Author: ganesh

My wild dog diary

My wild dog diary

In the ten months I spent in Biligiriranga Hills, working with Gorukana, I hardly got good opportunities to watch wild dogs. Although I was in a location surrounded by forest, most of my wild dog sightings lasted only a few seconds. Only once, I considered myself very lucky when I got to watch a pack of wild dogs along the road with the pups playing for a few minutes before they ran back to the cover of the forest. This was around my last month at Gorukana.

pups at biligiriranga hills

The pups at Biligiriranga hills (March 2011)

Many guests I interacted with at Gorukana, felt wild dogs were somehow terrifying. They did not know how amazing the wild dogs were in their hunting strategy, behavior and natural history. We would screen Wild Dog Diaries for the guests and after that, their perception about them changed greatly. Instead of associating wild dogs with something crude and nasty, it changed to admiration.

In the Anamalai hills, I had few opportunities to observe wild dogs. The landscape was very different here. A mix of tea and coffee plantations and forest fragments. Spotting wild dogs was not easy except for a few fleeting glimpses once in a few months. It was nearly a year after I began work here that I got to watch them and as a bonus got some camera trap images as well.

Camera trap-Asiatic Wild Dog

Wild dogs feeding on gaur

Until the recent past I did not have much luck with wild dogs. I would hear stories of friends who watched them hunt and I felt jealous wishing I would get to see it someday too. Only recently my luck with wild dogs seems to have changed. Last week, I witnessed something very special. On 12 September 2013, thanks to Divya’s friend who informed her about a pack of wild dogs that had cornered a young sambar deer in the water in an estate nearby. Divya, Kalyan and Jegan decided to go see the wild dogs. I had reached office at the right time and joined them as they left.

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Stream flowing through the coffee plantation

The wild dogs were at the far end of the stream, where it curved away into the coffee estate. We drove up to a point some distance away to watch them. One wild dog sat on a grassy patch, others were a little distance away.

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We backed up to the bridge to make space for a small truck to pass. It was from here that Divya spotted the sambar yearling standing in the water, alert, tail up, close to nearly vertical river bank, impossible to climb. The deer was scared, all escape routes cut off by the wall behind and the ring of wild dogs in front. The odds were against the deer today. What we had not realized till then was that we had positioned ourselves on the road watching the wild dogs, while the sambar was standing right below us.

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First glimpse

There was absolute silence for a while. The sambar started to stomp the water with its forefeet. Suddenly, a wild dog jumped in. The attack had begun. There was a mix of yelps, yowls and squeals from the yearling and the wild dogs. It seemed like the wild dogs were really excited.

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The deer tried to get away from the dog only to head towards the waiting pack with the dog in the water after it. Few more wild dogs joined in the attack, leaping in the water from the left bank.

By now, the wild dogs and the deer had moved out of sight, but we knew they were there. We could hear the deer screaming and the wild dogs whistling. Just then, we heard a loud bhauunkkk behind us. An adult sambar, probably the mother of the fawn, had emerged from the coffee bushes of the estate and was calling out in alarm. She saw us, gave out another alarm call and disappeared into the coffee from where the other sounds still emerged.Sambar_Running_Adult_Ganesh Raghunathan_GAN3822

The adult

The excited whistles continued. We knew it was all over for the yearling. We were tempted to get to a place from where we could watch it all. But we did not want to spook the wild dogs and spoil their meal. We waited for a while and then moved to a different spot from where we could watch them from a distance.

Three wild dogs were sitting, like sentries, a little distance away from the kill. They kept a sharp lookout for trouble while the rest of the family was busy feeding. The sentries took turns to feed. It seemed like there was a rule that a dog must keep watch at all times. Within minutes, the carcass was ripped apart. The whistles continued as the sentries kept vigil. The dogs took short breaks to drink water from the stream and returned to feed. By now, it had been an hour. We watched the wild dogs take pieces away and settle down a little distance away from the kill to enjoy their portion.

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Sentries keeping watch

Now, a group of people came by and someone spotted the wild dogs, calling out excitedly to a few children who were a little distance away. Their repeated shouts seemed to disturb the wild dogs, as the pack split up and the animals dashed away into the cover of the coffee. We could see a few individuals far away.

What made the day very special for me is the amazing opportunity to watch a wild prey and predator and that too in a place where people and the wild dogs share the same space. The hunt had occurred in a coffee plantation by the side of a road that is used extensively by heavy vehicles.

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Relaxing some distance away

The wild dogs knew exactly when they had to leave the place to avoid being disturbed. They had dashed off in different directions and then quickly reassembled at a place where they were at peace. It was an amazing day and I was glad that I had cancelled my plan to go to Coimbatore that afternoon and stayed back to see the wild dogs.

