Down in Jungleland: The many relatives of man’s best friendhttps://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/down-jungleland-pack-power-5575455/

Down in Jungleland: The many relatives of man’s best friend

By and large, they all share the same basic design: long-pointed muzzles, deep chests, strong legs, long bushy tails, and intelligence that conveyed frank shrewdness rather than the slit-eyed cunning of their great rivals: the cats.

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Close-up of a Fennec fox (Vulpes zerda).Close-up of a sleeping Fennec fox (Vulpes zerda).

I’ve always wondered how the relationship between us and the family of foxes, wild dogs, jackals, coyotes, and wolves, etc., might have started. Way back when we were hunter-gatherers, they say the first bond might have been forged. The family’s ancestors must have followed human bands, perhaps scavenging from the remnants of our hunts, and then gradually ingratiating themselves into our lives, till at least one branch of the family turned into what we have for long deemed our “best friends”: domestic dogs.

They are a diverse family, which have used brain and cooperation over brawn and solitariness to spread right across the world — except Antarctica. Some, like the dingoes of Australia, were helped to get across by us. Each group has pragmatically chosen its own niche, so that there was no ruthless competition between them.

By and large, they all share the same basic design: long-pointed muzzles, deep chests, strong legs, long bushy tails, and intelligence that conveyed frank shrewdness rather than the slit-eyed cunning of their great rivals: the cats.

Foxes, renowned for their cunningness and canniness, were among the smallest, specialising in hunting insects, birds and small rodents. They are, perhaps, the most solitary of the clan, pairs bringing up young in dens underground. While some are specialists, most get by on virtually anything, and, in Europe, have even taken to living in big cosmopolitan cities like London. They have, alas, also been hideously persecuted not only because they tend to get into chicken runs — but also because of their gorgeous “bushes” or tails: the foxhunts of England being just one appalling example of sheer cruelty from a self-proclaimed animal-loving nation. Foxes, too, come in a wide variety, from the tiny fennec fox, with its enormous butterfly-like ears, to the sleek and slithery Arctic fox which changes its coat according to the season — and follows polar bears around. The standard image of the fox is, of course, the above-mentioned red fox, almost hunted to oblivion but now taking us on, in our own urban habitats.

Jackals, too, have been given a bad rap — perhaps, only because they are largely scavengers — they skulk behind the larger predators such as the big cats, looking for scraps. Some (like the golden jackal) are handsome: they’re perky, intelligent, and know how to make full use of any opportunity. Alas, they’ve been reviled for their alleged cowardice — even though they actively hunt rodents, birds and insects when the need arises. In countries like India, they serve a great “clean-up” purpose, by finishing off carcasses before they can spread infection.

Wild dogs — whether the formidable “red dog” or dhole, or the African ‘“painted” dog — are among the most feared. They’re relentless pack hunters of the plains, using advanced communication skills to keep in touch with each other and strategise during a chase. They’ll pick out a victim, and chase it down to exhaustion, before attacking either head on or simply disemboweling it while on the run. These are family-minded animals and the whole pack will often return to a den of cubs bearing gifts for the baba log. Unlike his African cousin, the Indian dhole hunts in forests, possibly because there are no wild open plains left in India as there are in Africa.

The largest and most feared member of the canids has to be the wolves. The European grey wolf, which measures up to 2 m in length and weighs nearly 80 kg, is a truly formidable animal, capable of singularly taking down large deer. With its shaggy coat and incredible commando skills, bite force, and huge stamina, nothing seems to stop them from getting what they want. They also happen to be the ancestors of our best friend: the dog.

It is pack power that has made the canids such a success: Only the alpha male and female of the pack breed —and the rest of the members, usually progeny from earlier generations, all cooperate to take care of the young. They communicate by smell, touch, gestures (tail wagging), and calls. We’re fortunate in India that we have representatives from nearly all members of the clan. Our canids, whether foxes, jackals or wolves, are generally smaller and rangier than their northern, foreign cousins, and some, like the wolf, are getting very scarce on the ground as their habitats are being destroyed.

The one member of the clan that has, perhaps, done better than it needs to, is the pie dog — its success due to its ingenuity, ingratiating manner, pack mentality and general sturdiness. “Strays” do serve a useful purpose as scavengers, and street guards, though bands that have started roaming national parks and sanctuaries are proving problematic as they take down rare animals and birds and can spread disease.

As for the rest of this “band of brothers”, we are, alas, relentlessly running them ragged and the day will not be far when even they can run no more.

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This article appeared in the print with the headline: Down in Jungleland: Pack Power