Fox and the woods
The desert fox, also known as the white-footed fox, is one of three sub-species of red foxes found in India. Although red foxes are among the most well-studied carnivores globally, there has been a lack of understanding about the ecology of this Indian sub-species (Vulpes vulpes pusilla). Desert foxes are distributed across the north-western states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Although frequently seen in the sandy, arid regions of Rajasthan’s Thar desert, sightings of this fox are surprisingly low in the Banni grassland of Kutch, Gujarat.
The Banni landscape is a vast expansion of low-lying silt deposition between salt plains of the Greater Rann of Kutch and the elevated rocky habitats of mainland Kutch. It is a unique saline landscape dominated by salt-tolerant grasses and vast brushland of Suaeda nudiflora. The landscape was once considered one of the finest tropical grasslands of Asia but the rapid encroachment of a woody invasive Prosopis juliflora in the past few decades has altered large parts of this open landscape into dense woodland. P. juliflora is locally known as Ganda Bawal or “mad-tree”.
The desert fox is so well adapted to the harsh conditions of desert climates that ‘greening’ of desert habitats in the name of 'habitat improvement' have an adverse effect on its ecology. My research goal was to understand the impact of this habitat alteration on an open habitat specialist, the desert fox. Based on occupancy surveys and den-habitat selection, my study found that the expansion of woody invasive shrub has a negative influence on desert fox presence. Expanding woodland is shrinking the native Suaeda brushland and saline plains, the habitat which desert fox is more likely to occupy.
Due to seasonal waterlogging and high salinity, these habitats have avoided colonization of the woody invasive shrub and provide suitable open and visible grasslands to the desert fox. Denning is crucial for most desert-dwelling animals to avoid the extreme climatic variability in deserts. Desert foxes generally den in close proximity to seasonal wetlands under rich cover of native grasses and forbs. Dietary analyses reveal that the Indian desert fox is highly dependent on insect and plant-based diets. Its food habits are completely adapted to the desert climatic condition, as insects and plants are rich sources of water and nutrient in resource-poor desert landscapes.
The problem of woody encroachment is not just restricted to the desert fox in the Banni landscape but widely affecting a range of threatened fauna in grasslands across the globe. The different ways in which invasive species alter or affect the ecology and behaviour of grassland-dwelling animals needs further exploration, and can be useful for conservation of native fauna.
A Journey with Jackals
Jackals are the wild cousins of man’s best friend. Watching them in their habitat will give you an idea about how skillful they are. My first interesting interaction with one of these wild canids was when I visited Sultanpur National Park on a cold morning in January 2017. I never expected to see them there, but while exploring the terrain, I noticed a sudden movement near the grass. A pair of jackals was moving quickly towards the water body. It took me some time to identify them and a bit more to pull out my camera to take a photograph. One of them stopped for a while and turned back to look at me. It gave me a window of a few seconds to take a picture and I did just that! I was so surprised to see them at that time that I even forgot to zoom and take a better picture. I always assumed they live in wild areas but when I saw them again, a year after my first sighting in Sultanpur, I was surprised. I spotted a pack near Delhi, in a small pocket of vegetation surrounded by roads bustling with traffic. Three jackals were crossing the road looking on either side. It was as if they were well aware of the perils of crossing a path made by humans. They are probably trying to adapt to these kinds of changes.
My next encounter with a jackal was not a fortunate one. The danger that the earlier pack was trying to avoid did not spare this unlucky animal. In March 2019, I came across a roadkill near the busy area of Dhaula Kuan, a busy traffic intersection in Delhi. I first thought it was a stray dog, but realized it was jackal upon taking a closer look. It is tragic to see such a beautiful species succumbing to human carelessness.
Most people living in cities tend to be unaware of the wildlife around them. Jackals are still found in isolated, small pockets of wilderness which lack safe corridors. They continue to adapt to the hustle and bustle of human-made changes to their environment, and sometimes compete with their own feral cousins for subsistence and survival. There is immense need for creating awareness and empathy towards the species and their habitats. Jackals are presented as clever and sometimes shrewd characters in many children’s stories and in folklore. This adulation needs to translate to real life so as to prevent these magnificent wild canids from vanishing from their abodes.