The next morning, I set off by bike to Coimbatore. My luck had not yet faded. I saw a pack of wild dogs again! This time the pack was crossing the road at the foothills. On my way back the next day, I was hoping for another sighting, but I was out of luck. Instead, I found a jackal that lay dead by the roadside, killed by a speeding vehicle. I would have been extremely thrilled had I seen one alive. The sight of the dead jackal brought me back to the sad reality. Many animals die on the roads to speeding vehicles. I am not saying it was anybody’s fault. Still, just as a precaution, it would be great if people driving the vehicles maintained a slow speed when they are in or near a forest area. Our journey would take a bit longer otherwise in our haste the animals journey would end right there.

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Elephant Rules

Elephant Rules

A new herd had been spotted and I got news that the herd was out in the open. I rushed to the spot as soon as I could and found the herd in a swamp surrounded by tea. It was 5 pm and the sun was going down casting a blanket of gold on everything it touched. The elephants were aware of our presence but seemed relaxed. This herd had 3 calves. The male calf seemed to be the oldest and was full of life.

The herd in a small swamp amidst Tea.

An adult elephant scratches herself behind the ear.

An adult female with the smallest calf in the herd following her closely.

Elephants are social animals and have strong bonds. The adult female watches calves play.

The young male calf got a little too excited and tried to mount the smaller calf. I was surprised to see the adult who was looking away, suddenly kick the calf with her hind leg. How did she know what he was upto?

The adult female kicks out at the young male calf.

 The calf does not give up and tries his luck again.

His antics caught the attention of the few other family members who were close by.

 He tried his luck again.

This time a calf that was close by lunged towards him. It reacted much before the adults did. Are the elephants communicating to split them up?

 The adults reacted soon and pushed him away from the little calf.

Play mounting is common among young ones and is a process of learning adult behavior during their course of development. Sometimes, when calves are harassed by older ones, adults will try to safe guard the young ones.

 This young elephant did not participate in the disciplining session. He was happy stripping away the bark.

The calves bonding again. This time the adults kept an extra eye on him.

The sun was going down and the elephants decided to leave. A large adult female took the lead and checked the air. They knew people were around. They slowly walked away  with the calves between their legs. They went around a hillock and went out of sight. It is amazing to see how the elephants have a strict code of conduct.

That ended another fascinating evening today at Valparai.

Survival

Survival

After the NCF annual meet I returned to Valparai. It was the 31st of July and I was to leave for Bangalore that evening. I got a call saying that one of the herds that we have been following is out in the open and a female had given birth that morning!

Elephant herd in a tea estate

Anand (assistant) and I rushed to the see the herd, but by then, they had moved off with the new born into the coffee plantation, which is much denser in vegetation. So, we climbed a hillock to get a view of the elephants. My hands began to tremble with excitement when I saw the little calf emerge for the first time, partially hidden safely, from under the belly of its mother. Its pink eyes looked BIG compared to its body and its tiny trunk was wriggling around. The mother was a young elephant and an older one stayed by her side the entire time.

First glimpse of the new born

When the wind changed direction, the older female caught our scent. She showed her irritation by uprooting a plant and throwing some mud over herself. Then they slowly moved deeper into the coffee plantation. Since we did not want to disturb them, we did not follow them and returned to the office. I headed back to Bangalore that evening.

 Elephants relaxing in a swamp adjacent to a tea plantation

I was at the SCCS in Bangalore when I got a call that startled me. I heard that when this herd had gone to the river, the newborn had slipped and had been washed away by the strong current.

 

The fragmented landscape

To my relief, a few hours later, I heard that a few plantation workers who had seen this happen, jumped in to the river and helped it to safety on land. The Forest Department and media persons contacted us for advice on how to best handle the situation–whether to just look after it or to release it with the herd? We suggested to keep as few people as possible with the calf (to reduce trauma because of human presence & to reduce the possibility of the herd rejecting the calf due to human smell on it) to start with.

After consulting with other biologists at SCCS, we suggested the calf be fed with a mix of baby gripe water, electral & mineral water but only if it would not take long for it to be reunited with it’s family. Importantly, fresh elephant dung rubbed over the calf to mask the smell of humans. Later in the evening the calf was taken to the place where the herd was and left at some distance from the herd.

Apparently, a little later, amidst a lot of trumpeting by the herd, the mother stepped forward, went to the calf, smelt it and immediately let the calf suckle! From what I heard it seemed like the elephants were celebrating! It was really nice that the forest department and the locals took so much interest and care in wanting to rescue and re-unite the new born calf with its family.

