Pet peeve: India’s top predator may just be the dog. And we’re to blame
Abi Tamim Vanak thought he had his life all mapped out when he started looking for a subject for his PhD in 2004. He planned to study small carnivores — foxes, jackals and jungle cats — and how they interacted, competed, and affected food chains and ecosystems. He identified sites in southern India’s wildlife sanctuaries and rigged up his camera traps.
Then the surprises began.
“Domestic dogs were among the most common carnivores we were recording,” the researcher recalls. “They’re not wildlife, but they were everywhere. It made me wonder, if there’s another mid-sized carnivore in the system, what impact does that have?”
Vanak shifted focus to include strays and free-ranging canines — domesticated dogs who no longer live in our homes or homesteads. They are, therefore, not part of the wild ecosystems, but rather are a wild-card element introduced by man.
Vanak’s research indicates that man’s best friend may be one of the biggest threats to wildlife and livestock across India. They’ve attacked endangered stags in Kashmir and preyed on livestock in the Himalayas.
They’re a threat to Olive Ridley eggs and hatchlings on our coasts. In Maharashtra, they’ve killed foxes and endangered great Indian bustards. Wild ass, gazelle, nilgai, blackbuck and deer have died of dog attacks in our sanctuaries.
Something to growl about
“Very few studies around the world have looked at the effect of dogs on wildlife,” says Vanak. “This is because in most developed countries, they’re not allowed to roam free.” But research from South America, Europe and Africa since the 2000s shows just how much damage dogs can do.
A paper published in the journal, Biological Conservation, this year was titled The Global Impacts of Domestic Dogs on Threatened Vertebrates. It suggests that dogs are a known or potential threat to at least 188 threatened species worldwide.
In India, Vanak and other researchers completed the first national-level examination of dog attacks only in 2016. Data from 363 incidents across India indicate that domestic dogs attacked 84 wild species — herbivores, carnivores, reptiles, birds and mammals — over four years.
Most attacks were carried out by packs unaccompanied by humans. More than a third of the skirmishes occurred in forests, sanctuaries and protected areas. Assaults were recorded from deserts, forests, coastlines, grasslands, mountains — even the Rann of Kutch.
“People have finally started realising that stray dogs are not a benign presence on the landscape,” Vanak says. “Researchers are only now considering their impact as a whole.”
As more dogs are forced to fend for themselves, the ones near villages will venture into forests or on once-remote trails popular with hikers.
“Often, officials posted to remote islands such as the Nicobars, bring pets with them for company, then callously abandon them when they leave,” Sahgal says. “Such dogs turn feral and can pose a real danger to endangered species such as the Nicobar Megapode, a ground-dwelling bird.”
Researcher Chandrima Home’s 2017 paper, published in the journal, Ambio, studied patterns of livestock killing by free-ranging dogs in the Himalayas.
Data shows that in Kaza, Spiti’s capital, there are 300 households and 250 dogs.
Many strays end up hunting livestock, killing more goats and sheep than snow leopards. In other parts of India, cattle carcasses left to rot in the open are to blame. The bodies attract vultures and griffons, who get attacked by a new scavenger – packs of dogs.
In rural India, dogs do more than kill. They carry diseases to which wild animals have little or no immunity. One of Vanak’s studies, in the grasslands of Nannaj, Maharashtra, has found that canine contact has transmitted distemper, canine parvovirus and rabies to the area’s foxes.
Dogs can travel as far as 10km from a human settlement, a dangerously large circle of influence. “Dealing with multiple dog packs through the day exerts continuous predation pressure on animals,” Vanak points out. This, ecologists say, has a stress effect on wildlife.
“The deer spend more time avoiding the predator than looking for food or they move to a safe zone that has less nutritious food. All of it affects their immunity, reproductive capabilities and lifespan, and ultimately the ecosystem.”
Sit, stay, sterilise
In Kolkata, behavioural biologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Anindita Bhadra, is studying the natural history, ecology and behaviour of stray dogs.
“To understand evolution, one needs to study the species in nature,” she says. “In India, we have the perfect model system: our stray/street/free-ranging dogs have existed the same way with humans for centuries.” Managing them, she argues, is impossible without understanding their population dynamics.
At the national level, however, the government is not working to understand dogs or their impact on wildlife.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare remains preoccupied with eliminating rabies, to meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) target to end human deaths from canine-rabies by 2030. But WHO recommends vaccinating 70% of the dog population for seven consecutive years, a goal India is simply not equipped to meet. WHO’s own count says India has 25 million dogs — a daunting task made even harder given that the numbers are 10 years old.
Wildlife experts and activists advocate sterilisation, a long-term continuous process covering all strays and owned dogs across India, but focusing on animals whose potential litters could cause the greatest damage.
We’re just as ill-prepared for this. Legislation for sterilisation has been enacted by the Ministry of Culture, which is not connected to health or animals. And given that dogs live past a decade, it will be a whole before we need the numbers dip.
Meanwhile, as an independent dog researcher Meghna Uniyal puts it, “a sterilised, vaccinated dog will still chase, bark or attack”.
Perhaps a change in policy can help till then. “Dogs are not wild animals and certainly not a part of the ecosystem in these numbers,” says Vanak. But government agencies classify a large number of free-ranging canines as ‘community dogs’ – animals that are looked after by a neighbourhood.
This is where much of the problem lies, says Uniyal. Ambiguous ownership means neither the government not the individual takes responsibility when a dog attacks or needs medical care. Farmers who lose livestock to a leopard or tiger are entitled to paltry compensation. There is none for a stray dog attack.
No litter, no littering
More research is needed. No one knows for sure how many dogs India harbours today. Some researchers believe there could be as many as 60 million.
“No one can accurately ‘count’ animals, domestic, or wild, the way they do humans,” warns Sahgal. “At best we can hope for an intelligent analysis of available data to make rough assessments. One way or the other, when it comes to any animal-human conflict situation, it is humans who must make the adjustments by studying and understanding animal behaviour and then adapting to the imperatives in such a manner as to choose the best of (sometimes) the worst alternative actions.”
Vanak says studies rarely quantify the impact of domestic dogs on wildlife populations. “We urgently need to know how and where dogs affect it most.” He is now putting GPS collars on rural strays to study their movements.
Bhadra’s studies have been focusing on how they live, interact and evolve without human training. Her research already indicates that strays form non-random groups – adults team with the opposite sex in the mating season, juveniles stay close to adults.
Another one of her studies makes the first field observations of grandmotherly care among a dog group, just like a joint family. Yet another of her papers suggests that free-ranging dogs have adapted to seek carbohydrate-rich food from human homes and waste dumps, not meaty proteins as commonly believed.
The man-dog conflict urgently needs man-man collaboration if we are to solve it.
“For too long wildlife biologists and animal rights organisations have been unable to, or have refused to, open real lines of communication between themselves,” Sahgal says. “In the case of feral dogs, frankly, unless both sectors find clear-headed individuals who can rationally figure out the best way forward for chronic and emergency situations, both domestic and wild species will suffer.”
Bhadra has experienced the rift, first-hand. “Typically, both animal activists and dog haters dislike me,” she says. “For one set of people, I am not enough of a dog lover as I don’t campaign openly for adoption of strays and protection of their rights. The other set feel that my work in some way lends support to the dog-loving group.”
For a problem caused by man and exacerbated by man, the solution lies squarely with man too.
Sahgal says it’s humans who need training to change their behaviour. “Animal Birth Control solutions do work with dogs and cats in most situations, but not unless human behaviour changes too.”