On one of our frequent forays into the nearby wilderness areas, three of us set out for a ramble one late afternoon. The area to be explored was a fairly level area of grassy plains and scrub jungle leading up to a low range of forested hills. The area right at the base of the hills was thick scrub jungle and before that to be traversed was a plain of grassland with a few small patches of shola here and there, and with one sharply cut, well wooded nullah, about 50 feet deep and 40 to 50 feet wide at the top, cutting its way through the plain carrying the occasional runoff from the hills.
This nullah is frequently used by herds of elephant coming out of the hills in search of the waters of the perennial Moyar river.
As we hit our stride pretty soon, we made good ground and were soon getting to the end of the plains. There was one last shallow dip ahead of us and as we got to the edge we came to a sudden halt. What had startled us were the patches of red here and there visible through the low undergrowth and dried grasses. Now, any sort of red is a colour that one keeps an eye out for especially in these particular forests where tigers are not that uncommon.
The light had taken on that glowing golden glow that is unique to parts of the Nilgiris. It happens as if by magic in the late mornings and again with a slightly different character in the late afternoons. The uplifting and enveloping feeling of that quality of light is very hard to describe, but it is also fantastic light for photography. It was in this setting that the red patches looked very intriguing. We were still and observant and saw the lookouts in turn raise their heads above the grass to check us out.
Initially I thought it was a small pack of red hunting dogs (sen-nai in Tamil, dhole in hindi) that we had chanced upon. Soon though, we realized that we were seeing a lot more than that and our estimates were of 25 to 30 dogs, which is a very unusually large pack of the asiatic hunting dog (Cuon alpinus) or simply red hunting dogs.This was about 7 years ago. I have been back to the area so many times since but never seen more than one or two and recently even that hasn't happened.
Much misinformation surrounds these fantastic animals. They are without doubt the very best hunters around. It is said that once they start after a prey (spotted dear, sambar, and sometimes even young bison) they do not quit until they succeed. The pack hunt is an incredibly complex and scientific operation with two or three relay groups operating in tandem and communicating with each other through complex whistled signals. Yet, they are completely harmless to humans and will not even defend their kills from encroaching humans. The entire pack also cooperates in bringing up the cubs with various members donating regurgitated meat to the fast developing cubs. It therefore requires a pack of at least 6 or 7 individuals to successfully bring the cubs to maturity. We are rarely aware of these wonderful animals as inside the forests as they are such silent movers and very alert to avoid humans.
On another occasion, we had some novices along and with quite a bunch of kids too so, while some of us set out on a longer hike, we sent this 'family group' to a small rock that affords a nice view of the same plain area and is only a couple of kilometers in. This was an early morning walk and as they were about half way there a herd of spotted deer came running right at them. Now, this is very unusual indeed and the forest guide immediately stopped the group. The deer broke right round them and kept going without even a pause. Right behind them came three red dogs in hot pursuit. Seeing the humans, they stopped in their tracks, investigated, and, their hunt spoiled for the day, quietly disappeared.
Wonderful animals, the Indian hunting dog seems to be going the way of the rest of the forests. As we systematically cut our way through our small remaining patches of forest, and as we occupy and 'develop' every bit of the cleared land, all our unique wild animals are disappearing. The 'sen-nai' depends on a plentiful supply of deer to keep their packs going. The same is of course required by leopards and tigers. All three will therefore soon disappear into the archives of the history of humankind's wholesale destruction of nature.