Charisma, pride, ferocity and gallantry-in Asia, the wording in general, takes us to tigers, lions, wolves, bears or leopards. But there is another top gun that lives side by side with these brave-hearts. With nearly mythical reputation, this species is extraordinarily enigmatic. And in this particular case it can never be rivalled.
The species, in retrospect, is the Asiatic wild dog Cuon alpinus, what we commonly term in Bangla as 'dhole'.
In the Anthropocene, the age of losing diversity, a read on the ghost of the jungle is a tribute to its existence.
Primordial than wolf
We know our domestic dog breeds are descendants of wolves. The wolf, itself, is an enduring species with a long history. But, the Asiatic wild dog is way older.
The rusty fur and general 'dog-like' (let us use the term canid) built can give us a superficial resemblance. But dholes have graced the earth way before the evolution of wolves. Physically, the species is lightly built with long limbs and an agility like that of a cat.
You may find many special physical attributes in dholes, for example, a convex skull nowhere to be seen among canids, and a specially reduced, sharpened teeth formation for speedy shearing.
Across the Asian heartlands
Once spread from the far east to the Caspian region, the current strongholds of the species are the forests of south and southeast Asia. Dholes are adaptive by birth. As a result, there are several reports of the animal being sighted near less-protected reserve forests, and even close to agroforests and plantations.
Today, there are dholes in the Indian subcontinent (except Pakistan), the Indochina peninsula (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), the Malay peninsula and Greater Sunda. Southern China is supposed to have a population also. Its presence is suspected in Siberia and in North Korea as well.
Dholes still roam the eastern forests of Bangladesh. Yes, you read it right – still, in a populous country like Bangladesh.
Social all along
Being a canid, the dhole is social. A group of dholes is called a clan led by a male and a female. Whereas a wolf pack follows strict rules against the outsiders, a dhole clan is more receptive with a more relaxed pecking order. A clan can be very big, up to 40 individuals. The formation is often broken down into smaller hunting parties.
At least in one instance in India, a wolf was observed living with a clan of dholes.
Keep an ear to whistles
To live in forest thickets and hunt through them, the communication process of a dhole is rather complex. Alongside common wagging and face-licking gestures, they are known to produce feigning whistles – a technique developed for messaging amid thick grass and undergrowth.
So, the next time you are trekking in an Asian jungle, beware of whistles!
Eating their prey alive
Dholes hunt in broad daylight, and have a morbid reputation of eating their prey alive. As harrowing it may sound, this is just another evolutionary response. With a light body, group-hunting tendency, and living in an arena with tigers and leopards, dholes tend to consume as soon as they get a grip on the potential food. It usually starts by disembowelment.
Can fend off a tiger
Even tigers cannot relax when they confront a clan, because these wild dogs are fearless when it comes to holding their ground. A tiger may kill a dhole with a single swat, yet a clan is a formidable threat to anyone in the animal kingdom. Instances of mobbing for a lengthy period are common. Young and inexperienced tigers are frequently their victims.
The best strategy for a tiger against dholes is not to run away, but rather to hold its ground. Start a retreat, dhole will sense fear and chase it down.
And, not to be petted!
The taming of a dhole has not been documented till date. Many of them are kept in zoos across the globe. Yet, domestication of these animals has never been heard of. Towards adulthood, the dhole gets agitated when handled.
Excelled as survivor, not much in the Anthropocene
Of the canids, the Asiatic wild dog is of an old lineage, and has successfully thrived for ages. But now in the 21st century, the species is in a dire state.
The dhole habitat is fragmented. Being diurnal, it frequently comes in contact with humans, though killing one has been never known. The number of their natural prey is dwindling, and they are killed in retaliation for livestock depredation. At present, only 2,000 to 2,500 dholes are left in the wild across the world, and their numbers are shrinking rapidly.
Dholes are lagging far behind when it comes to conservation. When compared to the much discussed pantherine cats, dholes have many titles attached with the prefix 'less'—less-known, less-studied, and less-loved.
But, one thing is for sure, they are disappearing fast.
MORE DOGS OF THE WILD
African wild dog
Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the African wild dog is the largest canid in Africa.
They, too, are pack hunters and are social. Their coat is patterned as if they were painted, hence, they are also termed the 'painted dog'. Like their Asian counter-parts, they also fall into the category of an apex predator.
Bush dog and short-eared dog
These two species originated from the depths of the Amazon. Both have short and slend limbs like a beagle. The bush dog is somewhat smaller with a brownish, tan-coloured coat, and a stumpy tail.
The short-eared dog has an ashy coat with a bushy and longer tail. Both species are meso-predators of old lineage, and the only truly wild (not feral!) species of dogs of the entire American continent.