Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thinking like a Wild dog

“A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.” Aldo Leopold, in his master piece essay- “Thinking like a mountain”.

For those living in the tropics and the forested Western Ghats of India, the deep chesty bawl as described by Leopold, may not be common. Neither is the coyote or the snow. But the deeper meaning, a meaning which only the mountain knows is something that is common. One just has to objectively listen to it. Just like the mountain.
On one of the many evenings, Myself, Preeti- an intern and Chian- the assistant were heading down the roads of Kodayar on the mighty Yamaha. It was about dusk and the sun had almost gone beyond the horizon. The evergreen forests, as one will know, become quite dark and gloomy at dusk. The only sound we could hear was our own bike, a few scimitar babblers settling for the night and a distant temple song in Nalmukh.  We reached Pulisattayedam  (Place where tiger died). It is the name given to an old coupe road, built during dam construction and is named so after a tiger, poisoned/shot in the tea estates came and breathed its last in the forest.
Just as I was about to pull over and park the bike, I saw something bright and rufous creature move past in the corner of my eye. Hit the brakes and stopped right next to the trail leading to the coupe road. I managed to see what I had least expected. A Wild Dog. The Indian Dhole; A creature, in ecological functions, the equivalent of a wolf of the temperate. A tad little smaller but the same power of packs, the same cunning wit and the  halo of fear, respect and hatred shrouding its mystical way of life in the jungles of India.
I killed the engine and jumped off the bike and all three of us hid behind a small bush to see what happens. From what I knew, something was abuzz. The dog was panicky and was determined. It was in splits. Whether to run seeing us, or continue doing what it was doing just as we came. It bolted, into the forest. It seemed someone was waiting for it and it went. Soon, we heard sounds on the other side of road and it did not take long to know there were a few more dogs to cross the road and we intercepted them. Known to defecate in groups and mark territories, the road bore the scat of 4 dogs. 

The forest became silent. A few birds were calling here and there but that was it. The last bus to Kodayar had gone. No other vehicle was to come that night. Except for a few tourist vehicles, who manage to gain entry into the reserve under the name of Kalaignar or Amma or the Forest dept itself!. As we continued our vigil, which must have been five minutes past the sight of the first dog, a dhole reappeared a little distance away from where it ran and peeped on to the road. It had taken a detour and reached the other side of road where we suspected some were left behind.
It checked out something and bolted back from where it came.

We had work to do. The plan was to do some sampling on Pulisattayedam itself. Now I was in a fix. To walk behind the dholes and see what they are up to? To wait on the road for some more time to see what happens? Or to go find someplace else to work and not disturb the dholes, lest they should have made some kill. While I clearing this muddle in the mind, I heard a moaning sorrow filled wail. Not the chesty bawl told by Leopold but more like that of an animal dying. Dying, because it was caught by its throat. Sorrow, possibly because its rump was torn open and the animal was still alive. It was the most painful call I have heard coming from an animal. Be it from beast or human (Not that there is a difference!). The other two with me were listening keenly and they had no difficulty in picking out the call. Roughly, myself and chian could place the point from which it was originating. The tall forest trees were dampening the echo effect and were muffling the otherwise tear triggering wail. A wail of certain death and misery. A wail which is the way of life in the jungles. A wail which can mean many things, which only the forest, and its denizens know and understand.  
I tired desperately to record its call. I did. The wail, is very fait and is hard to make out. Some, on listening to it on the computer, may say I was in delirium and was imagining it. But that’s not it. It was there. It was heard. And something died for sure in singing its last song of sorrow.

