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Just Friends

Just Friends

In this intriguing story, Manoj V. Nair and Saroj Kumar Panda write on what is possibly the first recorded instance of an association between a wolf and a pair of dholes in Debrigarh, Odisha.

The 353 sq. km. Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the very few PAs in the country that supports all four canids of peninsular India. In March and April 2013, the authors and forest staff witnessed encounters between a male wolf and two female dholes and were able to capture some interesting images of the two species together in the same frame, possibly the first recorded instance of the phenomenon in the wild. Photograph by Manoj V. Nair and Saroj Kumar Panda.

April 6, 2013: 06:45 hours, Kendutal, Debrigarh Sanctuary.

In the soft slanting light after daybreak, the dholes lie by the side of the forest road, their russet pelage bright against the muted hues of the dry forest. They are barely 15 m. away when my driver spots them, kills the engine and slowly brings the jeep to a halt. Just a casual glance to check us out, and both are back to their nap. But by the twitching of their ears, we can tell they are listening. As we sit in mahua-scented silence, a peacock honks his protest from afar and a kendu tree drops yet another pulpy sweet fruit on to the forest floor. Then, amidst the chirruping of courting Petronias and the metronomic regularity of the Coppersmith’s call, comes the tell-tale crackle of a trod-upon leaf. And there it is – a wolf – barely 10 m. away from the dholes. Tall and stately, grizzled grey coat blending into the jungle, its amber-yellow eyes gaze into us with that haunting lupine look. Now, one dhole rolls over the other and crouching, begins mounting her, a few thrusts at a time. The wolf takes a few tentative steps forward, only to turn back into the forest in an easy, loping gait, typical of this long-limbed canid. A few feet, and he stops, turning back as if he is waiting for the dholes. But they pay him no heed. He then doubles back on his track, makes a wide detour and comes out into the road, stopping short of the dholes by five metres. Strangely, the dholes continue to be nonchalant. The wolf looks nonplussed, caught between a natural instinct to flee from us, yet detained by a strong urge to stay with the dholes. Even without being anthropomorphic, we can see that this wolf is caught in the horns of a dilemma!

As we start the vehicle and slowly move closer to click close-ups, the wolf is quick to react, and veers away instantly into the shrubbery. He stops awhile to turn back and the dholes reluctantly get up and follow him. One bitch repeatedly mounts the other. In a while, all three melt away into the forest depths. Ten minutes of gripping wildlife drama, and after several fruitless visits, we have finally seen what we had come to see, a bizarre association between two unrelated genera of the dog family, the dhole or Asiatic wild dog Cuon alpinus and the Indian wolf Canis lupus pallipes unfolding in the jungles of the Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary.

THE BEGINNING...

In the extreme north-western corner of Odisha, in the district of Bargarh abutting Chattisgarh, lies the wildlife sanctuary of Debrigarh. Largely unknown and unsung, this 353 sq. km. Protected Area (PA) has undisturbed dry deciduous and mixed bamboo forest, fringed by the deep blue waters of the Hirakud reservoir spanning its entire northern and eastern boundaries. Together with the lay of the land, a combination of factors – natural protection offered by the reservoir, negligible human pressure, sustained protection efforts by frontline staff and infusion of much-needed funds by the Forest Department – have made this PA a wildlife haven of the state.

While taking charge of the Hirakud Wildlife Division under which the sanctuary falls, back in November 2009, one of us (MVN) had already heard of its importance as a gaur habitat. But little did he know that the ensuing years would keep throwing up surprises at regular intervals like the incident recounted above. The approved Management Plan of the sanctuary then had a list of 16 mammal species (now it is 44). Of them, only one member of the dog family (Canidae) was recorded – the Indian wolf. But soon, interviews with local villagers, old-time shikaris and experienced field staff as well as first-hand observations in the field revealed the regular presence of jackal, fox and hyena, the latter two mainly in the fringe areas. This was further validated by subsequent direct sightings. However, no one ever mentioned having come across the wolf or the dhole in the last decade or so, nor did we see either during the first few months.

Dholes first made their appearance during the winter of 2009, when a pack of eleven arrived, possibly from the adjoining forests of Chattisgarh. They grew in number to about 24 during 2011, fell again to 12 in 2012, and continue to be present in small numbers (five to six). We kept a close lookout for signs of wolves, as their confirmed presence would mean that the sanctuary could claim the rare distinction of being one of the very few PAs in the country to harbour all four canid species of peninsular India. We also noticed that the habitat, especially the western fringes seemed quite suitable for the wolf, and supported good populations of the chousingha and even some nilgai. But all our efforts to locate Canis lupus drew a naught. Which is why the news that a wolf had been photographed by a visitor from Bengal, inside the park on December 2, 2012, caught us completely by surprise. We were not overly optimistic though, as all purported wolf photos hitherto captured by visitors and staff, on verification, had turned out to contain jackals. Nevertheless, when we finally got to see the image, we were delighted – it was indeed a handsome male wolf. Having alerted all the staff to keep a sharp lookout for the animal, we laid PIPs (pugmark impression pads) and fixed camera traps in likely areas, but to no avail. Then, the wolf chose to reveal himself in a manner much more dramatic and entirely unique.

