‘‘Go back to the Dekkan and eat lizards!’’ taunted Mowgli at the snarling Red Dogs from atop a tree, in a scene that successfully placed the dhole in the same villainous league as the infamous Shere Khan.
Although large carnivores have long been feared, they have also evoked respect, desire and love, even inspiring stories, books and movies in their celebration. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the dauntless dhole. Abhorred and scorned throughout history. Their imprint on human minds were perhaps best seen in Kipling’s contemptuous comparison of the Red Dogs to the cowardly ‘leaping rats of the Dekkan’ - the Chikai.
In reality, these gritty canids are skilled hunters, pursuing their prey with a determination and cunning that seem unsettling in an animal that resembles our adored domestic dog. Kipling's Red Dogs were described as ravagers of forests, not following the ‘law of the jungle’, and having ‘no honour'; so unthinkingly fearsome that even tigers and leopards leave their kills behind when dholes are near. This may have something to do with their habit of devouring their prey alive. Albeit visibly gruesome, the behavior is attributed to their weak jaw strength that cannot deliver a killing bite, based on what we know from their 'cousins' – the African hunting dogs.
Dhole chasing a chital in central India. Image: Ramki Sreenivasan
The historical perception of dholes ruthlessly tearing down any animal they come across in the jungle, may have risen from the fact that they are hyper-carnivores. They require a high meat-based diet which includes ungulates such as sambar deer, barking deer, Chital (spotted deer), wild pig, and even livestock in some places. This may seem like a lot, but their role in the food chain is essential for maintaining a healthy ecosystem! In fact, dholes have the dubious honour of being apex predators, sharing space with tigers, leopards, wolves and bears. Although there are documented records of angry, antagonistic, and sometimes fatal interactions between dholes, tigers, and leopards, these instances are uncommon. The three carnivores generally show spatio-temporal avoidance, hunting and feeding at different locations and at different times, in their attempt to coexist with each other.