Did you know that the Minnesota Zoo is one of only three places in North America where you can see a dhole? Dholes (Cuon alpinus) are wild canids—mammals that are members of the dog family. If you spotted them at our Zoo, you may have thought they looked like red foxes or some kind of small wolf. Hardly anyone knows about them, yet they are important predators in tropical forests and grasslands of Southeast Asia. They are secretive and live in highly social, close-knit packs of three to 20 individuals. Dholes hunt cooperatively and maintain communication with pack members by ‘whistling’ through dense forests.
With approximately 2,500 individuals remaining in the wild, there are fewer dholes than tigers left in the wild! The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists dholes as “endangered” with declining populations. They face threats that are similar to those of other wild canid species such as wolves. In parts of their range, dholes are accused of killing livestock and come into conflict with people. Additional threats come from the depletion of their food sources (primarily deer) by poachers and conversion of their habitats to livestock pasture or agricultural land.
Dholes are often overlooked with regards to conservation initiatives due to the lack of basic ecological information available on the species and because they are overshadowed by other charismatic carnivores like tigers. The Minnesota Zoo’s Conservation Department, in partnership with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), is focusing conservation efforts on remaining dhole populations in Thailand. Previous camera-trap studies led by Minnesota Zoo Conservation Biologist, Dr. Kate Jenks, confirmed that domestic dogs travel into protected areas and their movements overlap with dhole packs and other wild carnivores. Most dogs in Thailand are unvaccinated and roam freely, so this high degree of contact between dogs and wild animals could lead to disease transmission. Any new disease epidemic introduced into dhole populations would be devastating due to their already low numbers.
Our research will focus on understanding the transmission of disease from dogs to wild carnivores of conservation concern. We aim to assess the prevalence of disease in wild carnivores and educate local villagers, specifically youth, about the importance of wildlife and the impact of free-ranging domestic dogs to encourage long-term conservation of wild carnivores in Thailand.