Thursday, December 20, 2007
Stalwart pariah dogs -- Part 1
"It is on record that in the station of Gumsoor not a single dog escaped, and nearly every resident of India who has ever camped out in the jungle where leopards are, or has lived in 'the hills' has had some tragic experience of this mania of the leopard for dogs." Belgravia, 1883
Back in my Nepal days, there was a small patch of scrub jungle in the dusty town of Narayanghat. It was on the west side of town not far from the Tikoli Reserve Forest. Like a lot of Nepal's terai it looked rough and scraggly. In fact, it mirrored much of what had happened to that exotic belt of jungle when foreign aid and DDT opened the area in the 1950s. With the threat of malaria gone, the local Tharu people, who were resistent to the disease found they had new neighbors from the hills, and the land started to change. Men and boys had long since lopped and cut down the trees, women had gathered the sticks for firewood, and goats and cattle had stripped the forbs and grass. The remaining thicket was a thorny wasteland.
In the early 1980s the local jemandar or headman decided to make use of the land and hired villagers to slash the thicket. In the center of the thicket they found an opening littered with bones. The Smithsonian Nepal Tiger Ecology Project was going full tilt at the time, and word of the find reached the American and Nepali graduate students working on the project.
The bones were of pariah or pie dogs, and there were many. The villagers had found a leopard's lair beside a dusty road in a busy little town. The number of bones was testimony to the leopard's many successful forays into the village, and the thicket had been the perfect hideout.
It seems no one had seen or heard the cat, and if anyone heard the cries of dying dogs it probably didn't register, because dog noise is the night song of the Nepalese village. Rarely does anyone notice a missing pie dog -- they are more or less communal property. Dogs come and go, and in Narayanghat they were a sustainable resource. If the smell of carrion drifted from those scraps of dog meat in the leopard's lair, they blended well with the town's organic ambience.
The leopard's fondness for dogs is well known in rural Asia, and baiting leopards with a village pie dog was an acceptable practice of colonial sportsmen like J.A. Duke, who nearly 80 years ago was moved to pen his experience with one. Indian civilian's like Duke, a policeman and a hunter, were frequently sought to shoot maneaters, rogues, crop raiders, and other forms of nuisance wildlife.
In this case, the villagers had appealed for relief from a leopard that had been killing livestock.
It worked like this. If the hunter couldn't find and stake out a fresh kill, he had his shikaries peg a live bait animal to a short tether in a small opening in the jungle. Then he hid in a machan or tree stand within close shooting range.
Success depended on procuring a suitable bait animal. Suitability meant that the creature would make enough noise to lure the quarry within shooting range, that it was readily available, and that it could be had for free or at minimal expense.
Duke didn't have the heart to use a tail-wagging half-grown pup. So next he tried a goat. It assumed a "statuesque attitude beside the peg to which it was tied and remained absolutely silent". So much for that one. Another goat attempted suicide by hanging on the rope and "never opened its mouth". Then a pie dog was found, but it's muteness also earned it dismissal.
In Duke's words, "...I was getting a bit fed up and pessimistic. . . .However, I said another dog must be produced."
Finally the shikaris found a stalwart pie dog that showed promise, but it revealed its suitability only after they whacked it a few times with a cane. "The dog was naturally furious and expressed his feelings in fierce growls, and, thank goodness, two or three loud barks." The dog was tethered to the peg and Duke took up his shooting position.
"Not long afterwards the silence was rent by a series of howls, growls, and barks from the dog...," which Duke saw dancing about on its chain facing off the invisible foe lurking in the shadows. With the next uproar the leopard revealed itself in the torchlight. It was circling and swatting at the defiant dog, "but it was obviously deterred from going right in and killing with his teeth by the dog's galant and terrific defence".
Duke shot the leopard, which dashed off and died, while the dog watched its disappearance into the brush with vociferous bravado. As he climbed down from the tree, the dog "...managed to detach the chain and bolted off into the jungle, naturally in the opposite direction to that of the leopard."
Duke noted, "I am glad to record he rolled up in his village alright and complete with chain. He had lost a good deal of skin from his face and chest, but so far as I know is alive and well to this day."
Duke, J.A. 1929. A stalwart pariah dog. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, XXXIII(2):428-430.