When you hear the word 'carnivore', you are quick to conjure up an image of a lion or a tiger baring its canines. But carnivores include a wide range of animals and even plants, not just the large felids. One of the most undervalued groups of large carnivores is wild canids. Members of the Canidae family, wild canids are present throughout the world except in the continent of Antarctica. Despite their prominence, they have gained little attention even within conservation circles.

India is home to seven species of wild canids—Tibetan Wolf, Indian Wolf, Golden Jackal, Dhole, Indian Fox, Tibetan Sand Fox and Red Fox. The Red Fox has three sub-species—Desert Fox, Tibetan Red Fox and Kashmir Red Fox. Striped Hyenas are considered a part of this group even though they are not true canids. They are present across a range of habitats, yet, not much is known about wild canids and their role in the ecosystem. As shown by a recent study, their adaptability can aid in understanding habitats such as grasslands, forests, scrublands and ravines. Wild canids have the potential to serve as flagship species for increasing the conservation potential in their respective habitats.

At present, there are no established frameworks for monitoring wild canids. Through citizen science initiatives and factoring in local knowledge, it is possible to build awareness about them and document their importance. But first, let’s get to know the wild canids of our country a little, so we can all contribute to making our world a safe place for them. Here is your cheat sheet for the wild canids of India.

1 – Tibetan Wolf (Canis lupus chanco)

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

A subspecies of the Grey Wolf, the Tibetan Wolf is mainly found in the Himalayan regions, where they share space with the Himalayan Wolf. Tibetan Wolves prefer temperate forests, alpine meadows and dry open regions as habitats. They are heavily persecuted throughout their range, owing to their nomadic ways that bring them in contact with villages and livestock. The conflict levels are high, and compensation is low, making the future bleak for this species.

In response to economic losses caused by livestock predation in Ladakh, conical stone structures called shangdongs were built to capture and kill wolves. The Nature Conservation Foundation worked with the local communities to build awareness and protect the wolf populations. In response, these shangdongs were converted into religious structures called stupas. The film Shangdong to Stupa showcases how communities and organisations came together to bring change.

Threats: Transmission of diseases and competition for resources from feral and domestic dogs

Tibetan Wolf Canis lupus chanco
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Tibetan Wolf (Canis lupus chanco) | Photograph: Surya Ramachandran

2 – Indian Wolf (Canis lupus pallipes)

IUCN Red List Status: Endangered

A subspecies of the Grey Wolf, Indian Wolves are found throughout the subcontinent, mainly in forests, scrublands and semi-arid grasslands. They live in smaller packs compared to their grey counterparts, and pack sizes typically do not increase beyond eight individuals. Indian Wolves are frequently hunted in response to attacks on livestock. Sometimes conflict situations arise due to public fear. Their fragmented habitats and depleted sources of natural prey place them in contact with humans and make them vulnerable to livestock predation.

Established in 2019, The Grasslands Trust has been working to conserve the grasslands in and around Pune, Maharashtra, and the wildlife that depends on this habitat. Along with the Wildlife Institute of India, The Grasslands Trust has worked tirelessly to understand the wolf populations of the region using GPS collars.

Threats: Habitat loss and prey depletion

Indian Wolf Canis lupus pallipes
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Indian Wolf (Canis lupus pallipes) | Photograph: Mihir Godbole/The Grasslands Trust

3 – Golden Jackal (Canis aureus)

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

Golden Jackals are found in a wide range of habitats across the Indian subcontinent, except in the higher-altitude regions of the Himalayas. They are well-adapted to survive in habitats altered by human activities and are often spotted in and around human settlements. Although closely related to the Grey Wolf, the buff-grey coat is not as dense as that of the wolf. Golden Jackals are more compact than wolves, with shorter muzzles and smaller head sizes. They are opportunistic foragers and scavengers. They also feed on garbage when they are present near human settlements.

Threats: Linear intrusion and poaching for illegal trade

Golden Jackal Canis aureus
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Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) | Photograph: Abhijeet R Sonawane

4 – Dhole (Cuon alpinus)

IUCN Red List Status: Endangered

Dholes or Asiatic Wild Dogs are not true dogs. Closely related to the painted dogs of Africa and the bush dogs of South America, Dholes are found in social units called packs. Although pack sizes vary, they can consist of up to 20 members, at which point the group will split into smaller units. Typically, there are about six to eight members in a pack. Like most canids, Dhole pups often engage in play-fights. The act of playing is used as a means of forming bonds within packs. Dholes are mainly found within forests and can rarely survive outside their habitat. They are hypercarnivores and feed on the meat of other animals.

Interested in taking a deep dive into the world of Dholes? Decoding Dholes: 10 Things You Should Know by wildlife biologist Arjun Srivathsa is your one-stop for all things Dholes.

