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.
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.
It was a chilly December morning in Buxa. Accompanied by Sitaram, my field assistant, we went to observe the Great hornbills at their roost site. We reached there before sunrise, and were waiting at a watchtower which was adjacent to the cliff where hornbills roost. While we sat there waiting for the sunrise, we could hear the calls of different birds. It was like an orchestral performance. Just when there was a hint of light pouring in down on the forest floor, tearing apart the dense canopy, we could see some movement in the undergrowth just opposite the watchtower. We were exhilarated to see a pack of dholes emerging out of the undergrowth and coming down to the waterhole in front of the watchtower. In the meantime, a wild boar had also arrived at the same place from a different direction. Seeing the pack, it bolted away! Interestingly till this time, they hadn’t noticed us.
The dholes went out around the waterhole, making sure nothing else was present near them. They looked at us for a few moments, then looked at each other, and decided to take a bath on that chilly winter morning! While they bathed and drank water one of them was keeping an eye on us. We sat perfectly still except for my finger which moved to click the shutter of my camera. Once they were done, they went into the undergrowth and sat consecutively like the formation of a railway coach, one beside the other, looking straight up at us. With all ten eyes gleaming at us, all I could think now was about those “shy” canids, and unaware of my surroundings. Almost 10–15 minutes passed with them staring at us. What they did after that was amazing. The one sitting the farthest from us disappeared into the dense vegetation inside, then another one and followed by the other two. But still, one individual was sitting there and looking up at us. Soon after, we heard the whistling sound of those individuals. We thought this to be the signal for the sentinel to join them, and leave us silly humans behind!