Sabyasachi Patra

Wild India | Sambar attacking Wild Dogs

Wild India | Sambar attacking wild dogs

 

I have been visiting many national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other protected areas of Wild India and have documented many rare natural history moments involving predators. However, the scene that unfolded before my eyes of prey attacking its predators is one of the finest moments that Wild India can dish out for its humble students.

Except for a brief sighting of elephants who immediately ran away when our jeep started climbing the hill, it was an uneventful afternoon in Bandipur Tiger Reserve with no sighting of the other mega fauna like tiger, leopards and gaur. There were sightings – of a few cheetals browsing, a hoopoe using its long beak to dig up juicy morsels from the ground, and that of a crested serpent eagle perched on a branch virtually motionless, except for slight head turns to scan its surroundings -  which will dishearten the normal tourist. Except for a few questions that I answered of a school kid, whom I had allowed to come in my jeep due to the request of the hotel manager, I was silent trying to hear the sounds of the jungle.

We planned to check kavare katte – a large water body – and then exit the forest. From a distance we could see a few sambar’s in the water. When we moved in closer, the enormity of the situation quickly unfolded. It was one of the finest natural history moments that one can dream of experiencing in Wild India.

A pack of dholes (Cuon alpinus) or wild dogs* as they are often referred to by people, were on the hunt and to escape them the Sambars (Cervus unicolor) had entered the water. I could sight one fawn in the group.

Wild India | Dholes or Wild dogs attacking sambar in water. These two sambar are in the frontline stamping their feet in water.

The Sambar being tall were standing in more than knee deep water. The wild dogs or doles (Cuon alpinus) were around 12-15 in number and were part of the 28 pack group. Wisely the wild dogs were not entering the water, as in doing so they need to swim where as the sambar just need to stand and can conserve their energy.

The wild dogs (Cuon alpinus) were running from one end to the other to seemingly disorient and divide the herd of sambars. This group of sambars were an all hind group with one fawn. There were two Sambar’s standing side by side with about a feet and half distance between them in shallow waters and others of the group were a few meters behind in deeper water. These two Sambars were stamping their feet in water in unison and the water was splashing about three feet above their heads. They appeared like frontline soldiers in this battle.

Wild India | A Sambar deer Cervus unicolor comes out of the water hole and tries to chase away the dholes in Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The dholes have chased the Sambar and the Sambar have taken refuge in the water hole. Dholes being smaller than Sambar, need to swim in water and will tire faster. One Sambar from the herd decides to counter attack the dholes.

Suddenly the Sambar on the left – first two a couple of steps towards the wild dogs stamping its feet in the process to intimidate the dholes (Cuon alpinus). The Sambar’s tail was cocked up, as one expects to see it when the sambar is alarmed or when two stags duel with each other. The ruff of hair around its neck were standing straight up as if carefully combed to remain erect like the feathers on the roman emperor’s helmet. Its body partially wet due to the water splashing on it was still up, perhaps as a sign of danger. Its ears were straight and wide and angled ahead. Its neck was lowered a bit and stretched ahead with its ears in line with its body. The Sambar then increased its speed and moved into a trot and reached near a wild dog (Cuon alpinus) and started watching it. The wild dog (Cuon alpinus) like an opportunist, moved a couple of steps ahead as if it will launch itself on the sambar’s head and catch hold of either ear, eye or nose. The Sambar was now standing very straight and showed its full height and its neck was angled lower and ahead towards the wild dog. The wild dog sensed that the Sambar will charge and immediately jumped to its left and ran away. The sambar stopped in its tracks and then turned its head towards its left as by this time two more wild dogs had appeared in the scene hoping to attack the Sambar. The Sambar then lunged forward at the dhole on its left. The head of the Sambar was angled down and its hind legs were in the air as if it wanted to crush the dhole by pinning it to the ground. The dhole started running for dear life where as the other wild dog (Cuon alpinus) was watching the scene carefully, suggesting they are expert players in this game.

Wild India | Attacking the attackers

The wild dogs were careful in avoiding the assault as a frontal head butt can cause serious fracture as well as a kick by the hind legs can rip the wild dog apart. The Sambar on its part only charged for a short distance and then moved back into the water. This went on for sometime. Interestingly this Sambar had a sore patch on its neck.

A Sambar (Cervus unicolor) counter-attacking dholes (Cuon alpinus) in Bandipur Tiger Reserve

All this while, the mother Sambar was standing infront of the fawn to shield it. The mother was in knee deep water and the fawn’s complete legs were within the water. At this moment the mother and fawn had got separated a bit from the group while the Sambar which was charging at the wild dogs was on their left.

Sambar (Cervus unicolor) mother and fawn vs wild dog (Cuon alpinus) in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, India

During this moment sensing an opportunity a wild dog (Cuon alpinus) moved in towards the mother and fawn. Immediately, the mother started striking the water with its foreleg in the characteristic fashion when they are alarmed. The sambar ws stamping its foot so hard, perhaps due to its nervousness that the water splashing high up.  The wild dog stopped in its tracks and looked at its left towards the other dholes. The mother Sambar which had taken two steps ahead, took a break from foot stamping and turned its head to its right towards its fawn, to lick and reassure the baby. It was a very poignant moment.

