I first read about dholes in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books – specifically Red Dog – in which they’re basically land-piranhas. But are they as terrifying as he made out?

Looking like a fox and jackal rolled into one doesn’t exactly ingratiate it with humanity, so – shockingly – it’s one of the world’s most endangered canids. It can sport as many coats as names, from the usual red to beige or charcoal, and goes by Asiatic or Indian wild dog, as well as others less flattering.

“Oh aren’t you clever, swapping the “d-” for an “a-“?
Photo by Zweer de Bruin.

As for Kipling, he was an English writer, poet, and Nobel Prize winner for Literature, and wrote Red Dog as part of The Second Jungle Book in 1895. Unfortunately he had less-than-stellar views about other human beings, let alone dholes, but that being said, this chunk of classic literature won’t be pulled apart like their prey. Although it’s pretty close.

Mowgli and his wolf pack first hear about these apparent doggies of doom when an outsider wolf is chased into their midst. He tells them his family were killed by:

“…the dhole of the Dekkan – Red Dog, the Killer! They came north from the south saying the Dekkan was empty and killing out by the way”

(p.281)

The hand-wavy term for southern India – “Dekkan” – is right, because that’s where the largest populations of dhole are found today. What’s less hand-wavy and more “utterly wrong” is that they kill everything in sight.

“Nah, too much effort”.
Photo by Mike Prince.

In Bandipur Tiger Reserve in the 1970s, Johnsingh and his team saw a village dog and her pups trundle up to a dhole pack and their kill. Although four of the adults chased them away:

“The Dholes could have easily caught a pup lagging and whining during a 500 m chase. The Dholes slowed down whenever they were close to the pups”.

Maybe this translates to “come back for the left-overs”, because twice in the 1960s Davidar saw dholes hunting side by side with domestic dogs. The local game watcher explained that, while it’s all cool between the two, the dogs aren’t let anywhere near the kill until after the dholes have had their fill. So not exactly share and share-alike, but it could be a lot worse!

As for driving off all the prey, this was a popular claim by 19th century British colonial hunters, a group known for their lack of vested interests. Various sources including Johnsingh noted that deer and other animals will return to the same area even after a hunt, and as far as the IUCN is concerned, it’s overhunting by humans that’s drastically reduced the menu, not the other way around.

But that’s nothing compared to this next faux pas, or faux paw, if you will:

 “The dholes are a very silent people as a rule, and they have no manners even in their own Jungle.”

(p.292)
To be fair, there’s no dignified way to eat that.
Photo by Dhruvaraj S.

We’ll use Greek, Latin, even pop-culture to name an animal, but never sarcasm. If it’s a “short-eared” species, you can be damn sure it won’t have hilariously long elephant ones. So the fact that the dhole is also called the “whistling dog” may give you a clue how wrong that quote is.

Back in 1996, Durbin found each dhole even had its own individual chirrup. They have other sounds in their repertoire too, such as yips, child-like chattering and calls not made by any other wild canid. Sound is pretty much all you have when you’re hunting through thick jungle, after all. But what of their “manners”?

To start with, dholes wag their tails like domestic dogs and are pretty tactile. Fights within or with a neighbouring pack are also as rare as they are. Then again being related to them probably helps, and when forming the occasional “super-pack” to bring down prey, usually whatever unfortunate hoofed animal is about.

Their table manners are pretty good too. In their awesomely detailed report, the Canid and Hyaenid Taxon Advisory Group recorded only one case of dholes fighting over food, which was solved by pack members ripping the meat into two chunks. On a good day they even share with other animals, as Johnsingh found when a wild boar was seen chowing down with them!

Regardless of their music and manners, Mowgli isn’t impressed, especially by their breeding habits:

“He counts his cubs six and eight at the litter, as though he were Chikai, the little leaping rat.”

(p.283)
Photo by Tambako the Jaguar.

Well, what else will they do with 12 nipples? (Apart from not Google them?)

The alpha female’s the only one that breeds, so every pup she pops will count. It also makes mating a bit of an event, as Davidar found out, this time in the 70s.

Sitting in a hide – his cover utterly blown as the dholes ran up, barked, or stared – he had a front row seat, and saw not only that the alpha pair mated lion- rather than doggy-style with the female lying down, but that the whole pack came over to watch.

