Managing Man’s Best Friend

Ajay Bijoor, a project associate in our India team, has written a wonderful article about his experiences with the management of feral dogs in the Transhimalayan landscape of Spiti, India. We’re reposting it here with the kind permission of Ajay and Current Conservation magazine.

This article originally appeared in Current Conservation, Issue 10.1

Ajay BijoorBy Ajay Bijoor, Project Associate, NCF India / Snow Leopard Trust

On most summer days, one is likely to find Skalzang sitting leisurely, basking in the morning sun, in the space adjoining the little hotel he runs in Kaza. As you pass him by, he’d greet you with a loud Juley! Cha thung cha: an invitation to join him for a cup of tea over some juicy local gossip. But on this particular day he looked rather animated. This former archer, who once represented India at the Olympics, seemed to be taking fresh target. What’s up? I asked. I’m guiding the youth of our block. It’s our turn to catch dogs today!

We need to go back in time to make sense of this seemingly-absurd statement.

The year was 2009. Project Snow Leopard had just been approved by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Acknowledging the uniqueness of sparsely populated high altitude landscapes, Project Snow Leopard aimed to conserve its wildlife through landscape-level planning and approaches that would include local communities in this process. Taking a lead on proceedings, Himachal Pradesh became the first state to identify a landscape of c. 4000 km2 to conserve under this project, in Spiti valley, which lies in the Trans-Himalayan region of Himachal Pradesh, above an altitude of 3000m from mean sea level. The Upper Spiti Landscape (or USL) as it came to be known, was carved out of the upper catchment of Spiti River, and included Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, along with the surrounding area covering close to 30 villages of the valley.

Snow Leopards in Spiti
Spiti Valley’s snow leopards are faced with an unexpected threat from feral dogs. Photo by NCF India / Snow Leopard Trust
An Unexpected Threat to Community and Wildlife

In 2010, the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department (HPFD), along with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) began preparing a management plan for the landscape, that would guide research and conservation work over the next 5 years. A team of young wildlife researchers, forest officers and a handful of Spitian youth, who worked with NCF, was formed to make the plan. I also was part of this team. A key component of the plan was to assess threats to wildlife and local livelihoods through field surveys and community interactions which would guide future work. As the team began to visit and speak with Spitians across villages, a rather unexpected threat kept cropping up in conversations—livestock predation by free-ranging dogs. 

The trans-Himalayas are cold, dry, stark and sparsely populated. Spiti valley is inhabited by Buddhist communities who have practiced agro-pastoralism for many centuries. They combine farming, during the short summer, with rearing livestock for a dual source of living. People mainly rear sheep, goat, donkeys, horses, cows and yaks and attach high value to them. However, the situation is different in Kaza, the capital of Spiti, which is largely inhabited by Spitians from across the valley, who work in government jobs, and by non-local government officials. As a result, very few, if any, livestock are reared in this town. Kaza is also home to a blossoming, resource-intensive hotel business that supports rising tourism in the valley. Food waste generated from these hotels during the tourist season are an easy resource for free-ranging dogs.During the long winter, when livestock give birth, several new born calves do not survive their first year. With no systems to manage garbage in the smaller villages where livestock are reared, these calf carcasses too become easily available to dogs. The lack of effective garbage management has led to an increase in the dog population. Large parts of this population are free-ranging in nature and actively hunt livestock too. While Kaza and its neighbouring town of Rangrik are the epicentres of the flourishing dog population, the impacts, in terms of the livestock depredation, are mainly felt by the villages adjacent to these towns.

In order to assess the scale of the problem, we interacted with local herders from villages adjoining Kaza and Rangrik. This effort, to systematically collect data on the livestock predation caused by dogs, threw up a few unexpected surprises.

Kaza, the largest town in Spiti, is a hub for tourists & feral dogs. Photo by NCF India
Kaza, the largest town in Spiti, is a hub for tourists & feral dogs. Photo by NCF India

Between January 2009 and December 2010, a total of 809 livestock were reported dead in 25 villages. Of this, predation by free-ranging dogs was the biggest cause for mortality (338 livestock heads). Free-ranging dogs were killing more livestock than snow leopards and wolves combined. While snow leopards and wolves tended to hunt larger-bodied livestock, like yak, cows, donkeys and horses, free-ranging dogs specialised in hunting smaller-bodied livestock like sheep and goat. Even with the most conservative estimates of livestock prices, these damages by free-ranging dogs translated into monetary damages of no less than 1.6 million rupees (US$.25,000), incurred over a period of two years in the 25 surveyed villages. Little surprise then that Spitians saw free-ranging dogs as a major threat. Similar data collected over subsequent years confirmed these trends. So severe was the problem that several villages had stopped rearing sheep and goat for fear of losing them to dogs.

