Dogs are our friends. Why cannot wild dogs be?

Published On: January 18, 2021 07:15 AM NPT By: Sujita Dhakal and Bikash Ghimire

Sujita Dhakal and Bikash Ghimire

Sujita Dhakal and Bikash Ghimire

Sujita Dhakal is a freelance wildlife researcher. Bikash Ghimire is a conservation officer with the Friends of Nature, Nepal.

Here is a species of endangered wild dogs whose population has diminished to a level that it could get extinct anytime soon. But you may be reading about it for the first time.

Dogs may be humans’ best friends but their Asiatic wild counterparts have not been as lucky. The adverse situation created by human activities has pushed them near extinction. Today only about 2215 breeding population of Dholes, the Asiatic wild dogs, remain.

Dholes, which signifies recklessness and daring in ancient Asiatic term, have been the greatest survivors and been lurking around the planet for 12,000 years. But now they have become a threatened species. Yet we seldom hear anyone talking about them. Why? Because most of us are so transfixed with flagship species like tigers, rhinos and elephants when it comes to wildlife that we hardly bother to think about other species that are equally, if not more, endangered.

Here is a species of endangered wild dog whose population has diminished to a level that it could get extinct anytime soon—and we don’t even get to hear about it. Perhaps you are even reading about it now for the first time.

What’s happening?

Asiatic wild dogs, or often called as Dhole/ Ban Kukur/ Bwaanso in common Nepali dialects, have been victims of hazardous human activities. IUCN Red List estimates that only about 949 to 2,215 breeding population in decreasing trend are in the wild of Central, South and Southeast Asia. That makes the Dholes one of many endangered but much less talked about animals.

The Dhole population is estimated to be as low as 250-750 in Nepal. Also, Dholes are legally protected in all countries that are signatories to CITES, the international convention to regulate the trade of endangered species of animals and plants. Once dwelling abundantly in Tarai and the mid-hills, the species is now extirpated from mid-hill ranges and limited to few hundreds of them roaming our plain land.   

The term wild dog is often considered a misfit for Dholes (Cuon alpinus) as they are genetically non-identical with domesticated dogs and also do not represent any subfamilies of foxes or wolves. Also, they communicate via an eerie whistling sound unlike their domestic counterparts who bark.

The only member of the genus Cuon, they are exemplary runners, swimmers and jumpers making them highly adaptive and great team player during fierce hunts. Assumed to live for 10 years in wild, they possess a peculiar outer appearance with red or brownish, yellowish or greyish coat along with white front and belly with distinctive black tail. Another striking character trait they are gifted with is social behavior, living in packs of 5-10 individuals, hunting down preys often much bigger in size like deer, wild boars, gaurs and many more, dragging their kills for other pack members to feed, entire pack contributing to nurture and protection of the pups and nursing females in the pack. Dholes live in packs in burrows with multiple outlets.

Dholes have been recorded from wide range of habitat including forests, shrub lands and grasslands from tropical rain forest to deciduous-dry forest, open plains and alpine steppe with altitude ranging from 0 to 5300 meters from sea level. Studies have shown that Dholes were in Nepal from the southern plains to Tarai to the Himalayan Alpine rangelands although they were rarely sighted. In recent times, an extensive usage of non-invasive camera trap technology has enabled to keep the record of Dholes in different parts of the country. They have been reported from Chitwan National Park, Kanchenjunga Conservation Area, Parsa National Park, Api-Nampa Conservation Area, Bardiya National Park, Rara National Park, Khaptad National Park, Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve and Barandabhar Corridor Forest.

 Under threat

Dhole population has been facing a major existential threat in Nepal due to destruction of habitat, occasional forest fire, dwindling number of their prey, and hazardous disease transmission from feral and domestic dogs. Worse still, they have always been subject to persecution and have been perceived negatively by the societies for generations.

Ferocious predators, Dholes are daytime hunters often preying much bigger animals and dragging their kills which makes it possible that local people have witnessed these deeds first hand to assume them as blood thirsty savages. On the contrary, they are extremely social, co-operative and feed their younger ones first.

As wild prey bases are shrinking, Dholes also might occasionally prey on livestock which might mean that they can get killed by poisoning and snaring. Interspecific competition with predators like tigers and leopards for same resources in the ecosystem is posing threat on their life. There have been very few systematic researches on population, distribution and ecology of Dholes in Nepal making it difficult to assess their exact status. No wonder there are hardly any conservation projects for this elusive species.  

Dholes, like every species, have their distinctive roles in an ecosystem. They are key predators and thus they balance and regulate a healthy herbivore population. On top of that, they are the last surviving members of genus Cuon among the dog family in the wild and if they perish, an entire evolutionary history will be doomed forever.

Biodiversity keeps this planet alive and livable for us. But a landmark report last year warned that around one million animal and plant species are now on the verge of extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in history.

Humans to blame  

The Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, that brought the study out, said humans were largely to be blamed. “Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions.”

And in doing so, many less talked-about species are massively impacted—Dholes being one of them. These specific species roamed this planet long ago before we humans did. So, ensuring their survival is not just a natural but also a moral obligation for us. In Nepal, National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act (1973) has put them under Schedule-I Protected species.

Protection initiative should begin with detailed researches on their present status, population, ecology, density and other details. Above all, communities need to be made aware why they need to have healthy population of these wild dogs in the ecosystem and how they will be adversely affected if these animals are wiped out.  

And it should not be an uphill task: After all, humans have valued dogs as their best friends. They can definitely relate to their wild counterparts too.

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