Hailing from only a few small regions of Central, South and Southeast Asian countries, this charismatic canid is closely related to wolves, jackals, coyotes, foxes and the beloved domestic dog, although it differs from them in several key ways. The dholes skull has a more convex than concave profile, they lack a third lower molar and their upper molars have a single cusp instead of two or four. The earliest ancestors of the Dhole once ranged throughout Europe, but the European species eventually went extinct in the late Pleistocene, leaving just the Asian species that went on to become the modern Dhole seen today. Dhole fossils have been found in Sri Lanka, Borneo, and even some islands around Japan, although they are no longer present there today. Genetic analysis of mitochondrial genomes extracted from fossils revealed that ancient dholes had much greater genetic diversity than the modern species, and further studies found that the Dhole is most closely related to the African Wild Dog. After years of controversy over its placement in the family tree, the Dhole was finally assigned to their own genus, Cuon.
Today, Dholes have vanished from 75% of their historic range, with most remaining populations fragmented and seemingly declining. They once ranged from Southern Russia through to Pakistan, but today they only exist in small fragmented populations in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam, with possible but unconfirmed populations in North Korea and China.
Running with the pack: the ecology of the Dhole
Dholes are habitat generalists, occurring across a wide range of habitats including tropical forests, evergreen forests, deciduous forests, scrubland and temperate and alpine steps, and can even utilise heavily degraded habitats. Dholes display hypercarnivory or an entirely carnivorous diet, and one of only three canid species that have the necessary dental adaptations for such a lifestyle. They prefer to hunt larger ungulate prey, but if they are not present, they will consume smaller ungulates or even small rodents. They will change their diet according to the season and what prey is available. They are not the fastest canids out there, but they can run for many hours after prey, switching the lead pursuer so that each animal can recover their energy. Dholes will often chase their prey into water, hindering their movements so the pack can pull the animal down. Although they will eat a huge variety of prey, Dholes have also been recorded eating plants like grasses, herbs and leaves, and are even partial to mountain rhubarb in the Tian Shan mountains in Central Asia. Although Dholes are very opportunistic and have been known to cause issues with predating livestock in Bhutan, generally they seem to avoid attacking livestock. Occasionally if they’re feeling particularly hungry, Dhole packs may steal leopard kills, although they will avoid tigers and they are dangerous opponents, capable of killing a fully grown Dhole with just a swipe of a paw. In areas where Dholes encounter Tigers in high densities, Dhole packs are noticeably smaller, as tigers will directly attack and kill them, as well as stealing their kills.
They are very social animals, even more so than grey wolves, and display less of a social hierarchy, as they don’t deal with the seasonal scarcity of prey like wolves do, more closely resembling the social structure of the African Painted Wolf. They will often break into smaller groups to hunt. In further contrast to Grey Wolves, Dholes are far less territorial and often pups will seamlessly join other clans without any issue once they have matured. They will also often have more than one breeding female per clan, and females will den and raise their cubs together. Dholes have very complex body language and vocalisations, which helps them communicate and in particular co-ordinate hunts through the thick brush. These complex calls, whoops and whistles are said to be so distinctive that individuals in a pack can easily be identified by their unique sounds. Just like our beloved domestic dogs, Dholes wag their tails when they are pleased.
Canids in crisis: the plight of the Dhole
Classified as endangered by the IUCN red list, arguably the single greatest factor in the collapse of Dhole populations is the depletion of their prey throughout much of their range. Ungulate species are currently sitting well below carrying capacity, with only the Muntjac deer and Wild pig in large enough numbers to support a thriving Dhole population. This is a major problem, as even if conservation efforts focus on the Dholes themselves, all interventions may likely fail if the prey numbers can’t be increased sufficiently. If whole ecosystems can be better protected, there may be a better chance for the Dhole; this is evident in large protected areas in Southern and Central India, where Dhole populations are stable thanks to a high prey base.
