In a first, scientists satellite collar a dhole - a species on verge of extinction
Kanha National Park : In a first, wildlife scientists have collared a dhole, the Indian wild dog, with a satellite transmitter to understand the ecology of this endangered species that is considered as important as tigers in keeping the balance in forests but is heading for extinction at a "dramatic pace".
With less than 2,500 individuals surviving in the wild globally, dhole is already extinct in about 10 Asian countries.
Rare to spot in the wild, it took a team of patient scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) over 10 days to to track down a pack of 14 dholes in Bishanpura meadow in the Mukki range of the Kanha National Park. The team tranquilised an adult female, tested its health and fixed a tracking collar around its neck as the rest of pack cautiously observed from a distance.
Wildlife scientists told this visiting IANS correspondent that the population of dholes has dramatically fallen over the years, raising the urgent need of better understanding the behavior, predating pattern and ecology of this elusive species.
"We don't know a lot of aspects of their ecology, which makes conserving dholes far more difficult than the tigers," Dr Y.V. Jhala, senior scientist at WII, told IANS after he collared the dhole.
Jhala, who headed the team, said that it's far more easier to collar a tiger or any other species than a dhole.
Conservation ecologists believe that deeper knowledge can help with proper management and a possible census of dholes.
Currently little is known about the species and ecologists are either dependent on the information based on decades-old research or from conclusions drawn from the African Wild Dogs, which are the closest relatives of the dholes.
"Because of the charisma of tigers, this species is completely ignored, even though it has a very important role," Ujjwal Kumar, WII Conservation Ecologist, told IANS, adding that the species is being pushed towards extinction at a dramatic pace. The species is the key in cleansing weaker genes in nature by predating on them, Kumar explained.
According to Delhi-based ecologist Faiyaz A. Khuzdar, the species helps in reducing the biotic pressure on a patch of forest, as, wherever it goes, certain species of predators flee, giving a breather to many other species of flora and fauna.
At present, only 949 to 2,215 mature dholes survive in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, the WWF estimations believe that globally less than 2,500 overall individuals live in the wild.
"People have studied dholes a long time ago. Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, an eminient Indian ecologist, had studied dholes in the late 1970s. His PhD was on dholes in Bandipur, but technology has improved since with remote data and advance tracking, the depth of understanding is far more," Jhala asserted.
A team of four people will constantly monitor the collared animal through a satellite link, he said.
Foresters told IANS that another dhole was collared some years ago with a GPS tracking system which had a range of about three kms -- but with the satellite transmitter, the animal could be tracked wherever it goes.
Once found globally, these wild dogs of Asia are now restricted to only a few regions. At present, the dhole is possibly extinct in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, Singapore, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Many ecologists consider habitat loss and bad prey base as a major reason for the dhole's falling population, but WII scientists contradict this.
"There is still sufficient habitat even as a lot has been lost. There is also enough prey base," Jahala maintained.
He added that poisoning by the villagers near forests and transmission of disease from domestic dogs are the major reasons behind the dramatic fall in their population.
Since dholes often target livestock, villagers retaliate by leaving poisoned prey for them.
"Dholes are prone to all those common dog diseases like rabies, paivo virus and distemper to name a few, which has a major repercussion on their population," he added.
"Given the current status, I would say they are more important than tigers, but that would be difficult for people to digest, so I would say that dholes are as important as tigers," Jhala contended.
(Kushagra Dixit was in Kanha National Park on a reporting trip. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)