Sambar mother reassuring the fawn when the attacking dhole is momentarily distracted

One of the two sentinel Sambars now appeared on the scene and started engaging the wild dogs who were six strong at that spot and could easily attack the Sambar from the flanks. The mother was now standing side wise to completely hide the fawn from the wild dogs.

 

Sambar mother hiding its fawn while another Sambar counter-attacking the dholes in Bandipur Tiger Reserve

Suddenly the mother as well as the other Sambar together launched an attack at the wild dogs and then turned back and came into the water again. To me they looked like two big horses being chased back. While running into the water they moved a couple of steps beyond the fawn completely exposing it. Fortunately, before the wild dogs could attack, the fawn jumped and ran to meet its mother.

Sambars counter-attacking the dholes as the fawn looks on

After this one attack the mother didn’t participate in attacks any more. The number of wild dogs at that spot were now eight and the other Sambar was now launching vicious attacks on the wild dogs. It even tried to strike at the wild dogs with its front right foreleg. I had never seen the use of foreleg before by a herbivore in defending or attacking. However, A. A. Dunbar Barander has seen this behavior before with his tame dogs. He writes “A herd of five hinds once rounded on a pack of large useful dogs of mine, and knocking the dogs over right and left drove them right up to my feet, taking all further desire to molest sambar hinds out of their composition for their time being.”

Sambar counter-attacking the dholes using its foreleg in Bandipur Tiger Reserve

Two more Sambars of the herd came from the other part of the lake to save them as the wild dog pack were now convering on this point and their number had increased to ten. The sun had already set and it was increasingly becoming dark and my camera shutter speed was becoming extremely low despite using high ISOs and a 400mm f2.8 lens. The wild dogs appeared dispirited and some of them started lying down to take rest. Since the Indian wild dogs or dholes don’t normally hunt in the night, they abandoned the hunt. The Sambar’s also understood that the wild dogs have abandoned the attack and then started leaving the water from the other side. However, the mother and fawn remained in the shallow waters. It was time for us to leave the forest.

In the night, I was thinking whether the wild dogs will break their habit of not hunting in the dark and come back and attack the fawn? Next day morning, I returned to the same area and saw the wild dogs were frolicking with each other at a place which was hardly a few minutes from the waterbody. And when I reached the waterbody, I found the mother and fawn still standing in water. The sun was shining on them and then infront of me they slowly moved out of the water and into the forest.

This raised many questions in my mind. Did the Sambar’s communicate with each other before leaving? Did the other sambar’s urge the mother to leave with them but it was so frightened and benumbed by the attack that it didn’t move out of water? Unlike elephants who use their trunks to touch each other during moments of stress, the other sambar’s didn’t do any such thing. Perhaps their verbal communication was not audible to my ears which has become accustomed to high decibles in the urban jungles? Perhaps the sambar’s felt that since the danger was over it was right for them to move out of water and retire for the night.

Dunbar Brander in his book “Wild Animals in Central India” relates a scene where a Sambar was attacked in the pool by tame dogs and its faculties were benumbed. Dunbar Brander writes “In a small peafowl beat at Kolkas in the Melghat, two fox terriers ran a full-grown doe sambar into a deep pool, swam out, and mounting its back, which was flush with the water, crawled along and attacked its head. The deer was defenceless. In order to save it, two Korkus and myself waded out and dispersed the dogs. The sambar allowed us to handle it, and with infinite care we coaxed it ashore, where it continued to stand between us, and one of the Korkus actually started to rub it down. It was in no way hurt. It is only fair to add that it had a fawn on the hillside close by. I do not ascribe its behavior however to maternal solicitude, but to the fact that its faculties were benumbed by the terror inspired by the dogs, and that it preferred our, or any company, to theirs. We had considerable difficulty in getting it to move away to the forest. It is also necessary to state however that sambar do not always behave in this way…”

Clearly, the mother sambar was terribly frightened and didn’t want to move out of water, even though other members of the herd moved away from the water.

In the jungle for every species self preservation comes first. When there is danger, the herd comes to help and once the spectre of death is removed, they immediately pick up their lives and go back to their routines. Even if that meant leaving a shell shocked mother with its child in the water.

* Local Names of Wild Dogs (Cuon alpinus):

Oriya: Balia kukura

Bengali: Bono kukur

Hindi: Jangli Kutta, ban kutta, ram kutta

Marathi: Kolsa

Kannada: kadu nayi

Malaylam & Tamil: Chennayi

If you know of names of Wild Dogs or dholes (Cuon alpinus) in the local language then you can post in the comments section below. You can also share your observations and comments on Wild India | Sambar attacking Wild Dogs in the comments section below.

Sabyasachi Patra

Sabyasachi is an award winning DoP/Cinematographer, passionate wildlife filmmaker and photographer. He has been striving to make his films and photographs full of life and emotion and write articles to educate and evangelise the need for conserving the last tracts of vanishing wilderness and wildlife in our country. He hopes that his wildlife films, photographs and writings force people to pause, look, ponder and ultimately take action.
His documentary film ‘A Call in the Rainforest’ has been screened at various national and international film festivals.

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