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Little known and widely feared, the Asiatic wild dog has few fans. But they included dedicated Smithsonian scientists.
By Allie Killam
Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
"What’s the scariest animal in the forest?” Researcher Kate Jenks posed that question to a group of rangers in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park. Their prompt response: the dhole. Also known as the Asiatic wild dog, this elusive, endangered canid lives in packs throughout South and Southeast Asia.
About the size of a border collie, the dhole usually sports a reddish coat and a bushy tail. Very social, it communicates with other pack members by whistling. “It’s not like a howl,” explains canid biologist Nucharin Songsasen of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institure (SCBI). “It’s more melodic, like a whistle.” This vocalization earned dholes the nickname of “whistling hunters.”
Like African wild dogs, dholes hunt quickly and efficiently, teaming up to take down deer, ibex, mountain sheep, wild pigs, and other prey. They tear rapidly into their meal, sometimes feasting while the victim is still alive.
Only about 2,500 dholes survive in the wild. Given their secretive nature and a relative lack of field research, it’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint the animals’ whereabouts. Dholes have vanished from some places where they were seen 30 years ago, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that their numbers are declining.
An Unpopular Animal
As a research assistant in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab at SCBI, Jenks first learned about dholes during a 2004 trip to Thailand, where she went to study clouded leopard distribution. She spent her days setting up camera traps in Khao Yai, where rangers told her about the wild dogs.
The whistling hunters fascinated Jenks, and they became her research focus as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts. She moved to Thailand in 2005 to study them in depth.
One of the first things Jenks learned is that dholes are not popular. Many locals, she found, would agree with what naturalist E.G. Phythian-Adams wrote in Jungle Memories in 1949: “Except for his handsome appearance, the wild dog has not a single redeeming feature, and no effort, fair or foul, should be spared to destroy these pests of the jungle.”
Dholes, it turns out, are blamed for hunting domestic fowl. “They’re often made the bad guy,” says Songsasen. “Nobody cares about the little red dog.” In fact, officials in Thailand complain of dhole “overpopulation” and have sought to control their numbers.
“Well, wait a minute,” thought Songsasen, who is also coordinator of the IUCN’s Dhole Working Group. “Those animals are listed as endangered. We don’t really know exactly how many of them there are in Thailand.” But, she explains, conservationists can’t effectively combat overpopulation claims without scientific evidence. Compiling that evidence is a key task for the working group. Researchers are gathering existing knowledge about dhole distribution and trying to assess the species’ status throughout its range. “International collaboration is essential,” says Songsasen. “Thailand is not unique. Dholes are regarded as pest species in other countries as well.”
The whistling hunter also gets blamed for depleting the tiger prey base. But Jenks thinks that’s a bad rap. “There haven’t been tigers in the park for years because of poaching,” she explains. “Like the wolves here, dholes get blamed. People don’t really know the impact they’re having.”
Picturing a Predator
Given those gaps in scientists’ understanding of dholes, Jenks’s mission for her Thailand research was to learn more about the animal’s distribution in its range. Did the range overlap with tiger territory? And what was the wild dog’s prey base? A deeper understanding of dhole populations was essential for protecting this endangered animal. Jenks worked collaboratively with Songsasen, Peter Leimgruber, and other SCBI scientists, as well as partners at the Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, Kasetsart University, and the Zoological Park Organization.
Jenks’s first task upon moving to Thailand was to begin the slow process of obtaining permits to capture dholes and put radio collars on them. Before they could do that, however, researchers first had to find the animals. To do so, Jenks backpacked through the Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary, setting up camera traps. The cameras would show where dholes were located within the sanctuary.
That was the plan, anyway. However, the few camera traps Jenks and her collaborators could afford to begin with were quickly destroyed by very curious elephants. The team’s proposed solution to that problem was to hide the cameras in metal boxes. That sounded simple, but it wasn’t.
“In Thailand,” Jenks recalls, “it turned into a big scavenger hunt to find a shop to create it, to find the metal. We ended up making metal boxes and bolting them to the trees so the elephants can’t knock them off. It’s one of those fun things that happen in the field and you don’t plan for.”
Two years passed as the cameras shot photos of dholes, clouded leopards, ungulates—and elephants, of course. Because dholes live in packs of roughly 20 members, it was initially difficult to distinguish by photo which dhole belonged to which pack. Luckily, one female had no color in its tail. That helped the researchers determine that all the dholes in the park belonged to the same pack.
Emails From the Wild
In January 2008, the research team received its long-awaited permits for capturing dholes. Jenks and company set the traps eagerly and waited. And waited. And waited. Dholes, it turned out, were too smart to get caught, no matter how attractive the bait.
