Dhole The Wild Dog
The dhole or Asiatic wild dog (Cuon laniger) is about the size of a border collie (12-18 kg), but looks quite different it. The coat is usually a rusty red colour, but varies regionally from sandy yellow to dark grey. Usually it has a black bushy tail and white patches on its chest, paws and belly. Its ears are rounded, and its hooded amber eyes portray an intelligent nature. Within the canid family the dhole is something of an enigma. It doesn’t fit neatly into any of the sub-families (i.e. the foxes or wolf-like dogs) and is classified in a genus of its own – Cuon. Among its unusual features is a strange whistle call which it uses to re-assemble the pack when animals become separated in dense forest.
The dhole also has more teeth than most other dogs and has a shorter jaw with one less molar on each side of its lower jaw. Its lower carnassials also sport only one cusp (two is more usual for canids), an adaptation thought to improve shearing ability, thus allowing it to compete more successfully with kleptoparasites. The dhole is a highly social and cooperative animal, living in organised packs of around 10 individuals. Groups often contain more males than females, with usually just one breeding female. Occasionally, large groups of over 40 dogs have been seen, possibly arising from the temporary fusion of neighbouring packs.
Together with the grey wolf, African hunting dog and Amazonian bush dog, the dhole is one of the few dogs that regularly hunts in packs. This requires intelligence, co-ordination, and sometimes courage! In India, one of the dhole’s favourite prey is the medium-sized axis deer. On occasions, however, it will tackle even larger prey like the banteng (a large bovid), and highly aggressive prey like the wild boar. With such dangerous quarry, the dogs can literally risk their lives to secure the food they need to survive. They are known to kill very violently and defend their prey.
Communal hunting is particularly important during the breeding season when pack members return to the den to regurgitate food for the mother and pups. Sometimes, however, dholes prefer to hunt individually or in pairs, focusing on smaller prey such as hares. When hunting as a pack it can subdue prey over 10 times its own body weight, and can even fend off a tiger!
Did you know that dhole has some extraordinary vocal calls – it can whistle, scream, mew, and even cluck like a chicken. Sometimes it forms temporary packs of over 40 animals. It breeds communally with most pack members helping to feed or guard the pups. It exploits a variety of habitats from tropical rain forest and dry-deciduous jungle, to cold alpine forest and open plains. Open forests next to grassy meadows must be nearby for hunting their prey. It has amazing jumping powers and can reach a vertical height of at least 2.3 metres (7.5 ft). It is a capable swimmer and often drives its prey into water. Its front paw pads are fused at the base. Females have 6-7 pairs of mammary glands, as opposed to the more usual five present in other canid species.
It is estimated that only 2500 dholes are left in the wild. Threats to the dhole species include habitat destruction and loss of its main prey (deer) due to excessive hunting. The dhole is also persecuted and cosidered to be a menace to humans and their livestock, resulting in death by trapping or being shot or poisoned. In India, bounties were paid for carcasses right up until the dhole was declared a protected species under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Act of 1972 which prohibits the killing of wildlife except in self-defence. Or if the dhole is a man-killer – and, even then, permission is required. Dholes are found and protected in Royal Chitwan Park, Kanha National Park and Corbett National Park.
By Sachin Kaushik