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.