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Disappearing Ghosts The 'dhole' story- Part 1: How did we get here?

‘Dhole! Dhole! Dhole!’ was the despairing cry from a bloodied Won-tolla as he fled towards Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’, echoing the fear and animosity that many have felt towards the ‘Red Dog’ throughout history.

Kipling’s story about the Dhole brings to mind a haunting image of vicious packs, numbering more than a hundred salivating beasts, that hound their kill unto the ends of the earth, running amok through the jungle and leaving destruction in their wake. This tale, along with many other narratives and accounts of the dhole, has played a significant part in encouraging people’s misconceptions about this animal. The only fact that the story of the Red Dog seemed to get right is the colouration of dholes; they are indeed a beautiful rusty ochre with enviable brown highlights, that seem to vary with season, age, and region.

In this blog mini-series, we will debunk some myths surrounding the “Devil’s Dog” and talk about all the things that make the dhole worth studying, understanding, and conserving. Using popular references from Kipling’s illustrious piece, we will explore how historical perceptions of their behaviour and character have been challenged by scientific studies, and what this means for future conservation efforts.

Left: The Red Dogs as depicted in the Jungle Book Anime TV series (source: https://villains.fandom.com/wiki/Dholes). Right: An artistic rendition of ‘dholes of the Dekkan’ attacking Mowgli’s wolf pack. Artist: Sergey Artyushenko (1986).

The word “dhole” itself is likely a misnomer derived from thōla, the Kannada word for wolf. Also known as the Indian Wild Dog, Whistling Dog, Red Dog, Asiatic Wild Dog, Mountain Wolf, and even as the Devil’s Dog, the dhole is a member of the Canidae family, and officially recognised by its latin name, Cuon alpinus. These attractive and elusive animals are woefully understudied, especially considering their interesting history, their influence on the environment, and their endearing social behaviour. Mentioned in various texts from across the world, scientific studies, popular literature, and public perceptions, dholes are among the most fascinating canid species on earth.

A pack of dholes with a spotted deer 'chital' kill in south India. Image: Shaaz Jung

Dholes are believed to have existed since the Pleistocene era (the last Ice Age), based on fossils in Mexico and Alaska. These animals were once found across Eurasia and North America, co-existing with the charismatic Saber-toothed Tigers, Giant Bears, Giant Panthers, and several other giant carnivores. It’s mind-boggling to think about how long dholes have been around in comparison to how much we know about them. Picture 12, 000 years ago, perhaps a time before humans were even self aware, packs of rust coloured canids– miniscule in comparison to the other predators of the time– feeding on fallen Giant Sloths and Woolly Mammoths.

Millenia passed, the world changed, most of the old giants went extinct or evolved, and stories of them passed into legend. But the diminutive dhole survived, and even thrived, with few changes in their appearance and behaviour, until increased persecution from humans led to a decline in their numbers. Unfortunately, surviving even a global extinction event doesn’t seem to make a species human-proof!

A pair of dholes in the Western Ghats of India. Image: Kalyan Varma

Over thousands of years, dholes were extirpated from various parts of Europe and North America, purportedly due to changes in landscapes during the ice age and the extinction of many of their prey species. Genetic analysis of large canids around the world suggests a small possibility that dholes may even have interbred with the attractive African hunting dogs. That the ranges of the two species may have overlapped at one point, gives us a vague idea of their expansive historic distribution.

In his story, Kipling provides an ambiguous description of the Red Dog’s habitat and range. Mowgli’s sighting of the Red Hunters in the ‘grassy downs’ of the Dekkan (the Deccan plateau), and their periodical hunting visits through the jungle to the ‘north from south’ was perhaps based on various accounts and observations of dholes’ distribution and ability to adapt, to hunt, and live in a variety of landscapes. Currently, dholes occupy fragments of the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, and South-East Asia. They are found across a wide variety of landscapes, from deciduous and evergreen forests to scrub forests and mountainous regions. Although past studies had suggested that the presence of dholes is not influenced by habitat type, recent studies in India have shown that they prefer forested areas, away from human disturbance, such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Current global distribution range of dholes (Image adapted from IUCN RedList)

In a world with a suite of fearsome contenders, why has the dhole instilled such dread throughout history? What is the basis for their maligned reputation? And with the recent boom in carnivore research and conservation efforts across the globe, why do we still know so little about the Red Dog? To answer these, and other questions, our next article will deal with the feeding and social behaviour of dholes; facts that will perhaps help reshape our perceptions about this endangered canid.

Stay tuned for the rest of the ‘Dhole’ story!

Article text by Tanaaz Kothawalla, written for The Dhole Project (Wildlife Conservation Society-India). Cover Image: WCS-India. For more information about the project, click the button below.

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