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Leopards, Tigers, and Dhole?


Wildlife trips to India often focus on leopard, tiger, or even sloth bear and such sightings are a spectacular experience and truly the highlight of any safari in India. With all of these animals listed as vulnerable and endangered species, one should feel quite lucky to have shared a moment in the jungle with them. But there is another key species that is not only endangered but can prove to be a spectacular sighting, the Asiatic wild dog or dhole (pronounced like the fruit company).  

Source: TBJornstad/wikicommons

Despite their small size (average 25-40 lbs), these wild canids hunt as a pack and are incredibly efficient predators roaming the jungles and montane forests of Central and East Asia, as far north as southern Russia and as far west as Pakistan. Despite their proficient hunting skills the loss of habitat, depletion of prey base, and persecution by local farmers due to livestock predation has resulted in continually declining numbers. The IUCN Red List estimates that there are only 949 - 2,215 are breeding-age dhole throughout all of Asia. Populations are in decline and massively fragmented across the continent. In India, where efforts to protect tigers and leopards have improved habitat and reduced predator-livestock conflict, the dhole have benefited as well. Here you can find the largest populations of dhole in all of Asia.

The keys to the survival of the dhole are pack size, typically around 5 - 10 members, but sometimes as large as 15 or even 40, and the pack's ability to work together. These impressive hunters employ a variety of tactics as a pack, including breaking into small scouting groups. The scouts emit whistles, howls, and screeches to alert the rest of the pack to their location, as well as the potential prey. When the scouts find prey and the pack is successful, they don't suffocate prey with a bite to the throat like a tiger or leopard, but tackle their prey, disembowel, and begin eating while the animal is still alive. It sounds terribly gruesome, but with larger predators always lurking around they need to act fast and efficiently to ensure the whole pack is well-fed.

Although my inner nerd wanted to see the classic nature documentary pack take down, I got to see a softer side of the dhole I came across a pack in Pench National Park. We had been told there was a pack of 16 with some pups that had been hanging around a water hole for the last couple of days. While everyone else was waiting for a tiger to emerge from his afternoon slumber in a ravine, we got word that the dhole pack was at the watering hole. Knowing this was a bit of a rarity, our jeep all agreed we wanted to focus on a dhole pack sighting so we headed to the other side of the park. As we rolled up to the watering hole, my heart sanks. There were langur monkeys everywhere, and it's not that I don't like monkeys, in fact, I love those kooky guys, it just means there would be predators around. Both our guides noticed lots of tracks and scat headed in the direction of the pack's possible den so we continued up the road. No more than a quarter of a mile and there's a dog (what I think is a domestic dog) on the road, at first I think, "Silly dog! You are going to get eaten by a tiger!", but no, it's a dhole! Just lying in the road languidly looking at us. The jeep stopped. We were about 10 feet from a pack of dhole relaxing and cooling off with bellies full of water.

Sitting there in silence I could hear the whines of the pups, the whimpers of the alpha pair cuddling, and the sniffs of the lookouts as they eyeballed us to determine: threat or food? When we were deemed neither they continued about their day relaxing in the shade. As with most dhole packs, they seemed to be quite playful with few aggressive encounters between the alpha and beta pairs. Even some of the pups came a little closer to check us out. We sat with them for about 20 minutes until some smell or sound in the distance drew the pack to move on, or maybe it was time for dinner?  

Interested in the chance to spot dhole in India? Contact me for questions or to check out one of our safari options: Tigers and Travels India and Jungle Book Safari.

Your friendly India travel expert,

Laura Cahill

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