It is beginning October again and the National Parks all over the country start opening for tourism. Like each year I explore a park or two in different regions to see what changes the monsoons have brought with them. This year took me to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve & Pench Tiger Reserve. Monsoons impacted both the parks quite differently this year – Ranthambhore received a very poor monsoon this year which led to very little swelling of water bodies, most of the park is still quite dry and with cubs in most zones within the park this should turn out to be a year of difficulties (in terms of water supplies) for the wildlife, however, very fruitful in terms of wildlife sightings for the park visitors. Though my visit to the park was short (just 1 day) I managed to sight 6 tigers with sightings for 3 hours of the tiger, I saw a sloth bear as he climbed up a tree to pick off the colony of ants, a desert fox, Indian gazelle, blue bulls, sambar deer, axis deer and a whole diversity of summer birds such as the paradise flycatcher and the Indian Pitta. Overall a more than fruitful day in the park.
Pench however, was quite a contrast to Ranthambhore. The monsoon rains had transformed the dry teak forest into an ocean of green. Everywhere you looked it was just green. The ground which is usually brown from the fallen dry leaves and dried out grass was covered in weeds. Lantana as usual had taken over part of the forest and with this much foliage I did not see the big cat. Those who were lucky caught a glimpse of ‘Collarwali’ tigress with her cubs at a distance too far to be covered even by a 600mm prime (not that I had one handy 😉. But my highlight during the couple of days that I was in Pench was the dhole (Asiatic wild dogs) sighting. For those of you who do not know these whistling dogs are perhaps the most successful hunters in the Indian jungles with a 75% success rate on their hunts – much higher than that of any big cat. What made this sighting exciting was that this was the first time that I got a chance to study a hostile takeover of one packs territory by the other. Pench has two popular packs within the main tourist zones – A pack of 11 dogs whose territory ranges south of Kalapahad area to Turia gate and the other a pack of 5 dogs that range from Sita ghat down to Alikatta grasslands and close to Joda Munara to the east. The territory over which this fight took place was the Alikatta grasslands a prime prey area next to the Pench river.
Since Kalapahad and almost the entire territory of the pack of 11 was closed for tourists as the road network was still damaged from this year’s monsoons, I spent most of my time with the pack of 5 dogs. We spent hours observing their social behaviour, how they communicated with one another through yelps and whistles and when on a strong trail they spread out and through the thick foliage and coordinated their efforts to find prey. Till last year this pack was a strong pack of 7 dogs. It stands today at 5 as one dog was cast out of the pack as he reached maturity and wanted to mate with the females of the pack a right remains entirely with the Alpha male within the wild dog society – thus he was cast out of the pack. The second dog was killed last season by Collarwali tigress who is raising another litter – probably her last one. She is still formidable and probably has the record for raising the largest number of litters and cubs. Her last few litters were raised in record time of 15-18 months where most cubs stay under their mother’s care and protection till they are about 2-2.5 years old.
Day 2 we found the pack early morning and somehow, they seemed more excited / nervous. 2 members of the pack constantly were sniffing and were on some sort of the scent trail whereas the other three kept a lookout on all sides and trailed behind. Even the large number of tourist vehicles that were looking out for the tiger and had settled for wild dog sightings did not bother them or get in their way as they weaved through the jeeps completely focussed on the scent trail. I thought I will get be the unlucky one to witness a gruesome murder of an axis deer as dogs, who are not the top predator in the forest often start eating their prey even before they have killed it as tigers and leopards often steal their prey from them. Yet I could sense some tension /excitement amongst the pack and continued to follow them as most fell away after hearing some alarm calls on the other side of Alikatta grasslands which seemed most likely for a tiger. With just a couple of jeeps we stayed with the pack that seemed to cover ground at a relatively fast clip. The chase took us towards Joda Munara cross section where the dogs stopped tracking and fanned out for what seemed to be a long silence without much communication. Just the Alpha came close to the track and then within seconds we saw 11 wild dogs attack from the other side. More than 4 km north of their territory this pack wanted to take over the grasslands where visibility and prey base was too much of a temptation. In the next couple of minutes, the Alpha dogs of both packs commanded their soldiers who chased and fought each other. 16 dogs running, chasing and biting each other amongst yelps and shrieks in all directions. Then as soon as it started it was over – there was no dog in sight, you could only hear a couple of painful yelps from either side of the road. For close to forty minutes we looked for the dogs but none could be seen then we saw two emerge on the side of the road. They seemed to be searching for others, I thought it was the pack of 5 that got scattered and were looking for their companions. The Alpha – darker in colour with beautiful white marking on the neck was nowhere to be seen. Even though survival of the fittest is the norm of the jungle I was hoping not to find any dogs dead or fatally injured. These search dogs made no sounds they made no attempts to communicating verbally with their packs making us doubt that this was the same pack. We drove further east and found 5 dogs by the roadside along with the Alpha and very skittish. Although most of them seemed to have no injuries the Alpha had a nasty gash around the collar area. He went around checking the pack for injuries but every sound, even that of our jeeps made him jump around. After spending a few minutes with them we left the pack resting by the roadside not wanting to stress them any further. Unfortunately, the pack that I spent the last few days with and somehow managed to bond enough to get close to lay there defeated.
I will probably have to visit Pench a couple of time during the season to see how they fare, but as of now I am happy that they all made it even though their pride was severely hurt having lost one of the best hunting grounds within the park. This was one of my most memorable wild dog experience in the Indian jungles. There was literally no disappointment about the fact that I didn’t see a tiger or a leopard as what I witnessed was something truly rare and not witnessed by many.