– A Conversation with Sujan Khanal, Advocate for Dhole Conservation.
Although Forestry was not my initial major, I ultimately earned my Master’s degree in the field. I completed my Plus Two in Science at Caribbean College in Kathmandu, and then embarked on a two-month journey to Pokhara to delve into electrical engineering after successfully passing the entrance examination. As a Hetauda native, being so far from home made me quite homesick. At the suggestion of my uncle, I decided to pursue the “DFO Course.” Subsequently, I returned to Hetauda and successfully completed my undergraduate degree, focusing on my thesis about changes in land use during that period.
Following this, I continued my academic journey at the Institute of Forestry (IOF) in Pokhara. Throughout this process, I delved deeper into various aspects of environmental and biodiversity protection. Concurrently, I initiated independent research to support the theses of my predecessors. This journey led me to become a student of forestry. Currently, I am affiliated with the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) and proudly serve as the representative from Nepal for the Dhole Working Group.
My fascination Dhole, developed for various reasons.
Firstly, during my undergraduate studies, I learned about the scarcity of Dhole within the canid family species found in Nepal, which includes jackals (Canis aureus), wolves (Canis lupus), brown fox (Vulpes vulpes), and red fox (Vulpes vulpes). This unintentionally led me to connect with Smriti Lama Didi, who was conducting research in this area back in 2015.
At that time, I was at the Hetauda campus, and my undergraduate thesis was still incomplete. Unexpectedly, Smriti Didi reached out to me over the phone, seeking assistance for her research on elephant habitat and conflicts between people and wildlife. Despite not having met me personally before, I agreed to help, and we first met near Parsa National Park, which was still a reserve in my memory. Chumla sister and Smriti sister were also present at that time.
Our journey took us from Parsa Park to Rautahat in search of elephants. As a helper, I accompanied them, providing me with the opportunity to experience the vastness of the forest. I was amazed by the mysteries of geographical and biological diversity. During this journey, I encountered Dhole for the first time as two of them gracefully walked along the Bagmati River in the community forest area at night. Though I managed to capture their footprints, I couldn’t get a clear photo of them.
This encounter sparked my growing interest in the well-being of Dhole in the park region, prompting me to delve into reading and research on the subject. This led to what can be considered the beginning of my Dhole-related study program in 2015 when there were approximately 100 Dhole in Nepal, a number that I suspect has since decreased.
Secondly, In 2016, Santa Bahadur Theeng Dai was working on his bachelor’s thesis on the habitat of Dhole, marking the second significant event. I spent 72 days in Parsa Park assisting him with his work, including his thesis and fieldwork, allowing me a closer look at the Dhole. I still have several images from that period, despite the limitations of the camera.
Theeng Dai chose the same geography for his master’s thesis in 2018, focusing on Dholey. I joined him once again, spending nearly two months in Parsa, particularly in the Churiaamaai jungle in Makwanpur. During this time, I witnessed a rare sight of three-quarters of a pack of Dhole engaged in a Sambhar hunting. It remains one of the most beautiful memories of my life.
As my interest in Dholey deepened, I decided to conduct research on their status in 2021. Despite an initial rejection of my proposal to Ruford, I resubmitted it and was pleasantly surprised to be selected. With a full scholarship, I commenced my research on Dhole, which is still ongoing and will be published soon.
Throughout the Pleistocene era, Dhole, also known as the Asiatic wild dog, roamed across Asia, Europe, and North America. However, approximately 12–18 thousand years ago, their presence became confined to select Asian nations, including Nepal, India, China, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. Flourishing in diverse habitats such as dry woods, wet forests, warm evergreens, warm rainforests, and open plains, Dhole exhibit adaptability at altitudes ranging from sea level to an impressive 5,300 meters. Remarkably, sightings in Nepal have been documented at elevations as high as 4,350 meters, indicating their widespread distribution in the country’s protected areas and parks.
Beyond their geographic range, Dhole showcase remarkable communication skills. Emitting distinctive sounds like “Sisi..Sisi,” they mimic human speech and employ whistling to convey messages within their packs. The intricacies of their vocalizations, including screams, meows, and chicken-like crows, pose an intriguing avenue for future research.
Known for their prowess as hunters, Dhole employ strategic tactics during pursuits. They engage in relentless running to exhaust their prey before initiating an attack, showcasing speeds of up to 30 mph. Astoundingly, they target creatures four to ten times their size, including Cows, Chauri, and Wild Bears.
Operating in packs, Dhole exhibit a coordinated approach to hunting. Surrounding their prey from all angles, they commence consumption while the victim is still alive, displaying their innate predatory instincts. Their hunting techniques involve leaping to hinder their target, occasionally causing blindness by assaulting the eyes.