The day of the fox
Parvathi K. Prasad
In the winter of 2016, I was assisting a team carrying out biodiversity surveys in Chikmagalur district of Karnataka. The district is known for being the origin of India’s coffee story, and for its scenic, biodiverse mountains, that form part of India’s Western Ghats. Lesser known, however, are the plains of Chikmagalur, that are spread across a substantial portion of the district, and also harbour a wide range of life forms. In winter, the numerous lakes that dot these plains turn into seasonal abodes for several migratory birds.
One morning, I was out birdwatching with a small group of people. Amongst us was a student from Chikmagalur with a keen interest in natural history. The student claimed to have seen a fox in the area, during recent birdwatching trip. Unlike most carnivores that I had seen up until then, foxes are not forest-dwelling species. Grasslands and scrublands— typical habitats of the fox— enjoy little conservation attention. Often labelled ‘wastelands’, these habitats are easily diverted for infrastructure development, and are fast-disappearing in much of India’s countryside. During previous interactions with farmers in Karnataka, I had heard of occasional fox sightings in agricultural lands, but I had never seen a fox myself. Needless to say, I was thrilled with the prospect of seeing one– the pointy ears and bushy tail were certainly an additional draw!
It was mid-morning when we headed to look for the fox. The area comprised of vast stretches of agricultural lands, mostly vegetables, while many a farmer was busy tending to the crops. We walked along a narrow pathway separating the fields, looking out for any signs of the animal. To me, it was remarkable that these canids used and navigated such dynamic spaces, likely feeding on rodents and keeping their numbers in check. A dried water channel meandered through the fields, and we walked up to it to casually. There, curled up in bundle was the grey, furry form of an Indian fox! It was resting in the channel, looking smaller than I had imagined it to be, the black tip of its bushy tail clearly visible.
I remember my hands trembling with excitement as I slowly reached for my binoculars. We spent some time quietly looking at the fox and clicked a few photographs, all the while grinning from ear to ear. The fox then looked up at us with its beady eyes, not moving, but seemingly aware of our presence. Not wanting to disturb it, we walked away, extremely gratified with the encounter. To this day, it remains my only sighting of the beautiful animal.
Hunt of the Red Dog
It was an early winter morning in October 2014, and my field assistant and I were on our way to field as usual. I was doing my Masters thesis field work, examining habitat use by sambar deer in the shola–grassland ecosystem in the Nilgiris. As I was driving, my field assistant suddenly pointed out of the right window, towards the pine plantations spread across the riverbanks. It was then that I witnessed some movement in the river. A sambar and her fawn stood splashing in the shallows. They were looking towards the pine plantation, their body language indicating a certain sense of uneasiness.
As I looked on, perplexed, my young, highly-experienced field assistant suggested that there could be a predator nearby. And that was when we saw four dholes standing by the river, their vision fixed on the sambar and her fawn. The pack must have driven them down to the river, a tactic commonly used by dholes to hinder their prey’s movements, making the actual attack easier. This time, by some luck, the sambar and her fawn were out of their reach in the deeper part of the river.
We watched the dhole pack for a few more minutes through my trusty field binoculars, from about 50 meters away. My assistant did not appear as impressed by the sighting as I was, perhaps because his native home is close to a forest, giving him plenty of opportunities to see carnivores in the wild– even the elusive wild dog. The most impressive thing was that this diminutive creature– not much larger than a typical-sized domestic– was capable of taking down prey that were more than 20 times its weight.
After a few minutes of my desperate yet failed attempts at photographing the scene, the pack noticed our presence and moved inside the pine plantation. While I debated if I had ruined the pack’s meal or saved the sambar (or if the sambar even needed my help in the first place), my assistant reminded me that it was time to get a move on the day's field work. He was also convinced that the pack would ultimately take down the cervid duo, as the sambar would have to eventually leave the temporary refuge. Sadly, without any idea as to how the episode eventually ended, we drove away along the path.
