The Dhole (Cuon alpinus) was once widely distributed, found in Central, South, Southeast and East Asia. It was found as far north as the the Amur valley in Manchuria and the upper reaches of the Lena in Siberia. To the west, the Dhole’s range stretched into the Tien Shan and Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan. Here is the species’ distribution as laid out by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species:
- Korean peninsula: Dholes occurred in the Korean peninsula, but were likely extirpated throughout most of their range by the 1970s. They are still found on Mt. Pakdoo, near the Chinese border.
- China: Historically Dholes occurred throughout China, but are likely extirpated throughout most of the country. Dholes have been reported from the Qilian Shan Mountains in northern Gansu Province, the Altyn Tagh Mountains in southeastern Xinjiang, and the Nangunhe and Xishuangbanna Nature Reserves (near the border with Myanmar) in Yunnan. Dholes disappeared from large areas of central and southern China during the 1980s and 1990s after locals starting poisoning carcasses in retaliation for livestock losses. Dholes numbers are low due to the highly fragmented habitat, pressure of poaching, and extremely low prey densities. They may still occur in the southern parts of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, in places like the Mt. Qomolangma Nature Reserve.
- Central Asia: There have been no confirmed reports of Dholes in more than 30 years from the Russian Federation, Mongolia, Kazakhstan (the Altai and Tien Shan Mountains), Kyrgyzstan (the Tien Shan and Pamir Mountains), Afghanistan (the Pamir Mountains), Tajikistan (the Pamir Mountains) or Uzbekistan (the Tien Shan Mountains), and are likely extirpated from these regions.
- Pakistan: Although there are no confirmed records of Dholes from Pakistan, they historically occurred in the western Himalayan Mountains in the northern part of the country. They might still occur in the Ladakh region of northern Pakistan.
- Nepal: There are recent reports of this species in several areas of country. In the Himalayan region, Dholes occur in the western and extreme eastern parts of the country. In southern Nepal, Dholes are found throughout much of the Terai Arc Landscape, including Chitwan and Bardia National Parks, and Parsa and Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserves.
- Bhutan: Nearly extirpated in Bhutan in the 1970s and 1980s due to poisoning campaigns, the species began to re-occupy the country starting in the 1990s. They now occur in most protected areas in the country.
- Bangladesh: They are found in the Sylhet area in northeastern Bangladesh, as well the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeast. Dhole numbers appear to be decreasing in these areas due to a decreasing prey base.
- India: Dholes occur in several regions of India, and the country contains the largest numbers of Dholes. That said, Dholes have disappeared from 60% of their historic range in India during the past 100 years. Relatively high populations of Dholes are still found in the Western Ghats and Central Indian forests, due to high prey numbers and extent of protected forests. They are also found in the Eastern Ghats, the northeastern states, some areas of the Terai region in northern India, and the Himalayas in Sikkim and Ladakh.
- Myanmar: The current distribution of Dholes in Myanmar is uncertain. Dholes have been recorded from several protected areas in Myanmar, including the northern region, west-central region , southwestern region, and peninsula region.
- Thailand: Dholes have been extirpated from most areas of Thailand, and are now absent from the peninsula and eastern parts of the country. They are found in fragmented populations in several large protected-area complexes, including the south-central region, north-central region, northwestern region, and western region.
- Lao PDR: There are records of Dholes from the northern and central Lao PDR. The largest population of Dholes in the country is found in Nam Et-Phou Louey Protected Area. Dholes are no longer found in the south, and are probably extirpated from this region.
- Cambodia: There are records of Dholes in the Cardamom Mountains, the northern plains landscape, the eastern plains landscape, and northeastern Cambodia (Siem Pang Province).
- Viet Nam: There are very few recent records of Dholes in Viet Nam. The last confirmed records were from Pu Mat National Park in 1998-99 and Yok Don National Park in 2003. Along with other large carnivores, Dholes are likely extirpated from Viet Nam, although individuals may occasionally enter the country from neighboring Cambodia or Lao PDR.
- Malaysia (peninsula): The historical range of Dholes likely included the entire Malaysian peninsula, possibly even what is now Singapore. Dholes are now extirpated from Singapore and the southern forests of the Malaysian peninsula.
- Indonesia (Sumatra and Java): Historically, Dholes occurred throughout both Sumatra and Java; however, their current distribution is fragmented and greatly reduced. On Sumatra, Dholes have been found in several national parks along the Barisan Mountains, from the northern to southern parts of the island. Dholes are also found in several protected areas in the lowland forests of the east. On Java, Dholes are found in national parks only in the extreme western and eastern parts of the island.
Dholes have disappeared from more than three-quarters of their historic range, and remaining populations are believed to be fragmented and declining. The species is a habitat generalist, and can occur in primary, secondary and degraded tropical dry and moist deciduous forests, evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, temperate deciduous forests, boreal forests, dry thorn forests, grassland–scrub–forest mosaics, temperate steppe and alpine steppe. It is not seen in desert regions. Dholes range from sea level to elevations as high as 5,300 m. They are hypercarnivores that can consume a wide variety of prey, from small rodents and hares to formidable Gaur (Bos gaurus). Dholes have a preference for ungulates with a body mass of 40-60 kg but can selectively prey upon both smaller and larger ungulate species. Due to the demands imposed by hypercarnivory, sufficient numbers of ungulate prey are the Dhole’s major habitat requirements. In India, Dholes form relatively large packs. However, in the tropical evergreen forests of Southeast Asia, they appear in smaller packs, probably due the low prey biomass and small size of ungulate prey.
There seem to be two distinct subspecies, the Northern Dhole (Tien Shan Dhole) and the Southern Dhole (Ussuri Dhole). Here is a brief description of the two:
- Northern Dhole: The Northern or Tien Shan Dhole (Cuon alpinus hesperius) is the smaller of the two races and is found in the Tien Shan, Altai and Pamir Mountains of Central Asia. It can be told apart by its lighter coat. Tien Shan Dholes prefer cold, mountainous regions where they hunt Argali (Ovis ammon), Siberian Ibex (Capra sibirica), Siberian Roe Deer (Capreolus pygargus) and Urial (Ovis orientalis).
- Southern Dhole: Also known as the Ussuri Dhole, the Southern subspecies (Cuon alpinus alpinus) is found in East, Southeast and South Asia. It is far more widespread and adaptable, ranging from the snow-covered boreal forests of the Russian Far East to the rain-drenched evergreen forests of the Malay Archipelago. They prey on the likes of Banteng (Bos javanicus), Barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelli), Chital (Axis axis), Gaur (Bos gaurus), Javan Rusa (Rusa timorensis), Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), Sambar (Rusa unicolor), Sika (Cervus nippon), Sumatran Serow (Capricornis sumatraensis) and Wild Boar (Sus scrofa).
Dholes are one of the most enigmatic members of the dog family. Despite their prowess as hunters, and their (historically) widespread distribution, little research has been carried out to determine the status of Dhole populations. Their numbers have dropped precipitously over the last two centuries, on account of their image as indiscriminate killers of livestock and game. Several campaigns were carried out by authorities in different parts of Asia to wipe out these ‘demon dogs’. They were shot, poisoned and trapped, often in exchange of a bounty. Today, there might be fewer Dholes than there are Tigers. Experts estimate that only 2,500 Dholes survive in the wild. The species is classified as ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons is taken from ‘Dogs, Jackals, Wolves, and Foxes: A Monograph of the Canidae’ (by St. George Mivart), and shows a Northern Dhole (Cuon alpinus hesperius). The illustrations were done by by J.G. Keulemans (a Dutch artist).