Dhole packs in peril?
Safeguarding these underdogs of India’s tropical forests requires much greater resolve
"Except for his handsome appearance, the wild dog has not a single redeeming feature, and no effort, fair or foul, should be spared to destroy these pests of the jungle". Thus remarked E G Phythian-Adams, a British hunter from the Nilgiri Game Association, referring to the dhole in 1949. His perceptible disdain towards the social carnivore represented a common (mis)conception about dholes or Asiatic wild dogs (Cuon alpinus) being lawless, ruthless killers of the Indian jungles.
For sporting hunters of British India, dholes were not valuable as trophies, nor did they serve as good 'game' species. Large packs of dholes were often observed as hunting herbivores like deer and gaur, disembowelling and eating their quarry alive. This feeding tactic of the dhole, whose jaw strength is not as powerful as the tiger or the leopard to deliver a killing bite at the throat, furthered its negative reputation. Dholes were treated as 'vermin' and bounty-hunted in India until they were brought under protection in 1972 with the Wild Life Protection Act.
Dholes are currently distributed across forests of South and Southeast Asia. Their numbers have dwindled in many parts of their distribution range. Most dhole populations are restricted to protected forest habitats, but also occur in reserve forests and production agroforests (like tea and coffee plantations).
The recent IUCN Red List assessment suggests that there may be 1,000–2,000 adult, mature dholes left in the wild. This number is yet a vague 'guesstimate' since there are no reliable methods to accurately estimate their population sizes.
Despite its precarious status, the dhole remains one of the least-studied large carnivores in the world. India perhaps supports the largest number of dholes, with key populations found in three landscapes — Western Ghats, Central India and Northeast India.
Given this background, a recent study that examined changes in dhole distribution patterns across eight years in the Western Ghats of Karnataka offers some useful insights that could aid their conservation. The study relied on indirect sign-based surveys (evidence such as track marks and faecal deposits) to map the distribution of dholes across 37,000 square kilometres of Karnataka's forests, first in 2007 and subsequently in 2015. Presence of prey species (ungulate herbivores like spotted deer, sambar deer, gaur and wild pigs), human-induced disturbance, loss of forest cover, and presence of protected areas were considered as potential factors influencing patterns and changes in dhole distribution.
It was disconcerting that dholes occupied only 62 per cent of the landscape in 2007 and this number further reduced to 54 per cent in 2015. Presence of spotted deer or chital (the principal prey species) was important for dholes. Although dholes were found in forests outside protected reserves, they seemed to avoid areas with high human activity. Dholes went locally extinct in locations where there was a loss of forest cover, while the presence of protected reserves enabled their persistence.
Since dholes are pack-living carnivores that occur in inherently low densities, it is important to approach their conservation from a landscape perspective. For such species, it is critical to conserve not just populations within protected areas, but meta-populations (a group of connected populations) across a landscape or a region.
Even with a network of high-quality protected areas, the Western Ghats of Karnataka witnessed a reduction in dhole distribution in less than a decade. Cumulative effects of forest loss from on-going infrastructure development activities and high livestock-grazing pressure in certain protected reserves are deterring persistence of dhole populations. Populations of feral/free-ranging dogs, which compete with dholes for prey and also spread lethal diseases, are likely adding to the list of threats faced by dholes.
A recent meeting of the IUCN Dhole Working Group in Thailand brought together dhole experts from all dhole-range countries. Based on assessments of current distribution, population and habitat viability, the Western Ghats and Central India landscapes were identified as priority sites for conserving dhole meta-populations. Results from the study in Karnataka highlight the importance of protected reserves while also maintaining forest connectivity between reserves.
With a multitude of factors consistently threatening their populations, dholes have somehow managed to thrive in India. Unfortunately, we do not yet have policies targeted specifically at conserving and managing dhole populations. Safeguarding dholes will require much greater resolve from scientists, wildlife managers and the government.
India has set a stellar example being at the forefront of global efforts in scientific monitoring and conservation of tigers. It is time perhaps that we replicate these efforts to secure the future for dholes – the true underdogs of India's tropical forests.
(The author is a wildlife biologist who works on large carnivore ecology and conservation, currently a PhD candidate at University of Florida, USA and a Research Associate with Wildlife Conservation Society India. Views expredded are personal)