The other risk from free-ranging dogs was to wildlife in the landscape. By 2012, there were reports of packs of free-ranging dogs trying to chase herds of blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) and ibex (Capra sibirica). There were also reports of them chasing snow leopards off their kills, of a Himalayan wolf staying with a pack of dogs close to one of local villages and also of attempts to mate between a Himalayan wolf and a free-ranging dog. Such interactions of free-ranging dogs with wildlife, as predators and competitors, added a new dimension to the challenge in conserving wildlife populations in these high altitude landscapes. To add to this complex dynamic, free-ranging dogs compounded the problem through the possibility of them acting as disease vectors. Any breakouts of rabies, parvovirus or canine distemper within the wildlife population could be catastrophic. Clearly there was an overlap of interests, for the local community who were facing steep losses from these dogs and for conservation practitioners, like us at NCF, who were hoping to eliminate conservation threats the dog population posed in this fragile landscape.

Tackling the Problem

But the dogs, sadly, were nobody’s responsibility. Spiti doesn’t have a municipality to worry over them. Technically, the Forest Department, Animal Husbandry or any other government department was not mandated to manage them. It was only the Spitians who felt the pinch. Conscious of this, the community had, even earlier (c. 2000), come together to catch the dogs and physically transport them out of the valley. It worked only for some weeks after which most of the dogs returned. People did not resort to culling them as they believed that would earn them bad karma. But speaking with some of them suggested a feeling of helplessness. In an area where basic amenities can be hard to come by, an organised effort to control the dog population seemed unrealistic to most locals. Patience was running low, and there were sporadic reports from a few places in the valley of attempts to cull dogs.

In August 2013, the Divisional Forest Officer of Spiti convened a meeting in Kaza to initiate a discussion on this issue. Organising such a meeting was a suggestion made in the Project Snow Leopard management plan that had been prepared for the Upper Spiti Landscape. This meeting was attended by some key individuals of Kaza: local representatives of the Tribal Advisory Council, officers from the Additional District Collector’s office, the Animal Husbandry Department and the Forest Department, the Pradhan of Kaza Panchayat and his deputies. After a rather sceptical start, everyone warmed up to the fact that action was needed but were unsure of what that could be. The suggestion of organising a camp to sterilise dogs was made, but that threw up more questions: who would operate on them, where would the medicines come from and, most important of all, who would go catch the dogs? Nevertheless, despite these unknowns, by the end of the meeting, the participants agreed to try and organise a sterilisation camp in Kaza. Through follow-up meetings, our team secured support of the Forest Department, Animal Husbandry and the District Administration to set things in motion to organise a sterilisation camp. Unclear of how to conduct the camp, we reached out to Dharamsala Animal Rescue, an NGO that works in animal welfare, who promptly volunteered to send two of their experienced veterinarians. One of these veterinarians, Dr. Takpa Tenzin, who was also a Spitian, took great pains in guiding the preparations. Within a matter of two months, everything was ready, except for one minor detail: who would and how would we catch the dogs?

Sterilization campaigns have been started in Spiti. Photo by NCF India.
Sterilization campaigns have been started in Spiti. Photo by NCF India.

The Pradhan of Kaza Panchayat helped to solve this problem. An astute leader, who villagers looked up to, the Pradhan promised he would get the villagers to help. The following day, we were invited to a meeting where almost the entire village gathered. After briefing villagers about the situation, he said: It’s up to us now. Suggestions started pouring in from all the people present. It was heartening to see that people were suggesting measures that would require their participation. No one was trying to pass the buck. Eventually, this was the suggestion that was most popular: each family would catch a dog, bring it to the sterilisation camp, and take care of it for four days after the operation, before letting it back out on the streets. Families who chose not to participate would have to pay a fine of five hundred rupees! We left the meeting, that day, unsure if anyone would turn up with dogs for the camp.

But we needn’t have worried, because as we reached the venue on the day of the camp, there were at least 30 dogs waiting patiently with their new masters. We learnt that people had caught the dogs by setting out food, petting them and winning their trust and eventually getting them on leashes. The more elusive dogs were caught by the village youth, by baiting them and then catching them, using dog-catching nets. As more and more people showed up at the camp in quick succession, things started to get a little chaotic. But, here again, the Spitian youth, led by the Kaza Pradhan, stepped up to quickly get things in order. They made a list of people who had come in with dogs, regulated the flow of dogs into the operation room and also handed them back safely to their owners. There were no para-veterinarians to help, so Dr. Tenzin gathered a few young volunteers and trained them with some basic instructions to handle dogs. Having handled livestock all their lives meant that most of them found it easy to handle dogs as well. Over the next week the camp saw a continuous flow of animals. The team of four doctors managed to operate close to a hundred dogs. Pups less than seven months and pregnant females, which could not be operated upon, were given shots for rabies and released. This effort, which started in one village, later spread to cover 6 villages. In all, over 275 dogs were sterilised in 6 villages, in a span of three years. That accounts for roughly a third of the valley’s dog population, based on an assessment made in 2012.

