In a video posted early this year that’s recently been making the rounds on social media, two of India’s preeminent carnivores – one a big, burly, world-famous beast, the other smaller, slighter, and far less celebrated – engage in a tense faceoff.

The run-in between a Bengal tiger and a dhole, or Asiatic wild dog, took place in Nagarahole National Park in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, in the foothills of the Western Ghats. The clip shows the big cat briefly chasing the dhole along a forest road. The tiger then advances at a walk upon the dog, which bounds and wheels about issuing wild (and hair-raising) cackling yaps and yowls.

Dholes are mid-sized canids – bigger than jackals, smaller than wolves – with rusty coats and dark-tipped tails. Besides Asiatic (or Indian) wild dogs, they’re known by several other common names, including "red dog" and "whistling dog," the latter a reference to the unique vocalisations pack members use to stay in contact while pursuing chital, sambar, wild pigs, and other quarry through thick forest and jungle. 

The footage, posted by FiveZero Safaris, was taken by a guide on one of the company’s Black Leopard Safaris, an outing that seeks Nagarahole’s melanistic, or black-coated, Indian leopards: the magnificent, inky "black panthers" made famous in the form of Bagheera in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

FiveZero’s Kurt Jay Bertels told me the guide didn’t believe there were any pups in the area during the encounter, or indeed any other dholes, and that the canid was likely just issuing a general warning call about the tiger’s presence. "When it comes to a smaller animal seeing a potentially dangerous animal," he wrote, "they seldom just run away – the theory being that it’s a lot better to see a predator, because then you know where it is."

Dholes and tigers are known to clash in the forests of India.

Wildlife biologist Arjun Srivathsa focuses on dholes for his PhD research at the University of Florida and is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Canid Specialist Group and the IUCN Dhole Working Group as well as a research associate with Wildlife Conservation Society – India. He told me he’d seen the Nagarahole tiger/dhole footage when it was first posted in January. "My first guess was that the dhole was luring the tiger away from a den (with or without pups)," he wrote by email. "I have seen jackals do this before. But this is speculation of course. It seems plausible because dholes (as far as current knowledge goes) litter in November to December and the pups stay in dens for two to 2.5 months."

He added, "There’s also a possibility that the dhole was just harassing the tiger. I have seen videos of dholes doing that to sloth bears, leopards, and elephants. But I’d expect the full pack to partake in such an activity."

Dholes and tigers have long been popularly portrayed as mortal enemies, with stories abounding of the great striped cats being dragged down by huge packs of red dogs – only after killing droves of them in the process. Much of this, however, is sheer sensationalism. While it’s true that tigers occasionally prey on dholes – indeed, a tiger was seen stalking and killing one from a pack in Nagarahole in 2017 – and that dholes in turn, will occasionally harry a tiger, these two carnivores likely aren’t eagerly seeking out confrontations.

Srivathsa said, "If we consider a somewhat stable system – adequate prey densities, medium-to-high predator densities, average pack size of five to eight dholes – then our research from the Western Ghats shows that tigers and dholes (and leopards) will use elaborate mechanisms to avoid each other."

"It just makes sense from a bio-energetic perspective to not invest and risk injury or losing a pack member," he noted.

Fieldwork in the Western Ghats and elsewhere in India suggest some dietary overlap between dholes and tigers as well as leopards, but to what degree depends on a given ecosystem’s variety and density of prey species. And, of course, one carnivore may prefer – or be able to exploit – prey that’s less appealing or available to another. A study in the Pakke Tiger Reserve in northeastern India, for example, suggested leopards might be less disposed than tigers or dholes to tackle well-armed wild pigs, while – unsurprisingly, given the spotted cat’s ace arboreal skills – being more capable monkey-hunters. Tigers may generally favour larger mammals (when available) than dholes or leopards, but Srivathsa pointed out that the food habits of red dogs are partly dependent on pack size, which can encompass as many as 25 individuals.

"A small pack of two to three dholes will likely go for smaller prey and, at most, a medium-sized spotted deer," he said. "A large pack might bring down an adult female gaur."

Leopards are thought to prey on dholes occasionally, and meanwhile dholes have frequently been observed treeing leopards and stealing their kills:

Srivathsa said dholes, being primarily forest-dwellers, don’t overlap quite as much with the scrub- and grassland-favouring Indian wolf, but that packs of red dogs have been seen mobbing wolves. 