Threats: Depletion of prey base and loss of habitat

Dhole Cuon alpinus
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Dhole (Cuon alpinus) | Photograph: Arvind Ramamurthy

5 – Indian Fox (Vulpes bengalensis)

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

The Indian Fox or the Bengal Fox is found throughout the Indian subcontinent, except in the coastal regions and in the Western Ghats. They are usually seen near agricultural areas and human settlements. Although the Indian Fox is known to be distributed throughout the subcontinent, its occurrence is based on factors such as the availability of prey. They have long, bushy tails with black tips which enable distinguishing them from the similar-looking Desert Fox. They are opportunistic feeders and feed on insects as well as small mammals.

Threats: Destruction of grasslands and conversion for industrial development

Indian Fox Vulpes bengalensis with a pup
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Indian Fox (Vulpes bengalensis) | Photograph: Ninad Vaidya

6 – Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

The highly adaptive Red Fox lives in a range of habitats that include forests, deserts, and mountains. They can also thrive near human settlements. Similarly, their diet is flexible, and they feed on rodents, birds, fruits, vegetables and discarded food. Their tail plays an important role whilst residing in high altitude regions. They use their tail to cover and protect themselves from the cold weather. Their adaptive nature has been misconstrued, earning them the ‘cunning’ tag. There are three sub-species of the Red Fox—the Desert Fox, the Tibetan Red Fox and the Kashmir Red Fox or Kashmir Hill Red Fox.

Threats: Hunting for sport and negative interactions with free-ranging or domestic dogs

Red Fox Vulpes vulpes
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Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) | Photograph: Samyak Kaninde

7 – Desert Fox (Vulpes vulpes pusilla)

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

Desert Fox or the White-footed Fox is one of the most widely-distributed carnivores in the world. They are a subspecies of the Red Fox and are mainly found in the desert regions of northwest India. The yellowish-brown coat of a Desert Fox helps it to camouflage against the brown background of its habitat. Desert Foxes mainly feed on rodents and gerbils by digging them out of their burrows or stalking and hunting them. They are known for the complex dens they create during the breeding season to protect newly born pups.

Wildlife photographer Manish Vaidya has documented  how these solitary carnivores survive, and thrive, in some of the most barren habitats in India.

There are two other subspecies of the Red Fox; the Kashmir Red Fox or Kashmir Hill Red Fox and the Tibetan Red Fox. However, information about them is scarce and studies are ongoing.

Threats: Habitat loss and linear intrusion

Desert Fox Vulpes vulpes pusilla
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Desert Fox (Vulpes vulpes pusilla) | Photograph: Manish Vaidya

8 – Tibetan Sand Fox (Vulpes ferrilata)

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

As the name suggests, this fox species resides in the steppes and semi-deserts of the Tibetan plateau. Its range also extends to the trans-Himalayan regions of Ladakh and Sikkim and the Mustang region in Nepal. They are small foxes with a narrow muzzle, dense coat and a bushy tail. Compared to some of their other counterparts, they tend to stay away from human-occupied spaces, preferring upland plains and elevated regions. They primarily prey on the Plateau Pikas, as well as other mammals. They also feed on the carcasses of livestock.

Threats: Prey poisoning and depletion of sources

Tibetan Sand Fox Vulpes ferrilata
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Tibetan Fox (Vulpes ferrilata) | Photograph: Aditya Chavan

9 – Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena)

IUCN Red List Status: Near Threatened

The Striped Hyena is the only true hyena species found in India. They are frequently grouped with canids even though they belong to a family of their own – Hyaenidae. Striped Hyenas are one of the four members of this family. They are found in arid regions, shrublands and woodlands. They are characterised by a fairly large torso and short legs. Their legs are bent around the carpal region. As suggested by their name, Striped Hyenas exhibit grey-brown colours with black stripes. They have long and uniform coats, and they tend to erect their hair when faced with danger, making them appear bigger in size. They are mainly scavengers.

Threats: Linear intrusion and habitat destruction

Striped Hyena Hyaena hyaena
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Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena) | Photograph: Tapan Sheth

We hope that we have brought wild canids to your attention. If you would like to know more about them, the Wild Canids India Project provides all the necessary details while also sharing relevant resources on the wild canid family. The portal hosts a citizen-science initiative where you can upload photos and report your wild canid and hyena sightings.

If you love maps and figures, Arjun Srivathsa et al’s research paper – Opportunities for prioritizing and expanding conservation enterprise in India using a guild of carnivores as flagships – should give you a wider perspective on the issues pertaining to the conservation of wild canids.

For Down To Earth, Srivathsa writes about the importance of citizen involvement in research on wild canids and states – “Citizen-scientists are increasingly playing a pivotal role in biodiversity monitoring and information-sharing through these platforms (for example, see eBird India and Hornbill Watch), adding a new dimension to ecological and conservation research.”

Edit: The earlier list had eight species of canids; we have corrected it to seven canid species and three sub-species for the Red Fox, after confirming their taxonomy and range distribution in India.