Predator And Prey
February 2008: Following the biphonic yips and whistles of a dhole Cuon alpinus pack, as its members run down their quarry deep in an Indian forest, has to be amongst the most dramatic, awe-inspiring wildlife events anyone could hope to witness.
I have seen such hunts up close and cannot, for the life of me, understand how over a dozen dogs, out of sight of each other in thick forest, can be so well coordinated that they can collectively hone in on one out of a large herd of deer, isolate it and then drive it into a cul de sac, or an ambush for other pack members to deal the coup de grace.
Scientists correctly suggest that canids favour sick or wounded animals that are easier to catch. But two Pune researchers, Maithili M. Jog and Milind G. Watve, opened up a whole new window of understanding on predator-prey relationships for me. Their studies reveal that a protozoan parasite Sarcocystis axicuonis, found in both dholes and chital Axis axis, does relatively little damage to the canids, but acts to significantly slow down the deer, making it easier for the predators to make a kill.
Just think about what is going on here. In the three-cornered relationship between deer, dog and protozoan, the latter two seem to benefit and though empirical data has yet to establish this beyond doubt, the host-parasite association looks a lot like mutualism, in which the bringing down of prey is intrinsic to the life cycle of the protozoan.
While Jog, Watve and others of their ilk expend their life energy trying to unravel the myriad magical mysteries of our planet, there are those whose life’s purpose is to grind such miracles to dust.
As for the equilibrium between dholes, chital and Sarcocystis? This and all of nature’s dramatis personae are being inexorably crushed each time we pillage the Narmada, Tehri or Lower Subansiri valleys, the Gulf of Mannar, Hazaribagh, Dhamra or Niyamgiri.
The collective impact of such misdemeanours – together with the passage of regressive laws such as India’s recently promulgated Forest Rights Act – aggravates deforestation and the climate crisis, which, despite all our wriggling and wrangling, will ultimately force human societies into an ecological cul de sac, leaving us with a simple choice – toe nature’s line, or die.
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXVIII No. 1, February 2008