A few mornings later, while on our way to field, we saw a pack of seven dholes feasting on the carcass of a sambar. We missed seeing the hunt this time; but it seemed like nature had decided to reveal the full story, albeit in parts.
Dilemma: To let die or save?
We visited the wildlife veterinary hospital of Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu, as part of our academic course work. There is a striped hyena undergoing treatment at the facility. The animal, which was resting when we first saw it, soon stood up and started moving in concentric circles for around five minutes. This abnormal behaviour took all of us by surprise and even scared us to some extent.
Sometime towards the end of 2017, the striped hyena had entered into a village called Bijil Kuttai near Bhavanisagar, close to the Tiger Reserve. Although the animal had not harmed anyone or caused any kind of damage/loss, the villagers– out of fear and ignorance– had brutally beaten it up. The villagers then informed the Anti-Poaching Watchers (APW) staff and asked them to take the animal away, and threatened to kill it otherwise. Accompanied by the hospital veterinarian, when the APW staff reached the location, they found the animal almost half-dead, moaning in pain and badly infested with maggots. Upon detailed examination (performed on an off-day at a diagnostic centre meant for humans), the animal was found to have sustained severe injuries and multiple fractures; a missing canine, injuries to the head, shoulder joint dislocation, and a fracture in the vertebral bone, to name a few. The animal had also gone blind due a corneal condition, and it appeared to have been starving for a week before it was beaten up. Although the chances for its survival seemed bleak, Dr. K Asokan and his team were eventually successful in treating the hyena to better health. In the future, they plan to treat its corneal condition and translocate it to Vandalur zoo in Chennai. As the animal has been subjected to strong medication, nourished with cultivated meat, milk and bread, and is around eight years of age, they have wisely decided that it should not be released back into the wild.
On the one hand, this is an incredible example of advancement in wildlife veterinary science in India, and shows how wildlife affected by anthropogenic activities can be saved. On the other hand, however, it makes one wonder about the ethical reasoning or morality in subjecting an animal to so much stress and pain, when it has to live a handicapped life in captivity. With the species’ population purpotedly dwindling, and its habitats being increasingly degraded by the spread of invasive Prosopis juliflora plants, this story perhaps adds to our collective understanding of the ‘Near Threatened’ striped hyena’s strained existence in one of its last remaining strongholds.
A lupine rendezvous
The day began like any other; hot, despite being the middle of December. We headed out to the field to check camera traps set-up to study Indian wolves in Koppal, Karnataka. We were at the third stop for the day; having parked our jeep, we had to hike a short distance navigating boulders and thorny shrubs to get to the location of the camera trap. Checking the pictures, we found to our joy, that a wolf pack had been photographed. There was a pregnant female, one male and two pups! We noticed that most of the individuals had signs of mange, a type of skin disease. We waited for some time in the hope of seeing the pack. With no sign of the pack around, we began the hike back to the jeep.
The mud road for the most part was narrow and bumpy. Shankar anna, who was driving the vehicle, was taking the utmost care not to jerk the jeep around. All of a sudden, a dog bounded into the middle of the road, and thanks to Shankar anna’s mindful driving, he was able to stop the jeep smoothly. The dog crossed, and we waited to see if any other dogs were going to cross before moving.
And out she came. Silently, unexpectedly, out of the bushes.
The she-wolf was just as surprised to see us, as we were to see her. She stood there for about a minute or so, looking at us. Did the unexpected shock of seeing us stun her? Perhaps. She was the same pregnant female we had seen in the camera trap pictures. The mange– conspicuously sparse fur– was clearly visible on her legs now. She then crossed the road and vanished into the bushes.
It took us a minute or two to recover from the unexpected encounter. We waited for a few minutes to see if any other individual from the pack was going to follow. No other wolf or dog came out, and so we left. We could talk about nothing but the wolf on our way back.
The encounter had raised a lot of questions in our mind. Why was she alone? Could we do anything to stop the mange from spreading? Why was she with the dog? Or was it mere coincidence that she followed the dog out of the bushes?
