A dog, they say, is man's best friend. In the high mountains of the Himalaya, that expression comes with a slight twist these days.
The global estimate of stray dogs, according to Free-Ranging Dogs and Wildlife Conservation by Matthew E Gompper, is close to a billion; India has about 60 million of them, with regular reportage on the conflicts associated with them in urban areas. When one considers this issue in the context of the mountains, which are home to a sensitive ecosystem and scarce resources, dogs are proving to be an unexpected threat to both human beings and wildlife alike.
Where there are humans, dogs are sure to follow, including the Trans Himalaya, where they are often employed as guard dogs for livestock. While pursuing his PhD in the Pin Valley of Himachal Pradesh in the early 90s, Dr Yash Veer Bhatnagar, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), noticed some stray dogs belonging to the migratory herding communities, such as the Bakharwals and Gaddis, stay back in the winter, instead of moving back to the foothills with the flock of sheep and goats they were meant to protect.
"One of those dogs, Sheru, was great company and stayed with us for over a month in Gechang during the autumn. But we soon realised he was chasing ibex that came near our camp, and we promptly escorted him to the nearest village," Bhatnagar recalls.
Villagers then told him that these free-ranging or feral dogs formed packs and attacked local livestock, including cows and foals. A few years later, he heard a colleague from Sikkim complain about the severity of the problem in the state, where they thrived around camps of the armed forces. He finally realised how serious the problem was when he saw packs of 40-50 dogs around such camps in eastern Ladakh in the early 2000s.
HMPs distemper study investigated the relationship and attitudes that Himalayan communities have with their dogs. Over 90 residents and 80 dogs were included in the study. Photo by Debby Ng/National Geographic
"When it comes to these guard dogs, most relationships with the herders seem rather loose, so they stay back. We don't have classic shepherding dogs in most of India. For survival and breeding, they need enough resources. The reason why the problem was under control earlier was probably because they didn't have much to thrive on, especially during the harsh winters. This kept their populations under check," Bhatnagar adds.
The explosion of tourism in towns such as Leh and Kaza, in addition to the defence camps, and the lack of sensibility when it comes to garbage disposal mechanisms led to a surplus of food. Dr Tsewang Namgail, director at the Snow Leopard Conservancy - India Trust (SLC-IT), estimates their population to be around 10,000 in Ladakh. While carrying out a survey in January 2018, in collaboration with the wildlife department and other NGOs working on the environment, they counted 1,500 dogs just driving along roads in Changthang and arrived at an estimated figure of 3,000 in the region.
"Free ranging dog attacks on humans are quite rampant these days. The SNM Hospital in Leh records an average of five dog bite cases each day," Namgail says. He speaks about a gruesome attack in 2014, when a girl was killed by dogs. The following year, a mother of two was devoured by a pack of dogs in Saspol village. In 2017, another woman was killed in Nyoma. "The dogs thrive on discarded food in the summer, but they disperse in the landscape, killing wildlife, livestock and humans in the winter," he adds.
While working on a research paper as part of her PhD thesis, Chandrima Home of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) documented 64 percent of the losses in Spiti due to dogs in 2013-14, which exceeds the damage caused by snow leopards and wolves put together. An NCF study in 2008 also highlighted this fact. A recent survey conducted by SLC-IT revealed that feral dogs were the most important predators attacking domestic livestock in Ladakh. This is turn, has had a detrimental effect on the livestock insurance program that has been implemented by them, to compensate attacks by snow leopards and wolves.
"It's hard to determine the culprit when there's not much of the carcass left. This not only leads to the intensification of people' s negative attitudes towards wild predators, but also affects the insurance program by draining capital, which is meant for compensating loss due to wild predators," Namgail says.
"Most livestock have lost their anti-predatory instincts and are easy prey. They are particularly vulnerable when left in the vicinity of settlements and on just-harvested fields. Home's study shows that it is a problem serious enough for farmers to stop keeping small-bodied livestock like sheep and goats altogether," Bhatnagar exlains, "In fact, larger packs are even able to hunt down wild ungulates, large livestock like yaks, and even challenge predators such as snow leopards," he adds.
Camera trap photos from Sumdo, which lies on the border of Spiti and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh, show free-ranging dogs and a snow leopard at the same location, high up in the mountains. Photographs courtesy of Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, Snow Leopard Trust and Nature Conservation Foundation
THREAT TO WILDLIFE
It's not just the domesticated animals that are under threat. Packs of dogs are known to hunt wild animals such as mammals, birds and fish, including rare species like black-necked cranes and snow leopards. Bhatnagar remembers watching a couple of dogs after a two-day trek from the village of Langza in Spiti in 2008. In fact, a camera trap placed in a remote location near Sumdo, which is at the border of Spiti and Kinnaur, documented a snow leopard and feral dogs at the same location last year, which explains the range that the dogs roam today.
In 2013, while tracking red pandas in the Everest National Park in Nepal, Debby Ng and Mukhiya Gotame realised a startling pattern. "All the people we spoke to mentioned that they had seen dogs chasing and even killing the red panda. One local even reported that red pandas were easy to spot, because they were brought into the village by the dogs. Besides, they even chase ground birds, attack blue sheep and musk deer," says Ng, who founded the Himalayan Mutt Project in 2014.
