The Asiatic wild dog or dhole (Cuon alpinus) is pack-living apex predator found in south and southeast Asia, currently threatened with endangerment. Dholes are generally restricted to protected forest habitats, but also occur in reserve forests and production agroforests (like tea and coffee plantations). The recent IUCN Red List assessment suggests that there may be 1000–2000 adult, mature dholes left in the wild. Despite its precarious status, the dhole remains one of the least studied large carnivores in the world. A recent study by researchers from the University of Florida (USA), Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Centre for Wildlife Studies (India) and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (India) examined changes in dhole distribution patterns across eight years (2007–2015) in the Western Ghats of Karnataka.
The study relied on indirect sign-based surveys (evidences such as tracks and scats) to map the distribution of dholes across 37,000 sq. km of Karnataka’s forests, first in 2007 and subsequently in 2015. Presence of prey species, human-induced disturbance, loss of forest cover, and presence of protected areas were considered as potential factors influencing patterns and changes in dhole distribution.
The area occupied by dholes reduced from 62% of the landscape in 2007 to 54% of the landscape in 2015. Presence of spotted deer or ‘chital’ was important for dholes. Although dholes occurred in forests outside protected areas, they avoided locations with high human activity. Local extinctions– locations from where dholes disappeared– were strongly correlated with loss of forest cover, while presence of protected areas enabled their persistence. Based on these results, the study also undertook sensitivity analysis and identified specific locations where the Forest Department should (1) consolidate habitats and (2) increase protection efforts, to benefit dhole conservation.
Given that dholes are pack-living carnivores that occur in inherently low densities, it is important to view their conservation from a landscape perspective. For such species, it is critical to conserve not just populations within protected areas, but meta-populations (a group of connected populations) across a landscape or a region. Even with a network of high-quality protected areas, the Western Ghats of Karnataka witnessed a reduction in dhole distribution in less than a decade. Cumulative effects of forest loss from on-going infrastructure development activities and high livestock-grazing pressure in certain protected areas are deterring persistence of dhole populations. Populations of feral/free-ranging dogs which compete with dholes for prey and also spread lethal diseases, are likely adding to the list of threats faced by dholes.
Results from this study highlight the importance securing dhole populations within Karnataka’s protected areas while also maintaining forest connectivity between these reserves. The Western Ghats is a high priority site for conserving dhole meta-populations, and the current research provides invaluable insights on their status in the Ghats while also laying out a roadmap for monitoring their meta-populations in other landscapes across their range.
Srivathsa, A., Karanth, K.U., Kumar, N.S., Oli, M.K. (2019) Insights from distribution dynamics inform strategies to conserve a dhole Cuon alpinus metapopulation in India. Scientific Reports, 9:3081 (1–12).