Photograph by Manoj V. Nair and Saroj Kumar Panda.

ODD ASSOCIATION

On March 15, 2013, one of us (SKP) spotted the wolf along with two dholes and observed them together for about 20 minutes. He also captured some stunning images of the two species together in the same frame, possibly the first such images known from the wild. According to him, he chanced across the dholes on the main forest road near Chaurasimal beat, with the wolf in close attendance. They were apparently quite used to each other, though the dogs would lunge and make mock charges at the wolf if it tried to approach too close. From the images, it was evident that the dholes were both females and the wolf, a male. Diagnostically, it had the tip of the tail truncated. One of the dholes had appeared to be restless and excited, intermittently urinating and rolling on the ground. They were also seen defecating on the road, while the wolf was seen marking trees by the typical leg-up urination characteristic of male canids.  While the dholes allowed very close approach by our vehicle, the wolf tended to keep its distance. The nearest it could be approached was about 10 m.

Odd as it might seem, an even stranger turn of events was noticed by Dr. Kishalay Das, a local naturalist, who also managed to take some long-range record shots using his point-and-shoot camera. This sequence of events played out near the Chaurasimal Forest Rest House, on the grassy meadows fringing the reservoir. There, on the morning of March 28, at half past nine, he along with the local staff observed all three animals lying on the grass a few feet from each other, and for about 45 minutes, witnessed a series of interactions among them. After lounging around for a while, they apparently started gambolling with each other, ‘playing in the manner of domestic dogs’ as a Forest Guard put it.

Dr. Das also insisted that the wolf managed to catch a Jungle Crow and promptly wolfed it down! It appeared that the dholes had fed recently, as indicated by their distended bellies, and went into the water to cool themselves. Incredibly, the wolf was also seen entering the reservoir and lying down, submerged neck-deep in water!  And a day later, while supervising ongoing construction work of a water-harvesting structure, the staff of Chourasimal beat witnessed an amazing scene where the wolf and dholes were chasing a sambar fawn. Predators and prey vanished from sight soon after, but unfortunately the staff could not follow up to discover whether the hunt was successful or not!  On March 31, after getting news of this, I spent some time in the locality trying to find some remains of a possible kill, but without success. But I was rewarded by a brief glimpse of the wolf as it ran into the bushes some 30 m. away, having been unduly alarmed, as I was on foot. Of the dholes, there was no trace.

However, they were again seen together, at least on four different occasions by frontline staff during the first week of April, culminating in the account narrated at the beginning of this article.

Why this unlikely association between dhole and wolf? The authors surmise that the dholes may have been separated from a larger group and were sticking together with the wolf as an anti-predator strategy against big cats, especially the leopard. Quintessential social canids, both species are pack-hunters and this threesome alliance may well have resulted in huting successes, though the authors saw no evidence of that. Photograph by Manoj V. Nair and Saroj Kumar Panda.

CONJECTURE

Thus, it appears that rather than being a one-off accidental interaction between two unrelated types of canids, the strange association among these three animals may be more stable and persistent here at Debrigarh. At the time of writing, they have been consistently seen together for a period of about a month. How long this alliance persists will be extremely interesting to monitor. Which brings us now to the possible explanations for this rather bizarre association. Though short-term interactions (mostly antagonistic) among canids have been recorded the world over, this phenomenon merits a more thorough study and greater understanding before one can conclude anything. However, after discussing the issue with canid experts and wildlife biologists, it seems that the most likely explanation for this behaviour would be as follows:

The two female dholes may have been left alone when the rest of the pack moved away. Alternatively, they could have splintered off from the main pack temporarily. The ‘dry-humping’ and mock-mounting behaviour exhibited by one might be construed as an oestrous-related behaviour shown by bitches in heat. But given the fact that dholes are known to come into season mainly during October-November, it is more likely a dominance display sometimes seen among female dholes. As for the wolf, he is possibly a dispersing male, who, having entered the sanctuary from his natal territory, temporarily chose to settle down here on account of abundant prey and lack of disturbance. He might have accidentally chanced across the dholes and might have started following them initially from afar, gradually closing in and gaining familiarity and acceptance in the course of time. The three animals might also be sticking together as an anti-predator strategy against big cats, especially the leopard, of which a good population exists in Debrigarh. Further, both species being quintessential social canids and pack-hunters, they have a predisposition to form packs. The alliance might also have led to an increased success rate in hunting prey, especially large-sized ones like sambar, further reinforcing the bond.

But it has to be borne in mind that as of now, most of this remains conjecture. Detailed observations over time will be needed before the dots can be joined  with confidence.

Thinking over these imponderables over a cup of black tea on the terrace of the Chourasimal Forest Rest House, we ask Chakra Kalet, one of the oldest and most experienced of our anti-poaching staff for his explanation. Pat comes his reply – ‘Kichchi nain, sar. Semane sanga saathi, au kaun!’ (Nothing sir, they’re just friends, what else!).

For the moment, though not sure, we too will leave it at that, this strange and unlikely tale of amity among two dholes and a wolf

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, June 2013.

 
 
 

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