A Big Accomplishment and a Humbling Experience

How did we fare in this exercise?

First of all, it’s a big step forward that we have been able to strengthen partnerships with local people and authorities and build new partnerships with other NGOs to actually tackle a problem which everyone had recognized, but which had not been tackled at all. When we started our efforts, setting up a sterilisation camp seemed like an unrealistic target to meet. Therefore, the fact that we have managed to set up a safe and humane sterilisation camp in an area as remote as Spiti, is very encouraging.

More impressive was the fact that the people from the area shouldered a lot of the responsibilities. In addition to catching dogs, villagers helped in every way possible —from helping set up the camp, to feeding the camp staff and volunteers, to managing the efficient running of the camp. This is particularly encouraging since the local community will ultimately be in a position to sustain this program.

The veterinarians also deserve a lot of credit. They toiled hard at each of the camps and ensured that, even with limited resources, the camps were managed professionally. They set important ground rules – no sterilising of pregnant females and ensuring adequate post-operative care – and these were followed strictly.

We also learnt several lessons along the way. A key one was that we needed to focus on improving post-operative care of the dogs. We initially relied completely on the community to manage post-operative care, which we realised, was a stiff task. We are now moving towards looking at more proficient ways to manage post-operative care.

Has the work brought measurable success? That would depend on what scale one used to measure success. One indirect positive spinoff has been that organising sterilisation camps and initiating the effort for animal birth control has helped Spitians believe that it isn’t beyond them to work towards solving their own problems.

But in terms of directly meeting our aims, we haven’t been as successful. Studies suggest that one would need to sterilise more than 70% of the breeding population, and that the proportion of breeding females may have to be less than 20%, to see a stabilisation of numbers over an extended period. On that count, this effort still falls short of ensuring a reduction in the dog population. With no reduction in dog numbers, people have started questioning the efficacy of these initiatives. Their patience is running out largely because their losses haven’t reduced, and the sterilised dogs are still around and continue to kill their livestock.

Several villagers, especially from smaller villages, have even tried to translocate dogs from their villages in to the larger towns— like Kaza—much to the disdain of these towns’ residents. Such is the gravity of this problem that anyone caught releasing dogs in Kaza stands to pay a sizeable fine. Despite this, a village elder told us, people from smaller villages get pups at night and dump them in Kaza. But people in the smaller villages understand that it’s only a matter of days before new dogs come and take over the newly vacated territories. Wouldn’t culling dogs be a more permanent solution, they ask, in reducing dog numbers and cutting their losses? Voices to remove dogs are gathering strength.

Clearly there is a need to better communicate to the community about how sterilisation programmes require sustained long-term effort. There is also space to discuss other options, or even a combination of multiple options. One such option being tried out is to look at improving garbage management. Working jointly with the Forest Department, five villages have now built fenced enclosures to dispose carcasses and organic waste so that they are unavailable to dogs. In Kaza too, the local Panchayat has initiated attempts to collect, segregate and dispose waste. But only time can tell how effective all these measures will be. Even so, a question that often comes up is: if these measures do succeed in reducing resource access for dogs, how would the dogs respond? Would their numbers dwindle? Or, would they take to killing more livestock and wildlife?

Our experience of the last three years has been a humbling one. From a point where we saw little hope, we managed to collectively make significant interventions. However, we still have a long, challenging way ahead of us if we want to solve the problem. If anything, it has only given us a deeper understanding of the problem and the challenges surrounding it, and left us with as many questions as answers. So while we continue working our way to solve the problems, there is room for greater participation, especially from animal welfare agencies that have a better understanding of these issues.

Without sustained efforts however, the risk of desperate Spitians resorting to the mistreatment, or even culling, of dogs could become a very real one.

Acknowledgements:

This work was made possible by funding and support from the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and Leonard X Bosack and Bette M Kruger Charitable Foundation. We’re also grateful to the Whitley Fund for Nature and Fondation Segré for their support.

Further Reading:

Jackman J and A Rowan. 2007. Free-roaming dogs in developing countries: The benefits of capture, neuter and return programs. In Salem, D.J. and Rowan A.N. (Eds.) The State of the Animals IV: 2007. Humane Society Press.

Suryawanshi K, Y Bhatnagar, S Redpath & C Mishra. 2013. People, predators and perceptions: patterns of livestock depredation by snow leopards and wolves. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 550–560.

Ajay Bijoor is a project associate on the High Altitudes programme of the Nature Conservaiton Foundation and Snow Leopard Trust, ajay@ncf-india.org.

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