Tag: dholes

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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In the shadows of Perunkundru

In the shadows of Perunkundru

“Some days have a nervous, excited feeling about them while most are drab, mundane and one’s we would never retrieve from the depths of unwanted storage”. – Anonymous

I had been in the Anamalais for over 4 months now, looking for otters where many wouldn’t expect to find them, in the tea and coffee plantations of Valparai. It had been a mostly frustrating time, having not seen a single otter that I was out looking for (thankfully, I rely on signs and not sightings for my data). I would gladly bin most days into the latter category, except those few where my stroke of luck took a brief upward trajectory. Great pied hornbills, an occasional leopard posing beside a cow or stalking a herd of pigs, the motley crew of striped-neck mongooses, brown palm civets and porcupines kept me from slipping into a coma. And, a leopard cat chasing shadows on a tree was an indication of the times to come.

At home up in the trees
At home in the trees

I had taken a break from the “evergreen” tea and coffee landscape, and was instead sampling streams in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. My base camp was Varagaliar, in the heart of the reserve in more ways than one. It is here that the monotonously brown teak plantations give way to rainforests in every hue of green. And recently, all of its inhabitants including the highly damaging camp elephants had been relocated to other places away from these rainforests. The most striking feature of Varagaliar though is Perumkundru, the lone giant who towers over everything else. This lone giant keeps a silent vigil on one of the last remaining rainforests on one side and India’s economic ambitions on the other. His upper slopes are also home to a small population of the highly endangered Nilgiri tahrs. Two major streams starting somewhere deep in the folds of the mountain join in front of the Varagaliar camp and there is water flowing throughout the year. This combined with the open fields (thanks to its earlier inhabitants) now attracts herds of gaur and sambar.

Lone giant - Perumkundru
Lone giant - Perumkundru

After arriving at Varagaliar in the evening, I was told by the watcher that a pack of dholes had killed a sambar near the stream and feasted on it the previous day. And as he had predicted, they turned up again in the dying light and scavenged on whatever was left of it as I watched from a cautious distance. The next morning, I was up with the first light and as I made my way to the stream near the camp to check our camera trap, I startled a pack of 5-6 dholes on the other bank still scavenging on the remains.

Self portrait (camera trap image)
Self portrait (camera trap image)

One of them on seeing me, started off a “wak-wak-wak” alarm call and ran away to join the others listen to this . For the next 30 minutes I watched them finish whatever was left of the now two day old kill. My day was made I thought, and I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The stream I had to sample that day was a good three hour climb from Varagaliar, somewhere in the darker shadows of Perumkundru. The climb took us upstream along the Kurumpalli Pallam, a fast, rocky stream with dense rainforest canopy. An hour and a half later as we were crossing over to the other side near a rocky pool, we (Dinesh, my Kadar field assistant and myself) were completely caught unaware by a small animal, a little larger than an overweight bandicoot with a long tail that burst out of the water and went scurrying into a rock crevice just large enough for animals its size. The small-clawed otter, the animal I was trying so hard to see, was hiding in a rock crevice in front of us, and we were happy to leave it undisturbed and moved away sort-of-contented. Not wanting to linger around, we continued on our way further upstream. We were confronted by wet footprints of an otter on the rocks and we could only guess if it belonged to the one we had seen.

Small-clawed otters in a coffee estate (camera trap image)
Small-clawed otters in a coffee estate (camera trap image)

When I’m not looking for signs of otters or other carnivores, I often try to identify trees as one of the seven or eight species that I can confidently identify (thanks to Divya & Sridhar :P). Dinesh, though infinitely more knowledgeable about trees often avoids my incessant questioning. We finally reached our start point at 11, a good three hours after we started. Overhead were a troop of LTMs (lion-tailed monkeys), not shy but curious. They were peering down at us from the canopy and us at them. It was at this moment that we heard a tiger calling. Everything went silent and then we heard it again. We stood staring in that direction, somewhere further upstream, where the shadows were even darker. The LTMs who had been silent all along now suddenly erupted with a series of alarm calls, while we stood rooted to the ground watching a tiger come down to the stream for a drink. He/she melted into the undergrowth as silently as he/she had appeared. I could then only glimpse momentary stripes of black and orange weaving in and out of a thick green curtain. The cacophony too followed the tiger’s movement and eventually died out. I couldn’t believe my luck! The first six hours since day break had made me feel almost superhuman. We managed to finish the day’s sampling, hoping like always to see another otter or a tiger. Finally, I got back with a wide grin on my face, but having narrowly missed a flock of martens!
That night, I was again driven out of camp by rats and the incessant din raised by fellow humans. As I settled down in the gypsy (parked some distance away), the rutting calls of bull gaurs and the frantic alarm calls of sambar took over, accompanied by an orchestra of night jars, owls and the “brain-fever” bird. I slowly drifted away under the pleasant glow of a thousand fireflies and the ever-watchful gaze of Perumkundru, feeling like a happy insignificant blink in the face of timelessness; which was but now restricted to a few valleys.
Or as Cameron Langford (The Winter of the Fisher) puts it, “And a man’s a fool to think on time, when timelessness encloses him on every side”.

Two days later, we watched a pack of 9 dholes bring down an adult sambar. They were then joined by 6 pups.

In deep waters
In deep waters

If killing an adult sambar wasn’t hard enough, the dholes had to then defend their kill from an adamant wild boar looking for an easy meal!

Face-off
Face-off: Reminds me of the old westerns

Which soon turned into a scene straight out of a western classic,Dholes defending kill – 1

and again Dholes defending kill – 2, and a third time Again . The dogs had won this round.

Every dog has his day
Pups at kill

– Nisarg