In addition to losing their food source, as with so many other species we cover, habitat loss and degradation are seriously threatening the Dhole. Very few areas have remaining tracts of undisturbed habitat big enough to support Dhole packs, and even in protected areas, the surrounding land is so fragmented and degraded that Dholes can’t travel to find enough resources. This is a major ongoing issue in South and Southeast Asia, driven by high demand for unsustainably harvested palm oil and rubber and for expansion of agricultural and infrastructure developments.
Although there is not much evidence that Dholes are preying heavily on livestock, there are still a lot of retaliatory killings, and farmers often don’t see the animal that took their sheep or cows, and may blame Dholes if they have seen them in the area. Some local people will poison carcasses with rodenticides, and Dholes are especially vulnerable to this, as the whole pack will feed on one carcass. Like many canids, they are also at risk from a range of infectious diseases, like rabies, canine distemper and sarcoptic mange, which are often contracted from free roaming domestic dogs and easily spread amongst the social packs. All of these factors are combining into a perfect storm that is driving these unique canids towards extinction.
But all is not lost! More research is needed to better develop conservation strategies, and this is where the Indian Wildlife Conservation Society steps in. They have set up the Dhole project, designed to conduct ecological and behavioural research in the lab and the field. They also research human wildlife conflict and what drives this, helping locals to tackle the issue of Dholes without either side suffering. You can check out this amazing project at : Dhole (wcs.org) and see a list of all the research papers they have produced from all their hard work.
Dholes do have legal protection across their range, but enforcement of these laws across such huge areas is not sufficient. In some areas, governments will even go against these laws and offer money for Dhole hunting, blaming them for spates of livestock depredation. They do range through some protected areas, but conservationists are petitioning for the expansion of these areas to allow Dholes to travel further for resources. Although tigers are their mortal enemies, the dedication of land for tiger conservation may also provide Dholes with the land they need, proving the importance of umbrella species like the Tiger!
There are also some Dholes in captivity, providing an insurance population should the worst happen.
Dholes even have their own dedicated conservation not for profit, the Dhole Conservation Fund. They are working on raising global awareness of this often-underappreciated dog. Set up in 2017, the Fund works on education and mitigation of human-Dhole conflict, as well as researching Dholes to improve understanding of their ecology and behaviour, which can better inform conservation policy. Check out their amazing work at: The Conservation Fund – dholes.org and if you can, support with them with a donation, or tell your family and friends all about the little-known Dhole, or share on social media.
Karanth, K.U. and Sunquist, M.E. (2000) ‘Behavioural correlates of predation by tiger (Panthera tigris), leopard (Panthera pardus) and dhole (Cuon alpinus) in Nagarahole, India.’ Journal of Zoology
Khatiwada, A.P. Awasthi, K.D. Gautam, N.P. Jnawali, S.R. Subedi, N. and Aryal, A. (2011) ‘The pack hunter (Dhole): received little scientific attention.’ The Initiation
Rayan, D.M. and Linkie, M. (2016) ‘Managing conservation flagship species in competition: Tiger, leopard and dhole in Malaysia.’ Biological Conservation
Srivastha, A. Sharma, S. Singh, P. Punjabi, G.A. and Oli, M.K. (2020) ‘A strategic roadmap for conserving the endangered dhole Cuon alpinus in India.’ Mammal Review
Thinley, P. Rajaratnam, R. Norbu, L. Dorji, L. Tenzin, J. Namgyal, C. Yangzom, C. Wangchuk, T. Wangdi, S. Dendup, T. Tashi, S. and Wangmo, C. (2021) ‘Understanding human-canid conflict and co-existence: socioeconomic correlates underlying local attitude and support toward the endangered Dhole (Cuon alpinus) in Bhutan.’ Conservation Science
Wang, S.W. and Macdonald, D.W. (2009) ‘Feeding habits and niche partitioning in a predator guild composed of tigers, leopards and dholes in a temperate ecosystem in central Bhutan.’ Journal of Zoology
MASSIVE THANK YOU TO RACHAEL DA SILVA FROM THE UK FOR THIS WRITE UP! PLEASE FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM AND HER WILDLIFE ARTWORK AT TILLY_MINT08