Friday, September 11, 2009

Red Peril

Above, below: The Indian Wild Dog, or Dhole

Below: A scarred male marks territory

Above: Hunt of Sambar, interrupted (unintentionally) by our arrival

Below: Dhole dragging killed Chital fawn away

Below: Dhole pup swimming, Pandarpaoni meadow

My regular driver in Tadoba (Bandu) can't quite understand my obsession with the Dhole.

He finds it odd that I can sit for an hour or more staring at Dholes instead of rushing around the reserve trying to get a tiger "sighting."

To me, and many others too, this animal is a stellar attraction in the jungles, as magnetic as the tiger or leopard. I am, after all, as much of a dog person as a cat person. And the Dhole or Indian Wild Dog is one of the most fascinating members of the canid family.

I've been very lucky: these beautiful little dogs have honoured me with quite a lot of their time, on my visits to Tadoba-Andhari, Pench and Nagarhole. Sometimes they've sat in the grass just 40 feet away from our vehicle, playing and rolling in the grass like village pups, casting a glance at us from time to time but not particularly bothered by our presence. Sometimes they've marked territory. Once we drove some distance behind three Dhole bitches as they bounded along a path.

I can't agree with Kipling's unflattering depiction of them in the Second Jungle Book, in which they feature as villains. Here's how he describes their peculiar hunting screams: "...a hideous kind of shriek that the jackal gives when he is hunting behind a tiger, or when there is a big killing afoot. If you can imagine a mixture of hate, triumph, fear and despair, with a kind of leer running through it, you will get some notion of the pheeal that rose and sank and wavered and quavered far away across the Waingunga..."

It is a strange sound actually, like a whistle. Last year I watched a pack of fourteen Dholes hunting (in Tadoba) and the air was full of these high-pitched shrieks. It took me a few minutes to realize who was making the sounds - they are so un-doglike!

That hunt was an unforgettable event in my life, a miracle of co-ordination and teamwork. We were right inside it, surrounded by it! I have this memory of the panicking Chital herd running like lightning, handsome stags and does and fawns, and Dholes streaking all around us with their bushy tails flying: both predator and prey at the absolute height of their power and skill. Because their lives, quite literally, depended upon their performance in this deadly arena. When a young Chital was finally brought down, I could only feel relieved that after all their effort, the dogs would not go hungry. A kill is not a pretty sight, but there is nothing "cruel" about wild predators hunting. It is simply the way they eat and make it to the next day. It's a rare privilege to get such a glimpse into the real life of the jungle.

These dogs have an electrifying effect on herbivores. Everything runs when Dholes appear on the scene, even huge boar and sambar many times their size. A hunting dhole pack seems to inspire more fear than the big cats even. Having witnessed the focused ferocity of such a pack, I'm not surprised by the herbivores' reaction. I've seen these pretty little dogs clear the huge Pandarpaoni meadow in Tadoba in just a few seconds. I was once told of a pack that even "treed" a tiger.

Unlike many big cats, these animals don't seem uneasy in the presence of humans, at least that has been my experience. They give you a measuring look, as if trying to figure out whether you are likely to bother them or not, but they don't look nervous or scared. I would almost imagine that they are curious about us, and not unfriendly, but I don't want to jump to such conclusions. It is well known that we humans view domestic dogs through a cloud of delusion, and this may extend to wild canids as well.

If you've never seen a Dhole, my advice is to head to Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve and spend a few days there.

If you're lucky, Kipling's "Red Killer" will cross your path.

Note: Due to technological incompetence, I am unable to upload my photos in a way that retains their true colours. Dholes in real life and in my original images are much redder than they look here.

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