Three carnivores seemingly in direct competition with one another — tigers, leopards and dholes (Asian wild dogs) — are living side by side with little conflict in India, according to non-invasive camera trap monitoring.

The evidence, presented in a new Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) study, is all the more surprising given what these animals are known to do to each other elsewhere.

Lead author K. Ullas Karanth, who is the WCS director for science in Asia, has been studying all three carnivores for over 30 years.

"Tigers can attack and kill, and sometimes eat, leopards and dholes," Karanth said. "Leopards can stealthily hunt dholes when they rest at night, but are chased and sometimes killed by dhole packs in the daytime."

Peace among the trio of predators, though, appears to prevail at India's wildlife-rich Western Ghats region.

Photo: Dhole. Credit: Ramki Sreenivasan, WCS

The camera traps, originally set up to estimate numbers of certain species in the area, recorded around 2,500 images of the three predators in action. Studying the photos and other data, the scientists determined that in wildlife reserves with an abundance of prey, dholes did not come into much contact with the more nocturnal tigers and leopards. All three hunt mammals, such as deer and wild pigs.

In Bhadra Reserve, where prey was scarcer, the predators' active times overlapped, yet the dholes still managed to avoid the big cats. In Nagarahole, a park teeming with all three carnivores and their prey, leopards actively avoided tigers, according to the authors.

Photo: Leopard. Credit: Ramki Sreenivasan, WCS

Understanding the needs of these separate, yet overlapping species, is critical to managing predators and prey in small reserves, the researchers believe. The future outlook for most such animals is tied to living in the protected areas, which have the downfall of preventing the predators from spreading out over much wider territory.

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Karanth thinks that the leopards, tigers and dholes at Western Ghats are very aware of each other, "but are not stressed all of the time" about the situation. "Sort of like crossing streets in Manhattan, you watch for the green and red lights, but are not worried all of the time," he said.

The news provides a glimmer of hope for the trio of predators, which are all still threatened with extinction. Tigers and dholes are officially classified as being "endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), while leopard populations are in slightly better shape, being classified by the IUCN as "vulnerable" to extinction. Habitat loss and illegal hunting pose two of the greatest threats.

Karanth said that, at least in certain parts of India since the 1970s, "several wildlife reserves have been set up, including the ones in the study, where strict protection, stopping habitat exploitation and more have led to quite spectacular wildlife recoveries."