Breeding season for Dhole typically begins around September, with a healthy alpha female capable of birthing up to 12 cubs. The pregnancy lasts 60–63 days, during which the pack supports the mother by providing nourishment in the den. Impressively, offspring born in this manner actively participate in hunting alongside adults after six months, contributing to the capture of larger prey like sambar by the age of eight months. This comprehensive exploration unravels the captivating behaviors and ecological dynamics of the fascinating Dhole.
Through my research spanning from 2015 to the present day, it has become evident that Nepal, with approximately 20% of its land dedicated to environmental protection, faces considerable challenges in garnering interest and support for Dhole conservation. The exact number of Dhole, their distribution patterns, environmental requirements, and the availability of food sources remain elusive. This issue is not unique to Nepal but is a common concern in other regions where Dhole are found. The conservation efforts for these Dholes have recently gained momentum through the Dhole Working Group (DWG) under the Candid Specialist Group, with Ambika Dai (Pd Khatiwada) and myself serving as DWG representatives in Nepal. Conferences such as the one held in Thailand and the second conference in Sauraha are crucial steps in determining Dholes numbers, establishing suitable environments, and formulating effective conservation action plans.
The conservation landscape for many small yet vulnerable creatures, including Dhole, is further complicated by governmental policies that predominantly focus on safeguarding larger species—a significant oversight. While the Forest Policy 2071 emphasizes the need for studies and research to protect diverse flora and fauna, the disparity is evident in the government’s preference for larger wild animals. This biased approach hampers effective conservation strategies.
Despite the critical role Dholes play in the ecosystem, they are listed as endangered in both the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List and Nepal’s National Red List. The misconception that wildlife conservation should be financially driven has led to inadequate measures. Challenges such as expanding human encroachment into forest areas, reduced edible species diversity, increased use of poisons and traps, inadequate wildlife-friendly infrastructure, and the spread of diseases by domestic dogs pose threats to Dhole conservation efforts.
Habitat degradation due to dwindling water sources, illegal exploitation of Chure Range, resulting in water scarcity in parks like Parsa National Park, further exacerbates the challenges. Conflicts between local communities and Dhole escalate as retaliation for livestock harm, leading to harmful methods like applying insecticides, setting traps, and shooting.
The drying up of water sources likely contributes to the decline in Dholey populations. Recent growth in the trade of Dhole’s hair (Bhutla, nepali) adds another layer of complexity to conservation. Historical factors, such as the decline during the British Raj due to sport hunting, also play a role in the challenges faced.
Globally, biodiversity degradation is rapidly increasing, posing a significant threat alongside climate change. Achieving Sustainable Development Goals is at risk, with forest dog conservation facing obstacles such as wetland depletion, deforestation, forest fragmentation, landslides, erosion, and overexploitation of natural resources. Addressing these challenges is paramount for the sustained well-being of Dhole populations and the broader ecosystem.
Asking these questions marks the initial stride in conservation efforts. Why should we preserve Dhole, and what are the benefits? The answer is inherently straightforward: safeguarding forest dogs translates to safeguarding our environment. The undeniable reality is that humans cannot manufacture Dhole; they are a precious gift from nature. This ethical principle underscores the irrationality of allowing any animal to face extinction. If Dhole were to go extinct, the rich tapestry of their family history would be lost forever, emphasizing the conservation goal of preserving lineage and heritage. Recognizing this, the medical community acknowledges the moral imperative to prevent the extinction of any living being.
Every creature, humans included, plays a vital role in the intricate ecological system and biological diversity, akin to the contribution of birds. The intricate web of life is disrupted even by a minute disturbance in any of its components. Each wild animal possesses the right to lead a natural life, and preserving this diversity is indispensable for human survival. Human progress is inconceivable without a harmonious connection with nature. Ultimately, the conservation of Dhole is not merely an act of preservation but an investment in the sustenance of our interconnected world.
In an unfortunate turn of events, the responsibility to safeguard critically endangered species like the Dhole and advocate for the global interest falls on the shoulders of a limited number of individuals working within the government. It is regrettable that, while the government is expected to move forward with the Dhole Conservation Action Plan, individuals with constrained resources like us bear the weight of this responsibility. There is a pressing need for the government to prioritize Dhole conservation and either extend assistance to us or seek our support.
Achieving biodiversity conservation entails the judicious and fair distribution of genetic resources, coupled with the sustainable utilization of components within the biodiversity spectrum. When formulating strategic approaches and plans for global biodiversity conservation, restoration, and sustainable management, due attention should be accorded to the effective treatment of small mammals, particularly those severely endangered, such as the Dholes.
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