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Dhole (Cuon alpinus) Conservation

by Dave Armstrong 08 Jul 2012
Dhole (Cuon alpinus) Conservation

The dhole, a species of red dog, once thought to be the ancestor of our familiar pets - Dhole Image; Credit: © Shutterstock

Is it a fox, a wolf or a dog? None! It's the dhole . Almost the whole of the south-east of Asia is the habitat for the dhole (Cuon alpinus), a red dog which has come close to humans and is also known as the Asiatic, or Indian wild dog.

It now seems likely to suffer for it. Like a large border collie in size and found in small packs of 6-10, it has 3 sub-species, one of which (the Sumatran) is only 2 feet (60cm) in length. The basic red dog is 20kg and up to 110cm long with a unique 7 pairs of teats and one lower molar less than all other canine species. Black tails are normal in many sub-species, with white spotting on the ears, chest and legs.

Some areas of Asia have yellow red dogs and a few are grey or brown in colour. The ears are rounded and the eyes amber coloured. Communications is fascinating. It's like listening to those old whale songs on record. The dog whistles for interpersonal communications and uses whines, mews, and squeaks for warnings and puppy noises. Growls, growl-barks, chattering calls, and screams complete their repertoire, making this probably the most vocal canine alive.

Theorists believe that with large predators in competition, this pack animal needs to use intricate and adaptive behaviours to be successful. The dhole certainly protects its kills against tigers, but is more often found in the leopard's diet and has been mentioned as unable to prevent tribes-people from benefitting from its own hunting techniques.

The dhole is a forest species, but many sub-species exist, even, precariously, on open steppes in Russia. Prey is often large, such as Indian axis deer or even banteng cattle and the formidable wild boar. They do hunt individually too, with hare and even beetles on the diet. Very little vegetation is eaten, according to the scats left behind.

Several South American dogs survive, thanks to the former lack of human interference in that continent, but Asia has few species (apart from dingoes and their cross breeds) of dogs left, and Africa has the Cape Hunting Dog (African wild dog or Lycaon pictus) apart from its jackals and wolves.

African hunting dog

African hunting dog; Credit: © Shutterstock

The Cape or African hunting dog is the best known of the canine trio figured here. Its painted coat, vigorous parental care and fierce personality have endeared it (a little) to TV audiences worldwide, apart from being perilously close to extinction. Only a maximum of 5000 remain, many in Zimbabwe.

We love our dogs, but some close relatives should give us pause for thought. Why did the famous domesticated dog come about? The dhole was always a likely domestication. Unlike the larger, more aggressive wolf, dholes are said to readily retreat from their kill under pressure from various (Thai or Indian) tribal peoples, who can benefit from the dogs' hunting skills with a handy meat addition to their diet.

The reason for our non-domestication is possibly this lack of aggression. Think of all the mastiffs that were commonplace in European and other armies. Some dholes have also been found to make poor cooperative domestics, compared to the South American bush dog (Speothos venaticus), which has always been bred by Indian peoples.

Amazonian bush dog

Amazonian bush dog; Credit: © Shutterstock

The Amazonian bush dog has wide distribution but is rare in most of its range, here a captive group at Chester Zoo in England show the short legged stance of these great hunters and swimmers and even divers. They often corner capybara in water, with an ambush by part of the pack hidden in the marsh. The red dog or dhole also uses this same ambush for deer. The Portuguese name for them is "vinegar dog." Their interest lies in being so little known that they were first found as a fossil, and thereby declared extinct!

Early taxonomists have tended to clump three dogs like these together because of their hunting ability and non-wolf-like anatomy. So our argument can be, "Did we domesticate the grey wolf because it was there, useful for guarding the hut and trainable for farming (cattle and sheep handling), malleable in temperament for hunting (and retrieving)."

Did we fail to domesticate the red dog because it was smaller and less malleable or was it just that tribes using the wolf as an alternative survived well and other peoples, even nowadays, have less success, even though their dogs are just as good? The influences these species had on early human civilisation was certainly significant, to say the least.

Current status of these dogs is interesting. While the Speothus bush dog was classed by the IUCN Red Book as just vulnerable but is now near-threatened (2008.), its populations are well separated causing the animal many problems affecting ultimate survival. The African hunting dog (Lycaon) is much more famous, but regarded as endangered in the IUCN Red Book. Our friend the red dog (Cuono) as we said, is most endangered.

With an estimate (only) of 2500 remaining, we really are in a situation in its immense range, where individuals will have difficulty in locating a mate. With many sub-species the gene "bank" we call genetic variety is very limited. Large prey such as deer are hunted out in almost all of its range, leading to even more fragmentation of the population as they search for food.

People just don't know of the red dog. The only dog westerners think about is the domestic one. The grey wolf has always been a suspected ancestor and recent research has virtually proved a far eastern grey wolf pack gave rise to 90% of those cuddly home-loving breeds we mistakenly call pets. The failure of the dhole or red dog to domesticate us is possibly the problem. It has been used as food and for fur, but no more than the wolf and dog.

Perhaps our whole attitude to conservation needs a re-think. If people worldwide can't conserve a creature almost as familiar as our family pet, how could anyone expect support for deep-sea animals that no-one has ever seen alive. The need to do so is imperative. With help from dogs like the dhole we can prove, "Conservation has a dog face," at least.

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