Sleeping dhole. Pix by Wikimedia Commons.
Dholes are often misrepresented in folklore and stories as villains, as portrayed in Red Dog
Map of dhole distribution in Asia.

While we know of the tigers and the leopards, not many Malaysians realise that we have an elusive canid predator in our forest — the dhole, writes Andora Fredericks

THERE was once a serigala (wolf) that lived in the forests of Malaysia. It loved to hunt and eat goats. At the edge of a forest lived a mother goat with her seven kids. One day, after telling her kids not to open the door to anyone but her, she set out to look for food.

Soon after, the serigala came and after many attempts to trick the kids to open the door, he finally succeeded in making them think that he was their mother returning home. Once in, he swallowed six kids whole, but one managed to escape and hide under a box. When the mother goat returned, she was devastated to see only one kid there. She decided to look for the serigala to see if she could save her other kids.

She found him sleeping soundly under a tree nearby and saw his belly moving. Convinced her kids were still alive, she asked her surviving kid to run home to get her a pair of scissors and thread. She carefully cut open his belly, got all her kids out (they were not hurt as he’d swallowed them whole!), filled up his belly with stones, and stitched the belly back. When the serigala woke up, he went to the river to have a drink, and in doing so fell in. The stones were so heavy that he drowned and was never seen again.

This is a classic folk tale that many of us have were told growing up. And while we may be familiar with the story, many of us don’t realise that we actually do have serigalas in our own forests.

RED WOLF

The Red Dhole, also known as the serigala in our local tales, is the only canid (dog) in our forests. It’s also known as the Red Wolf, or the Asiatic Wild Dog. The size of a medium-sized dog, it looks like a cross between a wolf and a jackal, its rusty red coat with tufts of dark brown giving it the appearance of a Red Fox.

Lean and bushy-tailed, the dhole moves in packs of five to 20. Larger packs of up to even 40 have been reported.

Like dogs, they adapt easily to their surroundings, living and hunting in packs, usually led by an Alpha male and an Alpha female, although the hierarchy isn’t as rigid as that of wolves. They’re highly social animals and have an intelligent nature. Unlike dogs though, dholes don’t bark. Instead they whistle and make loud chattering noises when alarmed or when in a hunt. The chilling collective is well coordinated in a hunt and demonstrate teamwork at its best.

They’re known to chase their prey long distances to tire them out. As they’re smaller in size and aren’t able to kill prey with a bite to the neck like tigers, they mostly bring down the prey by blinding them and eating them to death. This could have led to their bad reputation where they’re depicted as the villains in Rudyard Kipling’s Red Dog, a follow-up story on Mowgli and his wolf pack.

Unlike wolves, where the most dominant pack member has the first share, dholes instead give priority to pups and regurgitate food to nursing mothers in dens.

DISAPPEARING DHOLES

A beautiful beast that’s largely ignored by conservationists, the dhole (Cuon alpinus) is the only member of the Cuon family and if it disappears, a whole genus disappears with it. Previously found even as far as Siberia, they’re now found only in China, India and parts of Southeast Asia. It’s possible that it still occurs in Siberia and parts of Central Asia although there have been no recent reports of this.

Although there’ve been a few studies done, little is known about dholes in Malaysia and population numbers remain a question. They’re hard to observe in the dense rainforests although some studies have captured them in camera traps giving a vague indication as to where some of the packs can be found. In Peninsular Malaysia their range is fragmented, and the dhole has been recorded up north in Belum and Temenggor Forests, Sungkai Wildlife Reserve in Perak and various other forests — mostly studied through camera traps meant for other mammals.

There are no dholes in Borneo, although they have been recorded to have existed there before.

Dholes are observed to prefer large prey but from some of the research done in Malaysia, scats are found to contain traces of smaller ungulates such as mouse deer, muntjacs and rodents, while some still contain traces of sambar deer and wild boar which are larger ungulates. Their prey overlaps with that of the tiger and leopard although their range doesn’t, necessarily.

Falling prey numbers are leading to competition for food with apex predators such as tigers and leopards who are also suffering the same fate. This isn’t the only reason dhole numbers continue to fall drastically. Deforestation causing fragmentation of habitat and diseases from feral dogs are also causing their downfall.

Historically but wrongfully facing prejudice and persecution by humans, they’re also hunted, poisoned, trapped and shot. In some cases, dens are sought out and the pups are clubbed to death. There have been cases of dholes being caught in snares set by hunters for other animals.

ENDANGERED

The dhole is listed as Totally Protected (Schedule 2) under the Wildlife Conservation Act in Malaysia and is Endangered in the IUCN Red List. This means it faces serious risk of extinction. While the dholes in India are more extensively studied due to vast open spaces where they interact, the elusive nature of the Malaysian dholes, which makes it hard to study in dense forests, may well lead to a quiet extinction.

With research direly lacking on this animal in the wild, it looks like captive animals can help give us an insight on pack dynamics to help us understand these hypercarnivores better. While this predator may not be as “sexy” as the tiger or the leopard it shares its range with, its rare sightings and fast depleting numbers mean that something needs to be done quick to save this species before stories of serigala in our forests turn into mere fables.

Director of Taiping Zoo, Dr Kevin Lazarus echoes this urgent message. The zoo houses a pack of Red Dholes given to them by Malacca Zoo. Although caught in the wild, the dholes were handed to the zoo as they were trapped in a chicken coop in Terengganu. There are cases of dhole-human conflict as a result of diminishing prey.

Dholes are starting to hunt cattle, chicken and goats in farms fringing forests, earning them a bad reputation much like the serigala of the old tales. Their method of hunting, where they attack the eyes first rendering their prey blind, are also causing anger amongst farmers. Many farmers are taking matters into their own hands and hunting down this species to protect their cattle.

IN CAPTIVITY

The pack at Taiping Zoo started with a pair and is now a clan of seven with two males and five females. They’ve just been moved to a larger one acre enclosure to give them more space to interact much like in the wild, without the hunting. The zoo feeds them meats (chicken and beef) and if you’re lucky you can observe the dholes chewing on a large chunk of beef ribs hung from a tree at the enclosure. The whistles and chattering are clearly audible and if you stay long enough you can watch them interact.

“Malaysians need to be aware of the diversity in our own rainforests. We have fascinating animals such as these dholes and I truly hope that the zoo will not end up being the only place where you can find them in the future,” says Dr Lazarus, adding that observing them in captivity can give a better understanding of the clan dynamics which he hopes will spark more interest in studying these animals in the wild.

“It’s a great place to come and observe these beautiful creatures and how they live and interact with each other. Hopefully this awareness will lead to more people pushing for more conservation efforts in the wild for our dholes,” he adds.

Taiping Zoo and Malacca Zoo are possibly the only zoos in the vicinity to house Malaysian dholes. Dr Lazarus hopes to initiate a captive-bred programme with the local zoos to jumpstart conservation efforts with these animals.

While we applaud the efforts to create awareness of these canines by Dr Lazarus and Taiping Zoo, we need a concurrent urgent solution to save the dholes.

Make some noise Malaysians. We should learn a thing or two from the dholes in terms of rising as a collective and demonstrating our team spirit to save our fascinating wildlife before they become only an illustration of imaginary villains in our folklore.