I didn’t see a wolf again during my time there. But hopefully in the future when I go back, the pack would have grown. And maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll see the beautiful she-wolf again.
Trailing the dhole in a mosaic
Brimming with biodiversity, the Western Ghats have fascinated me for the longest time. When I had the opportunity to work in this landscape, I took it up without giving it a second thought. In January 2016, I found myself travelling to Hewale, a small village nestled in the Western Ghats in southern Maharashtra. I was working on the habitat use of dholes in this mosaic landscape of tropical forest, agriculture and plantations (cashew, rubber, banana among others). I would walk along trails and note down signs of dholes, their prey species– sambar and barking deer, and livestock. On most days my surveys looked like this- walk, walk, walk and more walk, and then utter delight at finding a dhole scat or a pugmark. On other days, it was just tramping without much luck in finding any dhole signs. For a researcher studying shy and elusive canids such as dholes, patience is key for a reward of fresh steaming smelly poop!
It was almost the end of my field surveys and I had been sulking over the fact that I hadn’t directly sighted dholes as yet. Luckily, this spell was broken one fine morning, while on a survey close to the Tillari river. The trail was lined with bamboo along either side. Kusum trees (Schleichera oleosa) added a splash of red to the otherwise green patch. The earthy smell of the forest hung in the air. Narayan Kaka, our field assistant, walked ahead of us to scout the place. Excitedly, he signalled us to come ahead near the river. Across the river, on a rock, lay a freshly hunted sambar deer. Two adult dholes were busy feeding on it. Aware and a little wary of our presence, they kept an eye on us while still eating. In a couple of minutes, a little dhole pup walked out of the nearby bushes. We were excited and my heart was racing. But what followed stunned us even further. One by one, out came six more little ones– in front of us was a pack of nine dholes devouring the sambar. We sat there for a good half hour watching these incredible animals.
Later on, we learned that the sambar kill had been taken away by some villagers. This disheartened me. It was then that I realised how the survival of such species is intricately dependent on the goodwill of local communities. In such human dominated landscapes, the persistence of endangered carnivores also depends on how people perceive these carnivores who share space with them. There is a need for many of us researchers to create a better image of these species in the minds of local communities. My research gave some hope, as I found dhole signs in abandoned agricultural lands and horticulture plantations. It was interesting to find that plantations embedded within forests also served as habitats for the species. Although my findings are very preliminary, they do shed some light on how plantation areas can be made more wildlife-friendly.
The candid canid
It was the month of August, and it had just stopped raining for the evening. We were in the town of Tezu in the resplendent Arunachal Pradesh, returning to our rest house situated inside the Tezu Botanical Garden.
Raindrops lingered on the leaves, glistening in the vehicle headlights. As we trundled up the path to the rest house, a small brownish dog-like creature with a narrow muzzle, short tail and closely set blinker-like eyes trotted across our path and disappeared into the undergrowth. It was a golden jackal! Wide-eyed and thrilled at this finding, we rushed to the rest house balcony with our cameras. We had waited for about an hour or so, when finally, a pair of jackals emerged from the undergrowth and onto the path. Our cameras were ready, but they managed to thwart us. After sniffing around a bit, they vanished and refused to make a reappearance. We decided to call it a day and retreated into our quarters.
The next day, in great anticipation, we set up tripods in various places in the hopes of getting that perfect shot. As twilight drew close, the jackals did not disappoint us; this time the pair was accompanied by a third, smaller individual, possibly a pup. In the semi-darkness, they ran about the grass, play-fighting and chasing each other in the botanical garden. The location was pretty close to a busy highway and barely a kilometer from the town centre– whose sodden paths hosted walkers and cyclists in the morning and much to our surprise, jackals by night.
As the hours passed, more jackals sprung up from the undergrowth. Along with the two adults, there were eventually five smaller-sized individuals, likely their pups. We caught fleeting glimpses of them and then we couldn’t see them anymore. A yelp at a distance was then countered by a chorus of howls; the song of the jackals. Whether it was a warning to intruders or a welcome note for others of their kin, or, just a reminder to those listening that the night still belonged to the wilder kind, I could not say. But it was nothing short of magical. The canid acapella continued for a while, only to be interrupted by the barks of dogs from the habitations nearby.
