This article reports on a two month reconnaissance to
India in 1991,
subsequent travels in South East Asia, and an accompanying literature survey
on the dhole. This is a first step to collating information on the current status
of the dhole.
he dhole or Asiatic wild dog, Cuon alpinus, is a pack hunter. Once widespread in late pleistocene Europe and Asia, India is its current stronghold, but it still might occur from the Ural mountains of Russia in the north, to Indonesia in the South. The 18 kg dhole stands about 50 cm at the shoulder and ranges from yellow to reddish in colour.
Much is unknown about the dhole. It has been the subject of only about 200 hours of direct observation by scientists in the field. The existing information, which owes much to Johnsingh's 1976-1978 field study in Bandipur and his 1985 census on the range of the dhole in south Asia, provides tantalizing hints of the fascination of this species.
The goal of this survey was to gain an impression of the dholeµs abundance and the suitability of each site for a study on the dhole (in terms of logistical support and the parkµs infrastructure of roads and accommodation).
My information stems from informal discussions with park officials, biologists and guides. Care was taken not to lead the informants into exaggerating either the rarity or abundance of the dhole in their parks. I did however try to boost this dogµs rather tarnished image in some parks. The subspecies considered is C.a. dukhunensis unless otherwise stated.
Site: 777 sq km; Kerala State, South India.
Habitat: The sanctuary is dominated by a lake surrounded by rolling or steep hills with large areas of grassland between patches of deciduous forest. There are some areas of dense tropical evergreen forest.
Status of the Dhole: Dholes are commonly seen in the reserve hunting on the banks of the lake, and were observed on five of the seven days I spent at the reserve. The field director of project Tiger for the reserve estimated 50 packs in the reserve based on mammal census sightings made from the main lake. This is probably a generous estimate. Two park biologists are planning to begin a survey of predator-prey relations in Periyar. The dhole is probably the parkµs most important large predator and is seen as being the key species in the survey. Periyar was the site of Naresh Bedi"s film "The Whistling Hunters" (BBC Wildlife on One 1989).
Site: Nagarhole: 640 sq km, Bandipur: 865 sq km; Karnataka State, South India. Mudumalai: 300 sq km; Tamil Nadu State, South India.
Habitat: Three independently administered but adjoining parks. Mudumalai is the furthest south and encompasses a hill range with quite open habitats including grassland. Bandipur has grassy woodland and dry deciduous forest. Nagarhole is the furthest north with higher rainfall and consequently denser moist forest than its sister parks.
Status of the Dhole: I was unable to visit Mudumalai or Bandipur. The dhole is still quite common in Bandipur at least. Johnsingh (1982) reports a "core area" of 20 sq km for the 5-11 member pack he studied in Bandipur. I visited the Karapura region of Nagarhole (approx. 100 sq km near the northern border of Bandipur). Only two packs, each of approximately six individuals, were regularly in evidence. In 1989 a third pack which had shared the area for several years disappeared, perhaps due to an apparent outbreak of mange. Park wardens believed the dhole to be less abundant in Nagarhole than Bandipur or Mudumalai. Logistically these parks are good with motivated staff, good accommodation, and an extensive road network. In March 1991 local annoyance with Nagarhole officials resulted in widescale burning of forest and a research facility.
Site: 940 sq km; Madhya Pradesh State, Central India.
Habitat: This park is surrounded by hills with extensive grassland plateaux and some dense mixed deciduous forest on the steeper slopes. The lower valleys have large meadows with scattered stands of trees. Cold winters (and occasional frosts), with hot summers.
Status of the Dhole: Periodic and unexplained population crashes characterize the dhole in this part of India; during the late 1960's no dholes were found in the park. Current opinion estimates ten to fifteen packs averaging six individuals in Kanha. Given the huge herds of deer in this park, this is a suprisingly low number. Several park officials considered the dhole "vermin" - an unwanted predator on the rare Barasingha deer Cervus duvauceli.
Site: 450 sq km; Madhya Pradesh State, Central India.
Habitat: Undulating terrain with mixed forests and bamboo brakes. There is open grassland to the south. It has cold winters and the park is closed in the monsoon.
Status of the Dhole: One pack occupies the central area of the park, a situation that does not appear to have changed in the last five years. Tigers are unusually abundant and visible in the reserve and may compete aggressively with the dhole. The dhole is not seen as an important member of the park's mammal community, the focus of attention going as ever to the tiger. The infrastructure of the park is good.
Site: 967 sq km; Southern Nepal.
Habitat: Mostly Sal forest with riverine forest and grasslands. Hot summers and cold winters.