(Play video and listen to a wail in the first part of the recording.)
Having heard the call, we decided not to disturb the animal by sampling there. Dholes kill with difficulty and often, their kills are stolen by humans who follow them. So any presence of humans, the chances of the dogs abandoning the kill are high. We went away and sampled there.
The next day, armed with camera trap, a camera and binoculars, we walked the road where the call was heard. We wanted to see what had happened. There were many questions we had. Was there a kill? Did we, by intercepting the dogs previous evening, disturb them and made them abandon a kill? What had they killed? How many dogs were there? Were they still around?
There were signs of struggle all over. The hurried tracks of dogs, the fleeting tracks of either a big Sambar or a small Gaur. It had been cornered, attached and managed to give a slip to the dogs. The dogs, in hot pursuit of sambar, ran into a small marshy stream which very little water. Crossed over and ran into dense vegetation. We followed where the tracks took us. It ended abruptly in a swamp. The swamp was all mushy and sucky. Tracks could no longer be followed. Crest fallen, we returned. Something inside told me that the kill was made and all was well for the dogs. We never located the kill. We walked back to the bike and were surprised to see few more scats. More than what was there the previous evening and fresh ones at that. We had not noticed them when entering in search of the kill. This made our feeling stronger. Dholes must have eaten something to shit so much!
Mornings are pleasant, the weather was beautiful and Rajans hot vadas were calling. We headed to Nalmuukh for a breakfast. At the point where the road intersects into the tea estate is a large hill and a climb. The forest is called 11th forest. All vehicles struggle to pull up the slope and so did the Yamaha. Spewing burnt oil and coughing smoke. The tea estate begins on both sides of road. On the left was a path next to tea and on the path were 15 wild dogs! Four of them pups. All had a full tummy and were lethargic!. I stopped the engine. The dogs did the same. Some sat down and started seeing us. Managed to grab my camera and took some pictures. The pups panicked. They began yelping. They were running about like the pups of stray mongrels do in cities. For them it was panic, curiosity and the prospect of some fun after a hearty meal.  As quickly as we saw them they all disappeared. Except for 4 which were adults and decided to wait it out. They reclined on a rock. A few more round of photographs were taken and then, I had to leave. Started the bike and all of the dogs trotted into the forest next to tea.
This patch of tea, has regular sightings of dholes, they had a territory. There was also a herd of Gaur with a calf. The gaur was prominent and whole of Nalmukh was aware of it. Could it be possible that the gaur was taken by dogs. By four of them, it was unlikely, but with 10 of them, I did not see a reason why not! Moreover, the place was hardly 200 m from where we heard the death call. It could have, in all possibility be the calf that was taken. After this incident, the gaur herd is broken in bits. I have not seen the calf, not have the planters and pickers in tea. 

Breakfast done, we returned to Kodayar and saw the dogs again! In the same rock where they were resting. This time around, they did not budge. I kept going and reached kodayar. That evening, to being field work, we headed to rajans shop and yet again, saw the dogs in the same place. The pups were frolicking in the bushes and they all ran for cover hearing the bike. The last bus to kodayar was coming and we left, lest the whole bus crowd should stop and see the dhole and disturb them.
That was the last I saw the pack in the 11th forest. It was in-fact the first time I was seeing 15 dogs in one pack in the wild. It was a sheer joy for me. Especially the part of being “earwitness” to a kill being made. Seeing dogs make a kill is a long shot for many naturalists. Hearing one, beats it all. We three were just there by sheer chance and we could listen to the spectacle of the forest.
The wild dogs, known for their seemingly curel and merciless way of making kills have suffered in the past. I know people who say dholes should be killed. As if it is everyone’s business!.  Just like the Wolves of the US. People thought the dogs were vermin, they kill all the sambar and deer which is there for humans to shoot. The result was that dogs were killed left right and centre. Their numbers did drop drastically. But unlike the temperate, there were tiger and leopard to keep the population of deer under check and humans themselves shot them. So the mountains did not get denuded.  The dhole, unlike the wolf, does not have a chesty bawl. It has a squaky yelp. Just like the urban dogs. Far more cunning and far more cruel that is all. With better understanding and knowledge, we now know how mystical these creatures are. Much more on their way of life is there for anyone to document. The knowledge has a wide chasm waiting to be filled up. And as for Dholes, the life goes on.
Leopold ends his essay by invoking Thoreaus, dictum: “In wilderness is the salvation of the world.” Though I have not fully understood the inner meaning of these words, I can grapple with the essence of it. I do believe that such instances of chancing upon the mysteries of the forest, do help in making man realize that he is only a man. This feeling becomes stronger and evident for which, one has to think like the mountain, like the forest, or like the wild dog.   

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