In the woods of Nagarhole, not every killer is striped or spotted. Death here also comes in forms least expected. That’s because this killer hardly looks like one, but one could argue it packs a punch mightier than even the tiger or leopard. It is an animal that in a sense resembles the dogs we pet, albeit only in its appearance. In its character, it is unlike any other. It lives in packs, and hunts in packs. It doesn’t hesitate to take the fight to the big guys in the forest with great determination and grit. And it targets animals weighing as much as eight times its own weight. Meet the Dhole, more commonly called as the Indian Wild Dog.
I call this creature the underdog, because if you would ask tourists what animals are at the top of their wish list to sight, the Dhole might not even make it in the top-5. But in reality, it is hardly one. In fact, it sits right at the top of the food chain, alongside the more famous tiger and leopard. It feeds on more or less the same prey, and in a sense, competes with the big cats for food and territory. If you’re wondering how an animal that looks pretty much like a dog, and weighs merely 20-25 kilos can compete with the mighty big cats, the answer lies in the fact that these animals get their strength in numbers. In all my years of exploring the jungles of Southern India, I have come across dholes living in packs of two, and also in packs of thirty-two. However, in most cases, you’ll find that a pack consists of eight to twelve dogs, for obvious reasons such as this number is optimal for the pack being able to kill one prey animal such as a Spotted Deer or a Sambar deer and be able to share the meal among all the members of the pack, while still being enough of a force to reckon with to take on a Tiger or Leopard if the need arises.
Dholes are highly social creatures, and show incredible bonding and care for other members of their clan. On a wet monsoon afternoon in Nagarhole a couple of years back, I was fortunate to witness a rare natural history moment, when we chanced upon a pack of Dholes one of which was injured. I am sure it was a pack of eight dholes, as I had seen this clan before, but on this afternoon, we only saw five of them. Four dholes would run the forest roads of Nagarhole in their pursuit of finding prey, only to turn and come back once they realized that one of their members was not in a position to keep pace with the rest of them. This repeated a few times, and once the pack understood that one of their kind was in no way going to march along at the same pace as the rest, they quite remarkably allowed the injured dhole to set the pace for the entire pack with the injured animal at the front and the rest of them following it. Nature has always been judged as an entity where the fittest survive and the unfit are left to perish, but to witness something otherwise was certainly special and eye opening.
So, the next time you are in an Indian jungle, watch out for the underdogs. They have everything it takes to turn your dull safari into an exciting one, and also teach you a thing or two about the way of life in jungles.