I returned to Valparai a couple of days later and started following the herd that had split into two hoping to get a glimpse of the new born. Early next morning, the anti-poaching watchers called to inform me that there was a herd of elephants in the tea fields and they were behaving in a strange manner, looking disturbed and aggressive. We requested the tea workers who were working close by to move elsewhere and not to get too close to the elephants since they seemed already stressed by something.

Elephants stressed and huddled together with the calf on the ground

By the time I reached the site, there were only a few elephants around. A few tea bushes had been pulled out and the five elephants seemed tense. The watchers said they had heard the call of an elephant calf a little earlier. With some effort, to our horror, we saw a calf and realized that it was the same calf which had fallen into the river, now lying down motionless. The old female was trying hard for about two hours to get the calf up on its feet. Many times, the large female would walk some 100 m away, then turn around and rush back towards the calf trumpeting. Clearly, she did not want to abandon it or us to get any closer to the calf. Finally, even she gave up and started moving away. They may have moved away due to our presence as well, although we were about a 100 m away. We will never know.

 

The adult stands guard unwilling to leave the calf (on ground) behind.

Finally after all the elephants had left the place, we approached the calf. It was raining heavily and the track leading to it was very slippery. We found the calf lying at the edge of the tea bushes covered in a thick layer of slush. It seemed to be gasping for air, and its breath was sounding labored. Things did not look good.

First look of the calf

I called Divya and Sridhar (NCF colleagues) to inform them about what we had just found. The Forest Range Officer instructed his team to assist us with everything we needed as there was no resident veterinarian in Valparai. Once Divya and Sridhar arrived, we tried to administer some basic medication to help the calf gain some energy by consulting our veterinarian friends over the phone.

Medication being administered

Its body temperature was very low and we had a hard time in administering the medications. We were then required to find a shelter where we could bring up the body temperature and then help the calf as much as possible. The Bombay Burma Trading Company General Manager Mr Suresh Menon and the Manager Mr Tarun helped us in moving the calf to a near-by bus stop, a make-shift dispensary, with power, hot water, doctors and other arrangements required to nurse the calf.

After a few hours of heating up the place, feeding it little by little a mix of things as advised by the vets, holding it up to be able to breath more easily, it looked a lot more comfortable than the time when we had found it. Our hopes of its survival were raised. The forest department staff and the local people worked very hard to ensure that the calf would survive.

But by the evening, the news had got around and lots of people began to gather, both out of curiosity and concern. Crowd management was becoming tough. However, the calf also seemed to have regained some of its strength. And it was time for the next step – release.

Scouting elephants to re-unite the calf

In the mean while, our assistants had kept track of the natal herd, which, by evening had started to move towards the larger patch of forest near by. There was little time to re-unite the calf with its family. After dark, the calf was taken to the herd in a canter and set down on a path that the elephants were headed towards. Everyone left the area so as to not disrupt the movement of the elephants. We left hoping for a miracle, and hoping to see the calf reunited with his mother and herd the next morning.

 

However, it was not to be. The calf was found dead in the same spot.

 

Despite our best intentions and efforts, the calf had not pulled through. It was just 10 days old. The forest department staff were very disheartened. They had developed a special liking to this calf. They were not fully convinced of the need to try to reunite it with the herd. They felt that sending in into captivity might have probably saved his life.

We felt that the herd probably knew that the calf would not make it. They stood with the calf for as long as they could and their grief at abandoning it had been evident. We had thought that we could save it. But we were far from being able to ….. we just did not know enough – about its condition or even the basic technique of how to handle a situation like this.

We were also in a dilemma as to whether we should intervene in this play of nature or not? Do we know enough to do it – both in terms of technical expertise as well as nature? Had the mother been too young? Was the calf therefore quite weak and no so healthy? Had the earlier drowning caused some other internal damage? Aren’t deaths such as these, as long as not directly mediated by us humans (electrocution, poisoning, etc.), a natural process?

From an ethical angle, since it seemed like a natural death to us, it seemed acceptable. We felt quite strongly that a ‘graceful‘ death in the wild is better than a ‘disgraceful‘ life in a camp. Is it always only about survival? Is it not about how the life is lived? Would we even be aware of the on-goings in herds that are mostly in the forests? How many calves are born and how many even make it to adulthood? Would the elephants have managed to pull him up had the place been somewhere else where there were no people? Should we not restrain ourselves and not intervene in most cases when we find young ones abandoned or dying? Unless, we are sure that the life we are going to give it after ‘rescue’ is better than death itself. I am certain we could have addressed the situation better if there was a specialist veterinarian based out of Valparai.

But one main thing was that everyone wanted to save the calf. No one had anger or irritation against these elephants, despite the damages they sometimes do. The people are really tolerant here and we need to foster it.