Just to recap: these “whistling dogs”, that don’t fight over food and even share kills with other animals, are silent, rude, and utterly kill-crazy in Kipling’s book.
But before we call him a “bad boy”, he’s right about “all Jungles being their Jungle” – dholes have the largest range of any canids – and their larger litter sizes. They also come from the “Dekkan”, or southern India, where the largest holdouts are found today. It’s home to some other, bigger animals too.
How do his dholes fare against them, and is it realistic?
Going back to the talking animals then, Kaa the python warns that:
“…Hathi and the Striped One together turn aside for the dhole, and the dhole they say turn aside for nothing”.(p.287)
To be fair, Shere Khan is lame in one foot and wouldn’t fancy his chances. But in real life, the two carnivores have occasionally attacked or killed each other. You can see from this video how a tiger is less than amused by a sprightly and shouty dhole.
Tigers have also been known to attack sleeping packs at night, but it can be a different story when faced with a full pack in the harsh light of day, especially if they have cubs in tow.
This might sound like a conservation cat-astrophe (sorry), but according to Karanth and Sunquist, dholes and tigers can co-exist as long as the larder’s stocked and they avoid each other. It’s the leopards that usually get driven up a tree. Sorry, Bagheera!
But what about Hathi?
Even the daintiest Asian elephant weighs about 100 dhole, so I doubt it would “turn aside” for anything much. In Bandipur Tiger Reserve, for instance, Johnsingh noted that although “elephants became alarmed when they scented fresh Dhole tracks”, they were seen driving them away at least eight times. More “get off my lawn” than “please don’t hurt me”, then.
So when faced with a neighbourhood tiger, it’s a toss-up as to whether the dholes turn away, and when it comes to an elephant, all bets are off.
Mowgli also refuses to be intimidated by them, at least while safely up a tree, and showers the pack in so many insults the lead dog jumps up:
“At last, made furious beyond his natural strength, he bounded up seven or eight feet clear of the ground”.(p.293)
That’s actually not far off. According to the Canid and Hyaenid Taxon Advisory Group (CHTAG), dholes can jump 2 metres (6.5 feet) straight up. They’ve also been known to hang off branches by their teeth and bounce up and down, because who wouldn’t?
If that isn’t athletic enough, you can see in this video – which the editor didn’t “fix later” – they can also pee while doing a handstand.
While this all sounds cute and wholesome, lest we forget this is nature, and the other kind of balance applies.
“… remember the dhole bites low”.(p.297)
Yes, probably that low.
Being a small predator isn’t all bad. About 10,000 years ago during the Late Pleistocene, dholes were too short for Climate Change and Humanity’s Big Carnivore Extinction Ride. At least we think so, based on one fossilised and gussied up dhole tooth. Even then it comes up short, because dholes have one less pair of lower molars compared to other canids. So with a smaller size and missing teeth, how do they bring down prey?
When you’re dinky, it’s harder to reach the neck or throat for the usual killing blow. Instead, some detective work by Karanth and Sunquist suggested that dholes go all in with the biting, so their prey dies of shock and blood-loss while its newly liberated innards are chomped on. Alternatively, as Karanth saw, it’s driven into water and drowned. Either way, its prey makes a splash on the way out.
So dholes do have a touch of land-piranha in them due to their small size and bite. At least in the realm of hunting, anyway. As we’ve seen in Part 1, they’ll let other animals join the feast as long as they wait their turn at the table. Since Kipling instead cranks the kill-crazy to maximum, what becomes of his pack?
After teasing them into a chase – and cutting off the lead dog’s tail – Mowgli leads them into a river where the Little People, or bees, live. Kaa holds him safely underwater while the insects mob the dholes, and the survivors are swept away and drowned or set upon by the wolves downstream. After a vicious dog-on-dog battle:
“…of all the Pack of two hundred fighting dholes, whose boast was that all Jungles were their Jungle, and that no living thing could stand before them, not one returned to the Dekkan to carry that word”.(p.301)
While murderous bees, river rides and wolf wars are stretching it, mass dhole killing sadly isn’t .
In 19th and early 20th century India, dholes had a bounty on their head for apparently driving all the game out of an area. When the Madras government stopped paying out in 1927, British settlers were advised to shoot them anyway, and to pay locals for “red devil” pups to exterminate. Said locals weren’t fans – they respected dholes for sharing their kills – but they were sadly in the minority, in both India and abroad.
Almost the entire Bhutan population was wiped out by poison in the 1970s and 80s, although they made a comeback in the 90s. Although CHTAG found they prefer wild to domestic meat, dholes are still in the crosshairs today due to attacking livestock – a devastating blow to some livelihoods – and in the case of Nepal’s only game reserve, competing with hunters for prized blue sheep. That’s before we even get to the joys of disease.
The northern and eastern Cambodian crew were almost entirely taken out by canine distemper in 2011-2012, presumably thanks to domestic dogs, and rabies is never far behind either. So pretty much everything is out to get the dhole, and its reputation doesn’t exactly help.
I can’t blame Kipling for all of that, though. Dholes were seen as the opposite of man’s best friend at the time, and he was pretty much correct about dholes’ range, large litters and agility, and at least when hunting, the land-piranha element.
But he exaggerates that part to make them good villains, and ignores their chirruping, their sharing, their tolerance for other dogs, and that unlike humans, they’re not stupid enough to drive all the other animals away. And that their chances against tigers and elephants go from “shrug” to “splat”.
Then again, if someone thinks a story with talking animals is a reliable source, we’re all in trouble! Oops.
Rudyard Kipling’s story Red Dog, in The Second Jungle Book, paints the dhole as a silent and unstoppable land-piranha that kills everything in sight. While its killing method is piranha-esque, it makes a wider range of noises than any other canid, shares food with other animals, is seen off by many a tiger or elephant, and has had its prey driven away by humans, not the other way around.
Latin: Cuon alpinus
What? Rare, small, fox-like dog that lives in packs and communicates via whistles and other odd sounds. It has a bad reputation due to its bitiness when hunting prey, and when the prey turns out to be local livestock.
Where? Central and South East Asia, with the largest populations thought to be in southern India. It makes its home almost anywhere except desert or grassland, and has the largest range of any wild canid.
How big? Dinky for a wild dog. About 91 cm / 3 feet long with a tail of 40-45 cm / 15-18 inches, and 48 cm / 20 inches tall at the shoulder.
Endangered? Yes, thanks to being shot as vermin, loss of habitat, and disease from mingling with other doggies. We’re not 100% sure how many are left either, because the IUCN has had to base its estimates on another social but unpopular dog, the African hunting dog (or painted wolf). They can also be too family-friendly – most of the dholes in captivity are related, or at risk of being so.
They sound cool. Do they need my help at all?
Yes, but there aren’t any dhole-centric conservation drives as yet. For now, it’s getting by on scraps of goodwill left by the tiger and elephant ones.
What it really needs is more protected spaces flush with prey, which according to Srivastha et al.’s careful study, might be possible in the Indian states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Thinley et al. also think a bit of creative herding in Bhutan would fix the dholes’ attention on delicious wild (and destructive!) pork rather than steak and lamb.
For now, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is researching conservation projects for the dhole, and the World Land Trust incidentally looks out for it with its India campaigns.
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 alpinus. The 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 credit: “Pack of dholes” by girishacf.