Finally, in January 2011, one dhole was captured, anesthetized, and collared. “They’re quite unique when you see the real thing,” says Songsasen. “Before he went to sleep, he made these amazing vocalizations. We were all standing there having goose bumps. We think he communicated with his pack members.”
The GPS transmitter within the collar collects information on dhole movement constantly, but doesn’t transmit until the pack comes within range of a cell phone tower. All the information collected since the previous transmission is then sent via email and text message. Jenks laughs and says although she is now back in the States, it’s a welcome surprise when her dhole emails her.
When Jenks does hear from her dhole, she shares the data with SCBI’s Peter Leimgruber, who has successfully used radio collars to track numerous species around the world. He is particularly interested in how endangered species interact with their environments. He explains, “The biggest threat to biodiversity is habitat loss. Where do the species live, and how is that affected by human life?”
Data from Jenks’s dhole showed that it (and likely its pack) stayed within the protected area of the wildlife sanctuary. Contrary to villagers’ fears, the wild dogs were not venturing into human communities and stealing chickens. The culprits may have been jackals, feral forest dogs, or even loose domestic dogs. Nailing down exactly what’s happening would require additional research.
While Jenks’s fieldwork focused on Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary, she also sought to understand what was happening in other dhole habitats. She collaborated with staff from other parks and sanctuaries that had camera traps. They shared their images with Jenks.
Jenks also conducted several hundred interviews with people living close to protected areas in southeastern Thailand. She asked what they knew about wildlife, and learned their attitudes regarding certain species. The most surprising result of the study was the inability of locals to identify a dhole via photograph. Only 20 percent of nearly 800 interviewees correctly identified a dhole. The rest couldn’t distinguish between dholes and jackals or feral forest dogs. This, Jenks thinks, may help explain why dholes get blamed for all negative experiences with wild canids.
The inability to differentiate between species inspired hope in Jenks that one day there could be an educational effort that will better inform Thai residents about their wild neighbors. Being the only American in the area, Jenks was often the object of curiosity, but she believed that being watched was worth the positive attention it brought to the dhole, proving it an animal worth studying. “Here’s this foreigner coming to work on this,” villagers seemed to think. “Maybe we should pay more attention.”
Her most rewarding experiences were the small interactions she had with the people in the market. “They would ask about what I was doing,” she says. “Those people would never have any contact with scientists in conservation research, and it was neat to touch them. People would get excited to see the different photos.”
As a complement to her fieldwork, Jenks collaborated with a Thai veterinary school to collar 20 domestic dogs. The collars recorded two weeks’ worth of movement. Once the information from the collars is analyzed and mapped, researchers will have a clearer picture of whether domestic dogs roam within the range of the dhole pack that Jenks studied.
As happens often in science, Jenks’s research raised more questions than answers. Upon completion of her Ph.D., she returned to the United States. Leaving her fieldwork in Thailand was wrenching. “I feel like it’s just the beginning,” she explains. It took years to accomplish the collaring of one dhole, but further field research must await funding.
Still, the team has begun to draw some preliminary conclusions. “From the little data that we have, this species only lives in protected land,” explains Songsasen. Protected land areas are often surrounded by development, causing habitat loss and concern for genetic diversity. Songsasen hopes that the next phase of field research can include a focus on the threat of inbreeding, since dholes are concentrated in protected areas.
The team also has a clearer picture of the significance of dholes within their ecosystem. “They’re becoming even more important,” says Jenks, “because of the disappearance of tigers and leopards, which are being poached out. Lots of protected areas in Thailand are without the big predators, so the dholes become the only ones who can take down prey species.” Despite their unfavorable reputation, the wild dogs are actually keeping the ecosystem in balance.
Changing the dhole’s reputation will take time and education. Jenks’s interviews revealed a range of varying attitudes. Seventy seven percent of respondents agreed that dholes should be protected. Yet the closer respondents lived to a protected area, the more likely they were to view dholes as dangerous.
Songsasen hopes SCBI’s work will inspire a greater appreciation of the whistling hunter. “Our research has stimulated others in Thailand to study dholes,” she says, “so this will eventually raise the profile of the species, I hope.”
Meanwhile, the radio-collared dhole still wanders the forest with its pack, transmitting data on the wild dogs’ movements. And camera traps still snare images of these elusive animals. Each piece of new information equips scientists to better understand—and protect—this Asian wildlife wonder.
-- ALLIE KILLAM was an editorial intern for Smithsonian Zoogoer.