"Studying elusive dholes in the wild is about as easy as nailing jello to a tree," says Kate Jenks, a conservation biologist at the Minnesota Zoo. And she should know: for the past decade or so, she's been tracking these little-known wild dogs on their home turf.
Dholes (Cuon alpinus) roam the forests and grasslands of Southeast Asia alongside more iconic predators like tigers and leopards. They might not be as famous as their big-cat neighbours, but they're an important part of the ecosystem here – and even more endangered.
Experts estimate there are fewer than 2,500 dholes left in the wild, but even that low number is questionable. "There is huge uncertainty in estimating the total population of dholes," says Jenks. Because the wild dogs are so difficult to find, this number represents a "best guess scenario" rather than a thoroughly researched figure, she explains.
Working alongside the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and other researchers in Thailand, Jenks has been trying to change that. The team has spent years studying these reddish-brown wild dogs in two of the country's protected areas: the Salak Pra Wildlife Sanctuary and the Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary.
There was a time when dholes lived all across South and East Asia, but today, the species has disappeared from around 75% of its home range. As their habitat has been destroyed by human activity, not only have the dholes run out of places to live, but they've also lost access to prey like deer and wild pigs. To make matters worse, lack of prey and lack of space often drive these rare predators to hunt livestock, putting them into conflict with local communities.
It's clear that Asia's surviving dholes urgently need protection, but it's hard to develop effective conservation strategies for a species we just don't know enough about – especially one as elusive as the dhole. Which is why, armed with camera traps and GPS collars, Jenks and her team have been on a dhole-tracking mission.
A camera trap photo can tell scientists a lot about the dholes: from the habitats they frequent to how healthy they look. But there are limitations. "Unlike tigers that can be identified by their unique stripe patterns, it is nearly impossible to identify individual dholes from camera trap photos," Jenks explains.
That's where the GPS tracking collars come in. The devices communicate with satellites to record a collared animal's location every four hours. Armed with that intel, researchers can track the dholes' movements through their territory and estimate how many packs live in a particular area. They can also keep track of when dholes come into contact with people or domestic dogs. While humans often kill individual dholes in retaliation for livestock losses, domestic dogs pose their own serious threat: by spreading disease, they can put entire dhole populations at risk.
So far, only two dholes have been fitted with satellite-enabled collars, one in each of the sanctuaries in Thailand. It's a small result for such a large amount of work, but that's to be expected. In order to fit a collar on an animal, you first have to capture one – and that is no easy task.
So how do you catch one of the most elusive carnivores in Asia?
"We set traps in the forest, baited with chunks of pork, and do a lot of waiting," says Jenks. "Each of the traps is linked to a transmitter. When any of the traps are moved, the transmitter beeps faster."
It may sound straightforward, but the process can be long and exhausting work, and not every beep of the transmitter is cause for celebration. "In Thailand, with curious elephants in the forest, we get a lot of false alarms when the elephants throw the traps around and trample a site," says Jenks.
And all of this daunting fieldwork comes only after the lengthy process of obtaining the permits required for this type of research in Thailand, and gathering a team of trained professionals. "It might surprise some people to learn that the most challenging and time-consuming part comes way before we get to the forest," Jenks explains.
You can read Jenks's account of one of the team's 2015 dhole captures – dubbed "Valentine" – on the Minnesota Zoo blog, and according to a recent Facebook post, the researchers are hoping to find, capture and collar three more dholes this winter.
Top header image: Tomas Öhberg, Flickr