The Wolf In Your Dog
Reports of feral dogs attacking wildlife are on the rise across India. Abi Tamim Vanak and Chandrima Home underscore a conservation concern that has largely been brushed under the carpet.
Photo: Saurabh Sawant/Entry – The Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2016.
It was a chilly October day in Chicham village in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. Crossing a small nullah that divides the village, a sudden movement in the nearby ridge caught my attention. It was a pack whose demeanour resembled that of wolves. A closer look revealed a brown and a white blob amongst them. Not wolves, but dogs, four of them, in a serious chase. The white-tipped tail of the small animal running helter-skelter ahead of them suggested that it was a red fox that tried to elude its pursuers, but lost the battle within minutes as a mottled dog carried its lifeless body in its mouth. The dog, dropped the fox, sniffed it momentarily, then strutted towards the village with an air of accomplishment!
When I (Chandrima) had first witnessed a common village dog chasing a black-naped hare in the scrublands of Abdasa, Kutchh, I realised they could be more than mere pets! In Spiti, this notion was fed with fire as I saw dogs kill not just that red fox but also livestock. The same dogs would also feast on leftover food outside a house, or during a local ceremony. In packs, such domestic dogs were no less ruthless than any other predator!
Close companions or cunning carnivores?
The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is known for its many rare and priceless antiquities and historical artefacts, including the Dead Sea scrolls, sarcophagi, statues of Egyptian Pharaohs, and stone-age tools and implements. In the pre-history section, protected in a glass case, lies the skeleton of a woman uncovered 14,500 years after she was laid to rest in her grave in Ain Mallaha in northern Israel. She lies on her right side, and her hand clutches the body of another animal. A small dog! This is one of the first, and indeed most famous, archaeological evidences of the domestication of the dog.
Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated by humans, although some scientists contend that they may have domesticated themselves. The close bond between dogs and humans, earns them the sobriquet of being humans’ best friend. And deservedly so. For many people, dogs are family, and are bestowed with all the love and affection that goes with this status. Dogs are also valuable allies in the fight against drugs, in search and rescue operations, in livestock rearing, and even in sniffing out diseases such as cancer.
Most people easily recognise that our other favourite domesticated carnivore, the house cat, can be a deadly threat to biodiversity, directly implicated in the extinction of as many as 33 species. There is now increasing evidence that the domestic dog is equally, if not more, complicit in causing widespread damage to native biodiversity. Dogs are taxonomically considered a subspecies of wolves Canis lupus familiaris. Wolves are renowned carnivores and top predators in almost every ecosystem in which they occur. Such predators are referred to as keystone species because of the large-scale ecological impact they generate through direct predation on herbivores and by creating a ‘landscape of fear’ not only for their prey, but other smaller carnivorous competitors.
The domestication process however, resulted in dogs becoming smaller than wolves (with some exceptions). Domestic dogs generally have weaker jaws, bones and muscles, making them less efficient than wolves in bringing down large prey. This does not mean they have lost their hunting instincts. Indeed, dogs, both specifically bred for the purpose, and mongrels in indigenous communities, are often used as hunting animals. And yes, dogs do hunt wildlife. The sheer scale of the problem is now emerging thanks to studies conducted across the world. According to the IUCN Red List, dogs have been implicated in the extinction of at least 11 species, mostly island birds and reptiles.
Like wolves, dogs are remarkably adaptable. Their ability to digest carbohydrates, sexually mature early, produce large litters, and access to virtually unlimited human-provided resources makes dogs the most common terrestrial carnivore. India is estimated to harbour an astounding 60 million domesticated dogs, most free-ranging, across the countryside. Dogs thus impact wildlife in multiple ways including through direct killing, harassment, disturbance and often by transmitting diseases, to which wild species have little or no immunity.
Photo: Ajay Kumar Tharavath/Entry – The Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2016.
A Dogged Problem for Wildlife
Almost daily, the Indian media reports instances of dog-human conflict. Less often, the media reports on domestic dog attacks on wildlife.
Our study aimed to understand the scale and extent of the impact of dogs on native wildlife.
We started our systematic effort in 2014 through a survey of media reports, and a targeted online survey. The results were truly an eye-opener! It turned out that domestic dogs had attacked 84 different wild species including reptiles, birds and mammals, with large mammals being most targeted. The victims were not just herbivores, but even carnivores such as foxes, jackals, and wolves! The survey further revealed that most attacks were carried out by packs of dogs, unaccompanied by humans. Many respondents posted videos of these attacks, which revealed hunting strategies similar to those employed by wolves, but with their weakened jaws dogs cannot swiftly deliver the final blow. Instead their hapless victims had to endure extreme agony, finally dying of shock and blood loss.
Dogs were reported to have attacked critically-endangered species including the Great Indian Bustard, Bengal Florican, Chinese pangolin and vultures. For many such species, negative impacts by domestic dogs through predation and competition (with vultures on carcasses) could prove to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin for already depleted populations.
Worryingly, a large number of attacks were reported either within or in close proximity to Protected Areas. In some cases, dogs have been seen in wildlife reserves as far as 10 km. from the nearest human settlement. Clearly dogs can dramatically extend the human-induced ‘edge-effect’ deep into wildlife reserves.
Photo Courtesy: Chetan Misher.
The problem of dogs attacking wild animals is problematic for many reasons. On the one hand, animal welfare rules prevent removal of dogs from any environment, and mandate only sterilisation as a means of population control. On the other, the impact of dogs on wild animals is not seen as cruelty necessitating immediate action. Dog populations in India have exploded for many reasons; a huge garbage problem, irresponsible dog ownership, feeding of dogs in public places as a show of compassion, and a general lackadaisical approach towards both human and animal health issues.
Given the scale of the problem in India, the current method of only sterilising dogs as a method of population control may well be valid in urban areas, but is unlikely to result in a significant reduction of dog numbers in the short to medium term, even if the sterilising project is implemented on a war-footing year after year indefinitely. In our view, a combination of measures needs to be adopted, especially in areas of critical wildlife concern. These include, a strong emphasis on responsible dog ownership, with owned dogs being sterilised and collared; imposing fines on owners who allow dogs to range into wildlife habitats; restriction of free-ranging by dogs into wildlife areas (such as the wildlife sanctuaries and national parks) and the removal of ‘ownerless’ village dogs and semi-feral dogs. In scenarios where all other efforts fail to solve the problem, there is a case for targeted lethal control of dogs that pose a threat to endangered species. It is vital that the Wildlife Wing and the Animal Welfare Board of India, both under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change rationally discuss the problem with scientists, managers, and other stakeholders working for the rights of individual animals as well as the very survival of wild species.
Non-lethal options such as garbage control and the banning of direct feeding of unowned dogs added to the existing measures will eventually result in the reduction of dog populations, promoting a better sense of responsibility toward companion animals. In the long run, this will result in better welfare for domestic animals and more effective conservation outcomes for wild species, a win-win for champions of both animal rights and species rights.
Author: Abi Tamim Vanak and Chandrima Home, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 2, February 2017.