New Delhi: This is hardly the first time that the Indian wild dog has been pitted against larger predators within the realm of rhetoric and metaphor. But in India's rapidly shrinking forests, the species has a different survival tactic - a studied mutual respect and careful avoidance.
Nearly 123 years before Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat pitted the Indian wild dog (Cuon alpinus) against the lion and the tiger to stress on the need for Hindus to work together, British writer Rudyard Kipling wrote in his penultimate Mowgli story, "even the tiger will surrender a new kill" to the wild dog.
But a few species are as misunderstood and as threatened in India's forests as the Indian wild dog, commonly known as the dhole. It is the only species in the Cuon genus, implying that losing the dhole means losing an entire evolutionary genus. Kipling described the species as blood-thirsty and fierce. "They drive straight through the jungle, and what they meet they pull down and tear to pieces. Though they are not as big nor half as cunning as the wolf, they are very strong and very numerous," he wrote.
The reputation has stuck. Once abundant across the world, its range stretching from south-east Asia all the way to Russia in the north and as far west as eastern Kazakhstan, the species is now restricted to less than 75 per cent of its original range. Listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), its remaining populations are fragmented, rapidly declining. India remains the last remaining bastion for the predator, where it's often systematically poisoned.
The chances of a dhole coming across the Asiatic lion is impossible, with the former — another endangered species — restricted to the forests of Gir in Gujarat. But it does share forests with tigers. Moreover, the efficient predators — who have adapted for larger litters and pack sizes - have been reported to have hounded the much larger tigers in forests.
But research suggests that such incidents are rarely the norm. Top predators often shape their communities through intraguild predation — or predators preying on potential competitors. With both species relying on the same pool of prey resources, larger species benefit from preying on the competition.
What this means for the dhole is that in spite of its fearsome reputation and large pack size, it would much rather remain in areas that the tiger wouldn't bother inhabiting. A 2013 study, published in the journal Biological Conservation by scientists from the World Wide Fund for Nature, found that tigers occupied the prey-rich zones, "whereas dholes were concentrated in a prey-poor zone where tigers were scarce." Moreover, the dhole remained active during the day, unlike the nocturnal tiger, the study added.
The dhole is small — smaller than a medium-sized dog — and weighs between 10-15 kg. But its large pack sizes allow it to take down much larger predators and a 2007 study, published in the Journal of Zoology, found a similar "niche separation and co-existence of these three predator species (tiger, leopard, dhole) are facilitated by prey selectivity patterns".
But these evolutionary changes that have allowed the dhole to survive alongside the much larger predators hasn't helped it negotiate its position in human narratives. Two decades before British soldiers first chanced upon the species in Jharkhand, British naturalist and soldier Charles Hamilton Smith suggested that the word 'dhole' was derived from the Turkish word 'deli', meaning 'mad' or 'crazy'.
But while this has long since been dismissed, the idea has persisted, tripping conservation efforts. It wasn't until July this year, that the Wildlife Institute of India — a body under the union ministry of Environment and Forest - collared a dhole in the wild.
Today, there are less than 2,500 individuals left in the wild today globally — nearly 60 per cent of that estimated to be in India. Before long, if things don't change for the Indian wild dog, they might disappear from forests and persist solely in metaphors.