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At some stage most sambar hunters will encounter wild dogs up in deer country. Be it on the track driving in, listening to their howls in a mountain basin or crossing paths with them in the bush. Some hunters choose to leave them alone, others will shoot them if the dogs are in the right location at the right time and the shot won’t disturb their hunt and some hunters will shoot every dog they encounter. I guess our mindsets change as we get older and wiser and most hunters will probably go through different attitudes towards wild dogs. One thing is for sure though is wild dogs are firmly entrenched in our ecosystem and they have adapted very well to the mountainous country alongside our beloved sambar deer.
Unfortunately there are no pure bred dingoes that occupy our sambar range. We can categorize all of them as wild or feral dogs as they are a mixture of race, size and color. It’s true some will show strong dingo type traits, but that’s as far as it goes and genetic testing proves this. Simply put there have been far too many domesticated dogs of mixed origin diluting the gene pool for many years. For better or worse this infusion of interbreeding has helped create our own canine that is more than capable of taking it to all the wild animals we have in South Eastern Australia. Being such a large bodied animal, sambar are surely attractive to wild dogs as a valuable source of protein.
Whilst there are plenty of dollars spent on controlling wild dogs, what we don’t understand too well is how they actually interact with our deer herds, and specifically wild sambar. Like the wolves and coyotes in America, the dhole of India, the African wild dog and the golden jackals of Europe there are predatory canines in most regions where sustainable game herds are established. Our wild dogs are poisoned, trapped and shot at every opportunity, but they are survivors and very good at evading contact with humans. This makes their population hard to monitor and even harder to control. They are capable of breeding large litters and with no direct predation apart from humans intervention and maybe an opportunistic eagle they are capable of multiplying rapidly.
Wild dogs dietary intake is broad and wide ranging according to the season, elevation they are living at and the range they are occupying. The bush is full of food for animals prepared to be adaptable to the conditions and wild dogs are one animal that will never starve from a lack of resource to hunt and consume. Wild dogs that live within striking distance of farm country and the livestock that are farmed will have abundant opportunity for easy prey and there is constant conflict with the farmers who try to protect their industry. Those wild dogs that live a bit deeper in the bush will have a large range of native and introduced animals to hunt and this includes our beloved sambar deer. There is no doubt that wild dogs prey on sambar but we really don’t know to what extent they actually impact on them, if they affect herd dynamics and if they target specific animals at certain times of the year.
Wild dogs and newborn sambar calves
Referring to wildlife studies across the western states of America it has been concluded that coyotes have a big impact on fawn survival rates for both mule deer and elk. It can be as high as 30% mortality to newborn fawns from coyotes alone in some regions. And that’s not including the take from other predators such as wolves, bears, eagles and cougars. The way coyotes hunt down prey is be very similar to the method used by our wild dogs. Scenting their way constantly as they navigate terrain searching for prey. Whilst mule deer and elk tend to have a congested fawn drop period due to a regulated estrus cycle of the females, it means that the predators know when the fawns are dropping and they heavily target them. Sambar of course do not have a narrow window for calf drop, it is periodic and can be at any time of the year. However I am very confident wild dogs in certain areas prey heavily on new born and young sambar calves. It is a perfect food source for them to consume, especially when they don’t have the strength and stamina of older animals.
One area I backpack into always holds strong populations of deer, its remote and takes a decent hike to get into. I never shot a lot of deer out of the area, just enjoyed taking the odd stag and learning about the resident animals. After a few hunts in there I started realizing that I was seeing good numbers of seemingly healthy and mature hinds without calves or yearlings by their sides. Sure some might have been pregnant, but many didn’t appear to be and even if they were they should have had younger animals still with them in family groups. I started thinking they were getting preyed heavily on by the wild dogs. There were very few wallabies in the area, a reasonable amount of wombats, no rabbits, no wild horses and no feral sheep, goat, pig or cattle herds. A few trail cameras hung over active deer areas confirmed large numbers of wild dogs in family groups also called the plateau home. Over warmer months there were pups being born and it was obvious that these animals were there all year round. Dogs need to eat constantly and it became very clear that sambar were most likely their primary food source and the younger calves were obviously targeted whenever the opportunity presented.
I’m sure throughout the entire sambar range where wild dogs live there must be a reasonable percentage of mortality of younger animals by predation. It is extremely hard to even contemplate that figure in percentages, but it could be up to 10%, location and population dependent. Until we get studies completed by knowledgeable people across a wide range of areas then we are only trying to piece together a very large puzzle in relation to the predation of sambar calves.
Wild dogs and mature hinds
Wild dogs certainly target sambar hinds in the bush. For effort expanded versus protein gained they are the obvious choice for any pack. Wallabies, kangaroos, emus and wombats surely get eaten, but a large sambar hind must seem like the ultimate prey. Hinds would be an easier target then stags, as their endurance and ability to strike with sharp hooves are their only two methods of defense against attacking prey. Some might take to water in an attempt to throw off the dogs, but they really don’t have a lot to defend themselves against a pack of strong and seasoned dogs.