Having worked in animal welfare since 1994, Ng also came across several reports of dogs with "distemper-like symptoms". Distemper is a deadly disease that affects many animals and can kill large numbers of wildlife suddenly and quickly, similar to what was observed among the lions of Gir last year. "Domestic dogs are a reservoir of distemper, simply because they are so many of them and can be found everywhere," Ng explains.
Another major cause for concern is the hybridisation of the dog population that roams the remote mountains with the Tibetan wolf, thereby diluting the gene pool. In Ladakh, these hybrids called Khibshang are known to be more vicious when it comes to attacking livestock. "Many genetic studies are suggesting that the wolf in the Himalaya is a distinct species of a more primitive form of wolf. This highly persecuted species is under the serious threat of being swamped out even before we begin to understand its ecology," Bhatnagar says.
In these mountains habitats, then, keeping a check on the dog population is key. In Leh, the municipality resorted to poisoning street dogs, but the program was stopped due to protests by Buddhists and animal activists. A few unsuccessful attempts were made to translocate dogs in other valleys in Spiti. There are cases reported where those found to attack livestock are poisoned, stoned or hanged.
However, the systematic culling of dogs is a sensitive issue in India, with no policy in place yet. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, deems "cruelty to to animals" as a punishable offence, and defines cruelty as: "...mutilates any animal or kills any animal (including stray dogs) by using method of strychnine injections, in the heart or in any other unnecessarily cruel manner".
"The dichotomy of views is for the whole of India. But since these are Buddhist communities, they will not directly engage in killing dogs due to religious beliefs. Then there's the fear of staunch animal welfare groups, which deters them from taking drastic steps," Home says.
The Himalayan Mutt Project implemented the first Animal Birth Control and Rabies Vaccination (ABC-RV) program in Nepal's Himalaya, with a pilot project in Manang through a fundraising campaign. Till date, the program has successfully neutered and vaccinated about half the known population of domestic dogs in the district. In Pisang, they approached the local lama to convince villagers to bring their dogs for neutering and vaccination.
"The number of such treated dogs must be maintained at 80 percent. But when new dogs are introduced to a region, this rate can decrease. We've often come across folks who buy special dog breeds, but are reluctant to neuter them. This can be a problem for the community, as unwanted pups often end up roaming the village or forests as strays," Ng says.
The first sterilisation program in Spiti, conducted by NCF, took place in 2013. One of the key learnings from that exercise was the fact that it was quite a task to capture the dogs, more so when it came to dogs that had become more or less independent of human settlements and were wary of people. "We had to ask the senior members of the community to put forth a mandate for each home to bring one dog. We needed all the help that we could get from the locals," recalls Ajay Bijoor of NCF.
Though they managed to sterilise around 100 dogs, that number came down significantly during their last drive in 2017, since this time around, they were harder to catch. Besides, these dogs would still go ahead and hunt in order to survive. "Sterilisation is a very expensive affair. The running costs are high, and in order to see any significant reduction in dog populations, it can take several years," Home says.
A local NGO Ladakh Animal Care Society, too, started sterilising dogs with the assistance of Vets Beyond Borders. The Department of Animal Husbandry and Young Drukpa Association have also been spaying and neutering dogs under the Live to Rescue Program, founded by Gyalwang Drukpa Rinpoche. But Namgail believes that it has had little impact on the dog population, since the rate is way below the 80-90 percent recommended by the World Health Organisation.
"Population ecologists say that for species like dogs, a single ABC drive should cover 80 percent of the population, especially females, to have a discernible effect on the population in five years," Bhatnagar says.
The Live to Rescue program has started a dog sanctuary on the outskirts of Leh, which is home to around 200 dogs. This though is just a fraction of the population in Ladakh, while also resulting in high operational costs.
THE HUMAN-DOG RELATIONSHIP
The Sikkim Anti Rabies and Animal Health (SARAH) program was initiated in 2006 by the Government of Sikkim, in collaboration with Vets Beyond Borders and French NGO Fondation Brigitte Bardot. It was the first state-wide rabies program in India. Between 2011 and 2016, the program was instrumental in vaccinating around 1.25 lakh dogs across four districts in Sikkim, and today, it has been adopted by the state government.
SLC-IT creates awareness among the locals by handing out leaflets on how to protect themselves from dogs, besides conducting surveys to understand their distribution in Ladakh. Another major undertaking is the work on the prototype of a biogas digester at a paramilitary camp near Leh. "If this is successful, we will scale it up and encourage military establishments to use them to produce gas for the kitchen from the leftover food," Namgail says.
Poor law enforcement and improper garbage disposal in the developing world is a major issue, according to Bhatnagar. "I think many developed countries have stringent laws regarding free ranging domestic animals. They are either culled or put in shelters. The problem is thus contained before it becomes a big issue," he says.
On the other hand, Home suggests reexamination of the human-dog relationship in India. "We hardly have any strict ownership policies, and it needs to be given more thought. All methods of population control such as garbage control, capture-neuter-release and vaccination have to be working together," she says. "Understanding and taking steps to reduce plastic requires a drastic change in human behaviour. This is no different," she adds.