Wolves and red dogs – which clash fiercely in Kipling’s Jungle Book stories – aren’t, apparently, always antagonistic toward one another: In a well-publicised case from 2013, a male wolf associated peaceably with a pair of female dholes in Odisha’s Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary – traveling and seemingly playing with them, and joining them to chase a sambar fawn.

Direct aggressive encounters aside, dholes and other medium- to large carnivores influence one another indirectly as well. A study Srivathsa and his colleagues published recently suggests the possibility that, in some areas at least, an abundance of both wild prey and sympatric carnivores may increase the likelihood of dhole depredation on livestock. The authors wrote that "high levels of competition for high densities of wild prey may coerce dholes into consuming more non-wild prey."

Dholes are among the relatively few members of the dog clan with such a meat-heavy diet as to be considered (like cats) "hypercarnivores." Their rather short-muzzled skulls reveal specialised dentition: a so-called trenchant heel on the lower first molar that extends the cutting surface of the dhole’s carnassial teeth. It’s a feature shared with two other hypercarnivorous canids, the African wild dog – also called the painted hunting dog – and the bush dog of Central and South America.

Indeed, dholes and painted hunting dogs show some striking similarities in general; the two could be considered rough ecological equivalents on their respective continents. Hunting dogs are, like whistling dogs, highly social hunters pursuing mainly small- to medium-sized ungulates. They’re also similarly scrappy and cooperative in holding their own with a formidable roster of heftier rival carnivores: several big cats and hyenas (though lions are a mortal threat to wild dogs). They’ve even got their own disarming vocalisations – including birdlike twittering – going on. That twittering’s loud and clear in a dramatic video showing a pack of hunting dogs attacking a lioness and her cubs:

A 2018 analysis, in fact, revealed that dholes and painted hunting dogs share a close genetic affiliation, raising the possibility that the two widely separated species may have somehow intermixed at some point.

Another thing Asiatic and African wild dogs share? A distressing conservation picture. There’s still much we don’t know about dholes, research into which was, for a long time, paltry in comparison to studies on such similarly imperilled Asian wildlife as tigers and elephants. It’s an especially discouraging knowledge gap given whistling dogs are so imperilled: They’ve vanished from more than 75 percent of their former range, which historically accounted for a great swath of Asia – from the Russian Far East and the mountains of Central Asia south into the rainforests of the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Java. Fewer than 2,500 dholes are thought to survive in heavily fragmented remnants of this former temperate-to-tropics domain. 

India, where the dhole has been protected since 1972, is thought to harbour the greatest number of red dogs today, but nonetheless they’ve disappeared from some 60 percent of their formerly broad distribution in the country over the past century. Habitat loss and declines in wild prey are a big part of this equation; so are direct killing by people to protect livestock and disease spread by domestic (including feral) dogs.

The Western Ghats – which flank India’s Arabian Sea coast along the scarp of the Deccan Plateau and still host fairly large blocks of contiguous forestland – are one of the most significant remaining refuges for dholes in India. Srivathsa, who’s done much research in the mountains, notes the great value of the protected complex of Nagarahole, Bandipur, Wayanad, and Mudumalai here, which "is also relatively well connected to high-quality reserves in the states of Karnataka and Kerala. Dholes here form part of a meta-population, likely thriving and moving between the reserves (through a network of unprotected forest corridors and forest-agriforest matrix landscapes)."

Fortunately, research on the Asiatic wild dog – as marvellous and ecologically important in its own right as the "flashier" big cats it rubs shoulders with – is intensifying. In 2016, for example, Srivathsa launched a collaborative initiative with WCS in India as part of his PhD work: the Dhole Project, which strives to shed more light on the status of dholes in the Western Ghats and more generally increase knowledge and awareness about the species throughout its range.

And while the whistling dog continues to decline in number and distribution, there has lately been some good news on its geographic front: This year, a pair of dholes were confirmed in Vansda National Park in the northern reaches of the Western Ghats in Gujarat, marking the first observation of the wild dogs in that Indian state in a half-century.

Highlighting dholes as an indicator species of ecosystem health, Dinesh Rabari, deputy conservator of forests in the South Dangs division, told The Wire Science that the return of the species to Vansda "has made us doubly proud, once for having such a magnificent top predator and twice for affirming the good forest status with their presence."

Top header image: Tomas Öhberg, Flickr