There was no uncomfortable tug of war while the pair “tied the knot”, either, as they lay down side by side instead. (If you feel like cringing, look up “copulatory tie” and see how that usually works out.)

Unsurprisingly with a pack of 12 pups, Mum only has the energy to feed them, so the others take turns guarding and bringing her food.  And unlike in some social carnivores, if food is scarce, it’s the pups who gorge while everyone else goes hungry.

There are no pups in the story, however, just a marauding group of adults.

“’By whose leave do ye come here?’ said Mowgli. ‘All Jungles are our Jungle’ was the reply…”

(p.292)
Photo by Josh More.

Somewhat depressingly, it’s still one of the world’s rarest canids despite having the largest range.

You can find dholes more than 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) up in the Himalayas as well as in the lush jungles of South East Asia. They’re happy with pretty much any terrain except plains or desert, and they also love water, cavorting in it in all weathers. In fact one of their main problems is just how big their “jungle” needs to be.

One territory in Karnataka, India, spanned nearly 200 square kilometres (77 square miles), and this kind of real estate is pretty hard to come by. But to make sure there’s enough food, and that their dating sites aren’t just filled with relatives, dholes need about five times as much space as a tiger.

Speaking of which, do they ever cross paths with Shere Khan? If so, is it in any way true to life?

Find out in part 2!

Photo by Guwashi999

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Aryal, Achyut, et al. 2015. “Habitat selection and feeding ecology of dhole (Cuon alpinus) in the Himalayas“, Journal of Mammalogy 96(1):47-53.

Barnosky, Anthony D., et al. 2004. “Assessing the Causes of Late Pleistocene Extinctions on the Continents“. Science 306(5693):70-75.

Canid and Hyaenid Taxon Advisory Group. 2017. “Best Practice Guideline Dhole (C. alpinus) (1. Edition)“. European Association of Zoos and Aquaria.

Chacon, Raquel. No date. “Cuon alpinus:dhole“. Animal Diversity Web.

Davidar, E.R.C. 1965. “Wild dogs (Cuon alpinus) and village dogs“. The journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 62(1):146-148.

Davidar, E.R.C. 1972. “Dhole or Indian wild dog (Cuon alpinus) mating“. The Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 70(2):373-374.

Dhole (Cuon alpinus)“. No date. San Diego Zoo.

Durbin, Leon S. 1998. “Individuality in the whistle call of the Asiatic wild dog Cuon alpinus“. Bioacoustics 9(3):197-206.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Dhole“. Britannica.com.

FiveZero Safaris. 2020. “Tiger tries to catch wild dog (Dhole)“. YouTube.

Johnsingh, A.J.T. 1982. “Reproductive and social behaviour of the Dhole, Cuon alpinus (Canidae)“. Journal of Zoology 198(4): 443-463.

Kamler, J.F., et al. 2015. “Cuon alpinusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2015: e.T5953A72477893.

Karanth, K.U., and Sunquist, Melvin E. 2006. “Behavioural correlates of predation by tiger (Panthera tigris), leopard (Panthera pardus) and dhole (Cuon alpinus) in Nagarahole, India“, Journal of Zoology 250(2):255-265.

Kipling, Rudyard. 2008. The Jungle Books. Oxford University Press, U.K.

Morey, Darcy F., and Jeger, Rujana. 2017. “From wolf to dog: Late Pleistocene ecological dynamics, altered trophic strategies, and shifting human perceptions“, Historical Biology, 29(7): 895-903.

Muthamizh Selvan, K., et al. 2013. “Dietary preference of the Asiatic wild dog (Cuon alpinus)“. Mammalian Biology 78:486-489.

National Geographic. 2017. “See the Wild Dog That Urinates in a Weird Way“. YouTube.

Srivathsa, Arjun, et al. 2020. “A strategic road map for conserving the Endangered dhole Cuon alpinus in India“. Mammal Review https://doi.org/10.1111/mam.12209

Stewart, John I. M. No date. “Rudyard Kipling“. Britannica.com.

Thinley, Phuntsho et al. 2011. “Seasonal diet of dholes (Cuon alpinus) in northwestern Bhutan“. Mammalian Biology 76(4): 518-520.

Vanacore, Constance B. No date. “Dog (Related Canids)“. Britannica.com.

Williams, J. 1935. “Wild dog (Cuon dukhunensis) killed by domestic dogs“. The Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 37(3-4):949-950.

Featured image by Kuntalee Rangnoi.