Status of the Dhole: Though the habitat appears ideal, the dhole is, at best, very rare in Chitwan. I met no one in the park who had seen one. I walked the long axis of the park and found no sign or spoor of dhole. Some guides had no memory of the dhole in the park during ten years of guiding. The subspecies (C.alpinus primaevus) is expected there. The dhole was more widespread in the park during the 1970s.
Site: 4343 sq km; Central west Malaysia.
Habitat: Humid tropical rainforest. Some hilly upland regions with marginally more open habitats.
Status of the Dhole: The only possible sighting of the dhole was of two golden dogs in the centre of the park two years ago. Possibly they were members of a peninsular dingo population, (Canis familiaris dingo). No park officials were capable of identifying spoor of the dhole, and I found none in two weeks in the park. There seems to be no reliable record of any other recent sightings of the dhole in other Malaysian parks.
(Information from India)
The status of the dhole (Subspecies C. a. adjustus and C. a. infuscus) is poorly known in Burma. Parks such as Maynyo and Shwe-U-Daung held good populations in largely forested areas up to the late 1960?s, but what remains of the forest or the dholes is not known.
(Information from India)
Naresh Bedi filmed dholes in Ladakh in 1991. This is probably the subspecies C. a. laniger. They are generally rare in Ladakh.
Although the dhole is still supposed to inhabit such Thai parks as Khao Yai, I met nobody in the parks who had either seen or heard of them in Thailand. They might be expected to be commoner in the hills near the Burmese border which I did not visit. Ornithologists working in these border areas had not seen dhole (the expected subspecies is C. a. infuscus).
Of the parks visited, Periyar seemed to have the best and most visible population of dhole. The park staff there are very helpful and there is good accommodation deep in the park, including a watchtower over favourite hunting grounds at Thannikudi. If Burmaµs visiting restrictions relaxed, perhaps its forests will emerge as the best remaining sites to study dholes. Observations of the dog on Ladakh's cool and often treeless plains would be a fascinating parallel to any study in the more closed habitats of South and South East Asia.
In general the prospects for the dhole seemed rather depressing, especially for subspecies found outside India. More information from all parts of the dhole's range is necessary; observations from Russia, China and Indonesia where there are no recent records should be a priority.
I saw tigers more often than dhole in India. The dhole could hardly be described as abundant even in the best parks such as Periyar. Officials in every park were under the impression that the dhole was common, but not in their own park. Dholes are reported from some reserves in the Central Indian Highlands and Southern states which I was not able to visit. Most of these parks are becoming progressively more isolated by cultivated land. Parks such as Chitawan and Kanha indicate that dholes suffer population crashes encompassing even the largest parks, and that recolonization and recovery is slow. Outside the parks, forest is very degraded, and the future for any animal which depends on it seems grim indeed.
On the positive side dholes may be more resilient than they seem. Sariska is a park surrounded for hundreds of square kilometres on all sides by intensively settled and farmed land. Dholes had not been seen there for over twenty years, when suddenly in 1986 three arrived in the park, hunted for a while and then disappeared. Where they came from or went is a mystery. That they could have survived in a seemingly healthy state across such vast tracts of disturbed terrain is remarkable. A sign, at least, that as long as we give the dhole half a chance, this adaptable dog will find a way to survive.
Burton, R. W. 1940. The Indian Wild Dog. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc., 41: 691-715.
Cohen, J. A. 1982. A Note on the Behaviour of captive dholes (Cuon alpinus). J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc., 62: 146-148.
Davidar, E. R. C. 1975. Hunting and Feeding in the wild dog (Cuon alpinus). In: The Wild Canids, pp. 109-119. Ed. M.W. New York: van Nostrand Reinhold.
Fox, M. W. 1984. The Whistling Hunters: Field Studies of the Asiatic Wild Dog. State University of New York Press. Albany. (SUNY series in Anim. Behav. ISBN 0-87395-842-X).
Johnsingh, A. J. T. 1982. Reproductive and social behaviour of the dhole (Cuon alpinus). J. Zool., Lond., 1982: 443-463.
Johnsingh, A. J. T. 1983. Large mammalian prey - predators in Bandipur. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc., 80 (1): 1-53.
Johnsingh, A. J. T. 1985. Distribution and status of the Dhole (Cuon alpinus) in South Asia. Mammalia, 49(2): 203-208.
Ramanathan, S. A. 1982. A sighting of a large pack of dholes in Kanjkumarai district, Tamil Nadu. (Kalkad wildlife sanctuary 26, 1977). J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc., 79(3): 665-666.
* Paul Stewart is a graduate student in Oxford's WildCRU working on badgers. Previously, having worked as a TV producer on the BBC's Velvet Claw Carnivore series, he visited India on a Churchill travelling fellowship to gain experience of South and South East Asian wildlife reserves. Now he is coordinating the CSG's dhole survey.
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