Disappearing Ghosts The 'dhole' story- Part 2: what are they up to?

‘‘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.

A dhole killed by tiger in central India. Image: Jignesh Patel

In the video below, a plucky dhole is seen harassing and chasing an unlucky leopard away from its sambar deer kill.

When not on the hunt, dholes have been observed to be highly social and sensitive animals. They live in packs of up to 25 individuals, a far cry from Kipling’s description of two hundred snarling beasts chasing Mowgli through the trees. Packs spend a lot of time in social bonding through play, establishing dominance/hierarchy, and bringing up the pups. Their behaviour is very similar to our domestic dogs, with both adult and young dholes wagging their tails to elicit play, indulging in chases and mock ambushes, rolling on their backs to show submission, and even quarreling among each other. Being highly intelligent pack animals, dholes work as a team during a chase. They branch off from the others when required, and use peculiar squeals and whistles to communicate with each other. This behavior is unique to the species, and has earned them the sobriquet - the 'Whistling Dogs'.

Unlike wolves, dholes do not show aggression towards other members of the pack, even allowing the pups to feed first after each hunt. Very young pups and lactating mothers are fed through regurgitation of meals by various members of the pack. Each pack has one alpha male, along with one, or rarely two, females which reproduce annually. Adult hierarchy in a pack is unclear, although dholes have been seen showing submissive behavior towards the probable alpha.

A pack of dholes with pups in southern India. Image: Dinesh Kumble

Those who have been lucky enough to spot dholes in the wild can attest to the intelligence, beauty, and majesty of these maligned canids. Fortunately, scientific studies have helped unravel several mysteries and bust popular notions about dholes, slowly laying one brick at a time in the path towards better understanding the species.

But why were dholes considered ‘‘vermin’’ in the first place? And what can we do now to prevent the extinction of this ancient and endangered species? Our next and final article will deal with the threats faced by the dholes and the way forward to conserve our precious Red Dogs of the Dekkan.

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

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