protected under Schedule 2 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Lacking the charismatic allure of the big cats, and being largely unknown to most people, dholes have remained understudied. We owe a lot to Dr. A.J.T Johnsingh for his seminal work on dholes back in the 1970s, the first ever scientific study of this amazing canid. Thereafter, and up until 2010, there has been roughly one dhole-targeted study per decade in India; a stark contrast to the dozens of studies on other endangered animals such as tigers and elephants. As a consequence, there are significant gaps in our understanding of their current numbers, home ranges, extent of threats, and conservation measures required.
Dholes have not received adequate research or conservation focus for decades. Image: Ramakrishnan A
Only recently have scientists and conservation organizations recognized the dhole’s precarious status, and are progressively prioritizing the species for scientific research and conservation. Since dholes are usually found in protected dense forests (across most parts of their range within India), and are quite wary of humans, studies on these canids rely on indirect signs (like their poop and pug marks), setting up camera traps, radio-collaring and telemetry, and genetic assessments. All these approaches are helping us gain a better understanding of their ecological requirements.
Besides such research projects, conservationists have recommended implementing proper compensation and insurance schemes to herders to prevent retaliatory killing, thereby, protecting the species. Other effective strategies include integrated conservation and development programs by the government, educational and outreach programs designed for communities that share space with dholes, and engaging with young citizens to educate them about the importance of dholes, their prey and their habitats.
The future of dholes will depend on targeted research, science-based conservation and education. Image: Subramanya CK
The dhole continues to remain one of the most misunderstood animals in the world. We are disturbingly close to losing a fascinating species, as the reality of the Red Dog disappearing in our lifetime creeps closer. If we do not work unfalteringly towards their conservation, only a handful of stories and studies– weak substitutes for the living, breathing animals– will be the paltry remnants of the whistling hunters. We owe it to our beautiful fragile planet, and to future generations, to ensure that the Red Dogs of the Dekkan will always have a home.
Article text by Tanaaz Kothawalla, written for The Dhole Project (Wildlife Conservation Society-India). For more information about the project, click here.
Cover Image: Ramki Sreenivasan.
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