Dhole - The Whistling Wild Dog is Under Threat

Dhole or Wild dog

The Whistling Wild Dog is Under Threat 

-Dr. Arvind Singh

Dhole which is also known as 'Red Dog' 'Asiatic Wild Dog', and the 'Indian Wild Dog' is a species of wild dog native to South and Southeast Asia. It is scientifically known as Cuon alpinus and belongs to Canidae family of order Carnivora. In India Dhole is vernacularly called as Ban-kutta or Jangali-kutta.

The Dhole is listed as “Endangered” in the Red List of Threatened Species of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Endangered species are those which are in danger of extinction and whose survival is unlikely if the causal factors continue to be operating. Their number has been reduced to a critical level or whose habitats have been so drastically reduced that they are deemed to be in immediate danger of extinction.

Distribution Range:
Dholes are distributed in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tibet and Vietnam.

In India, they occur south of the Ganges River especially in the Central Indian highlands and Western and Eastern Ghats. Dholes also occur in Northeast Indian States of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya and West Bengal and in Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir. They have a fragmented distribution in Himalaya and Northwest India.

There are eleven subspecies of Dhole and these vary in range with the most common being Cuon alpinus dukhunensis found in Central and Southern India.

Physical Characteristics:
Dholes are characterized by the thick muzzle and one less molar tooth on each side of the lower jaw. The limbs are moderately long and their thoraces are proportional. The bushy coat is usually a rusty red colour with white on the belly, chest and paws. The bushy tail is black having a length between 40 and 45 cm.
The Dhole is 90 cm in length, 50 cm in shoulder height. Males are larger in size than females. The weight of male Dholes ranges between 15 and 20 kg while the weight of females ranges between 10 and 13 kg. The large rounded ears are filled with white hair and the eyes are amber.

Dholes have great jumping and leaping abilities, being able to jump 3 to 3.5 m high and leap 5 to 6 m distances in one leap with a running start. The stomachs of Dholes may hold 2.9 kg of food.

Habitat and Ecology:
The Dhole is found in a wide variety of vegetation types. This includes dry tropical deciduous forests, moist deciduous forests, evergreen forests, semi-evergreen forests, dry thorn forests, grassland, scrub forest mosaics and alpine steppe (3,000 m). Dholes have not been reported from the desert region.

Tropical deciduous forest and tropical moist deciduous forest are the chief habitats of Dholes in India because ungulate biomass is highest in these vegetation types compared to others in the same region. Ungulates are a diverse group of large mammals, most of which use the tips of their toes, usually hoofed, to sustain their whole body weight while moving or swimming. The term means “hoofed animal” (e. g. deer).

Habitat selection of Dholes includes the availability of medium to large ungulate prey species, water and presence of other large carnivore species, human population levels and suitability of breeding sites.

The Dhole is a highly social animal living in large clans which occasionally split up into small packs to hunt. Dhole’s packs consist of more males than females and usually contain around 5 to 12 members. There is a strict hierarchy within the pack and group defends a territory that can be as large as 84 km2 depending on the availability of food.

Dholes prey on medium-sized ungulates which they hunt by tiring them out in long chase and kills by disembowelling them. They let their pups eat first at a kill. Dholes are afraid of humans but Dhole packs are brave enough to assault large and dangerous animals such as wild boar, water buffalo and even tigers.

Dholes are capable swimmers and sometimes drive their prey into the water.

The Dhole is well known for the vocal calls that it uses to communicate with its pack. It is said that the repetitive whistle of the Dhole is so distinctive that individual animals can be easily identified by their calls. Dholes are seasonal breeders. In India, their mating season occurs between mid-October and January. During mating, the female assumes a crouched cat-like position. The pair lies on their sides facing each other in a semi-circular formation. Female Dholes give birth between 5 and 12 pups after a two-month-long gestation period. Dhole pups grow very fast and are cared for by both their parents and by other adult dholes in the pack. Pups are suckled at least 58 days. By the age of 6 months, pups accompany the adults on hunts.

Threats to their Survival:
The Dhole is endangered fauna in wild as the populations have been reduced to less than 2,500 individuals across their native territories. The main threats to the species are habitat loss, depletion of prey base, persecution and disease transfer from domestic and feral dogs.

The human population explosion has led to massive changes in the natural landscape. In India alone, more than 4 million hectares of forest have disappeared in the last two decades. In many areas habitat degradation and excessive deer poaching continue to fragment the area of forest that is suitable for Dholes.

Depletion of prey base is the other main threat to the survival of Dholes. Ungulates are the chief prey for the Dholes which have also suffered high depletion of their population across the Dhole's range. Several ungulate species are now extinct in the region and others are extremely rare, mostly due to excessive hunting and habitat loss.

Human persecution has also been a threat to the declining population of Dholes. They have been persecuted throughout India for bounties until they were given protection by the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. Chief methods used for Dhole hunting include poisoning, snaring, shooting and clubbing at den sites. Native Indian people killed Dholes primarily to protect their livestock while British sport hunters during the British rule did so under the conviction that Dholes were responsible for drops in-game populations. Persecution of Dholes still occurs with varying degrees of intensity according to region. In Indochina, Dholes suffer heavily from nonselective hunting techniques such as snaring.

Dholes are susceptible to number of diseases especially in areas where they are in contact with domestic and feral dogs. Diseases and pathogens transferred to them include rabies, distemper, mange, trypanosomiasis, canine parvovirus and endoparasites such as cestodes and roundworms. The diseases are significant threat in South Asia and particularly in parts of Indonesia.

Distemper and rabies diseases are threats to the Indian subspecies Cuon alpinus primaevus.

The threatened Dholes are included on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The Dholes are protected under Schedule II of Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 (permission is required to kill any individual unless in self -defence or if an individual is a man killer). In India, Project Tiger is helpful in maintaining the Dhole prey bases in areas where Tigers and Dholes coexist. The following actions are needed for the conservation of the threatened Dholes in India.

1. To regularly monitor the population of Dholes in their natural habitat. 
2. To check the habitat degradation of Dholes. 
3. To rebuild the degraded habitats of Dholes. 
4. To restore the depleted prey base of Dholes. 
5. To strictly enforce the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act and CITES. 
6. To effectively implement the Project Tiger in the habitats shared by Tigers and Dholes. 
7. To establish a network of protected areas for conservation of Dholes in Northeast India, Central India and Southern India.

The dwindling population of Dholes from their native territories due to habitat loss, depletion of prey base, persecution and disease transfer is a matter of serious concern and needs attention to conserve this wild species of animal for the maintenance of biological diversity and ecological stability.
Dr. Arvind Singh is M. Sc. and Ph. D. in Botany with an area of specialization in Ecology. He is a dedicated Researcher having more than four dozen published Research Papers in the Journals of National and International repute. His main area of Research is Restoration of Mined Lands. However, he has also conducted Research on the Vascular Flora of Banaras Hindu University-Main Campus, India.

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