There is no co-incidence that wild dog numbers are especially high in areas with strong deer numbers that have minimal dog control and reduced human contact.
There are many reports first hand of bush users seeing a sambar hind come belting past along a river or down a gully with a number of wild dogs hot on her trail. Surely many of these pursuits end with a dead sambar. I have trail camera images of wild dogs pursuing a pregnant sambar hind along a creek and they appear to be in control of the situation. At some stage the deer will tire and this will allow the dogs to disable the animal.
Maybe the dogs single out more vulnerable hinds. Older animals, pregnant females, injured deer or sambar in poor health would all be appealing to a pack of wild dogs. It is even possible that after heavy snowfalls dogs hunt deer in areas where their mobility is decreased. Surely in much of the post bushfire habitat in sambar range it is much easier for a nimble dog to navigate windfall and thick scrub than it is a large heavy framed deer.
You only have to look on YouTube and see different videos where wild dogs have killed sambar hinds to see more evidence building that they do prey heavily on them. It is also possible that due to interaction with man a lot of hunting by wild dogs occurs at night and this could also be one of the reasons we don’t have a large amount of documented evidence of dogs killing sambar.
Wild dogs and stags
There is no doubt that a sambar stag in hard antler is a formidable opponent to any wild animal, but even a well coordinated group of dogs will be able to take him down. Once the stag is tired from a chase there is only so much he can do, especially if there are dogs attacking him from all angles. Its game over really for any stag once the dogs are committed.
Stags are in velvet for around one third of the year and at this time they must be quite vulnerable to wild dogs. They really only have their leg speed and hooves to defend themselves with when antlers are being grown. There is no co-incidence that during spring, summer and early autumn wild dogs are often found up at higher elevations in the Great Dividing Range and this is when many stags are in various stages of velvet. Wild dogs will be fully aware of this and it’s an ideal situation for them to be at these altitudes feeding their litters with the abundant supply of venison.
I often wonder whether dogs target sambar stags in velvet. There is every reason to believe they would be and it could partially explain why in some areas there should actually be more stags around then what hunters are finding. A pack of wild dogs could do considerable damage to our sambar stags over the warmer months.
The last few years I have hunted a basin where fallow bucks move to in mid March to rut on the resident does. It used to be insane action with croaking from the mature bucks turning up regularly and great hunting. The last couple ruts I have noticed greatly reduced rutting action at times when the bucks were previously most vocal. I had some suspicions and trail cameras proved that wild dogs also realized this is where the fallow congregated at a certain time of the year and the area held a large number of dogs at the same time the bucks turned up. The dogs followed the game trails, checked the rutting stands and visited the scrapes. It clearly put the fallow on edge and they certainly would have taken down their share. A fallow buck croaking would in turn be like a dinner bell to these dogs. This might be slightly off track, but it is a good example of how in tune dogs are to our deer herds, their habits and periods of when they are most vulnerable. They would certainly know when sambar are most vulnerable and where they are living at these times and target them at every opportunity.
Wild dogs and deer carcasses
Its been discussed that sambar hunters are responsible for assisting wild dogs to increase in numbers as a result of deer carcasses left in the bush. People have stated that because of all the extra food source available from harvested sambar wild dogs are breeding at a faster rate. What misinformed people need to realize is those deer are already in the bush and whether they get shot by hunters, die of old age, injury, or get taken down by a pack of wild dogs, there is always going to be that amount of food source in the form of wild venison available to sambar, whether its dead or alive. At some stage all the sambar will die, it’s the cycle of life, so hunters cannot be attributed to aiding the increasing population of wild dogs by leaving carcasses in the bush.
Do wild dogs eat sambar that have been harvested by hunters, of course they do, but they are only cleaning up what is left that the hunter doesn’t take out. It might give them a free meal, but dogs are insanely good hunters and they would have found something to eat, dead or alive sooner or later. When you think about it, how many poor condition wild dogs do you see up the bush, none if any, they are all very healthy, which is reflective of both their ability to hunt and find food, both alive and dead.
It is worth visiting any carcasses that you have previously shot to see how quickly they get consumed, remember they all wont have wild dogs clean them up, but even if they don’t there is lots of life that will benefit including both those bird and animal species living above the ground and the micro organisms beneath the surface. If you have a spare trail camera or two these can be put up on the deer and a lot can be learnt from any wild dogs that hit it up.
There have been numerous reports of hunters following wild dog tracks in the snow in winter to find deer carcasses, it is always hard to tell if they have been taken by the dogs, succumbed to natural conditions are shot by hunters, but there is every reason to believe that wild dogs will readily feed on sambar carcasses.
There is so much we don’t know about the predation on sambar that all we can do is accumulate information and learn from the evidence and encounters that are made from our time in the hills. Hopefully we can gain a better understanding and improve this knowledge base concerning the impact that wild dogs have on our expanding sambar deer herd.