And then suddenly, the night fell silent.
Scavenging in leopard's abode
To see a striped hyena in the wild is always a challenging task. Hyenas are nocturnal and highly elusive. In 2018, I was doing my research on dietary patterns of leopards in Jhalana Leopard Conservation Reserve, Rajasthan. Jhalana is India’s first leopard conservation reserve. With an area of around 30 sq. km, Jhalana is rich in biodiversity with a healthy population of leopards. Other than leopards, striped hyenas and desert foxes also thrive the reserve.
Before commencing my research work I had visited this place a few times but wasn’t lucky enough to get the glimpse of a striped hyena. I started my research work from mid-May when the forest is dry and has greater visibility. On my very first day, after an excellent sighting of a leopard I had my first striped hyena sighting. I fall short of adjectives to describe that moment. The hyena was resting near a water hole, hardly bothered by the 3–4 gypsys around it. It was the first time that I was able to photo-document it. I had seen a hyena crossing the road in Rajaji National Park earlier that year. But that was during night time and I could not photograph the animal. After the first day’s sighting in Jhalana, hyena sightings became a regular event.
A subsequent sighting which would be hard to forget was during the monsoons, when the forest becomes lush green with thick canopy. It is a little more difficult to spot animals during this season. Although leopard sightings were frequent, the same can’t be said in case of striped hyenas. After searching for nearly 2 hours in evening, we had hardly seen anything. There were no herbviore alarm calls to suggest presence of leopards. So I told my driver to wait near a water hole till dawn arrives. It was at this moment that I saw a gypsy standing 200 metres away from us and the tourists clicking pictures one after the other. Upon reaching the location I realised it was a hyena. The grey body with black stripes amidst a lush green background was simply amazing. It is probably the best sighting I have had of a hyena till date.
Breakfast of Champions
There was the usual hustle-bustle in Rampura camp that cold February morning. Five researchers and fifteen local assistants were getting ready for fieldwork in Bandipur National Park. The placid morning vibe was broken by a loud and audibly painful call of an animal. I ran outside, out through the room and across the yard to the edge of the trench that hemmed the camp area.
A pack of dholes –the ‘Rampura pack’– was pursuing something in the Lantana bushes on the other side of the path, at about 30 meters from us. I tried counting the dogs with great difficulty as they ran around haphazardly. The eight members had managed to bring down a medium-sized Chital doe and were presently devouring it. With blood-smeared muzzles, they ran around in a kind of finicky fashion. A cacophony of snarls, yip-yaps and short whistles formed a part of their breakfast conversation. Every now and then, two of them would get into a little spat. But soon this would resolve and they would continue carving layers off the ungulate. One of them, perhaps the sentinel, would repeatedly jump out of the huddle, run across the path and with ears pushed back and tail held erect – make a whistling noise at the bushes. After a few minutes three or four of the individuals strenuously dragged the carcass to a smaller path that ran perpendicular to the one where they were currently feasting. The rest of them hopped and ran around creating an illusion of the pack being larger than it in fact was.
I waited for them to move out of view and then slowly inched towards the junction of the two paths. The vegetation on either side of the path was dense. They had abandoned the carcass in the middle of the path. I wondered for a bit if I had spooked them off. My wonderment was broken when three or four of them would make quick visits to the carcass to tear off parts of the flesh and scoot into the bushes. This continued for about six to seven minutes, and soon enough there was almost nothing left of the doe. Slowly and quietly, barefooted, I made my way to the place where I last saw them disappear. I crouched low hoping to catch a glimpse of them through the thorny Lantana thicket. They sat scattered in a pile amidst some bones and insignificant remains of the doe. They seemed indifferent to my presence. They ran around playfully with one or more of them stopping to giving me a cock-eyed stare every few seconds.
It had already been around half an hour since I was tracking the activities of the Rampura pack. I left them in peace and headed camp-wards. “Today will be a good day”, I said to myself. It already was.