Fixing feral dogs in ManangThe Himalayan Mutt Project, an initiative started by a Nepali and a Singaporean, uses a humane approach to control dog populations high in the Himalayas.
“At least 150 dogs were getting poisoned every year. And some people even threw newborn puppies into the river,” recalls Godame. Poisoning was the preferred means people were using to get rid of feral domestic dogs in Manang, as they were attacking not just livestock, but also wildlife such as red panda, blue sheep and musk deer.
Godame, also a natural history guide, became increasingly concerned.
“People don’t adopt dogs in our culture. But the tourists feed dogs and they follow them up to the villages. Manang is the last settlement in this region and the dogs remain here, so that how their numbers have increased. When the tourists leave them behind, people don’t want to keep them.” And when these dogs get hungry, they attack livestock and other animals.
Godame says their numbers have increased sharply in the last four or five years. In the past, the region mostly had Tibetan mastiffs, who were bred to work as shepherding dogs. But with other breeds moving into the region, the number of mutts has grown too—they are usually a mix of Tibetan Terriers, mastiffs and local mongrels. That mixing has resulted in big mountain dogs that can easily attack sheep, calves and chickens.
But luckily for Godame and the people of Manang, help came along in 2008. That year, Godame met a Singaporean photojournalist, Debby Ng, during a trek, during which they discussed the problem and Ng offered to set up the Himalayan Mutt project, which would neuter and vaccinate the dogs.
That’s a far better practice than poisoning. “Food laced with pesticides is given to dogs. The poisoning results in muscular convulsions and eventually death through suffocation. It is a slow, painful and gruesome death,” explains Ng. “The dog carcasses are then discarded along hillsides, or into rivers or forests, for wild scavengers to consume. These wild animals ingest the poisons in turn, and vultures and eagles have been observed unable to fly after feeding on poisoned dogs.”
“Himalayan Griffin vultures are a rare species,” says Ajay Narsingh Rana, a mountain bike coach, involved in the project. “There’s a chain reaction to such action, which people don’t understand. Everyone doesn’t have the same level of compassion. They look for simple solutions and not long-term impact.”
Ng says the culling of dogs isn’t a long-term solution at all, as even with poisoning, their number was increasing.
“Hungry dogs form packs and attack the younger sheep and goats. Sometimes even the mothers. Villagers in Pisan and Humre have rescued musk deer being attacked by feral dogs,” says Khageshwar Sharma, the director of Himalayan Animal Rescue Trust (HART). “We had to convince people that neutering was a solution as it would lessen the aggression in these dogs.”
The problem goes beyond the feral packs and stray dogs attacking wild animals.
“Tourists find poisoning disturbing as they love dogs. But if a rabies-infected dog bites foreigners it becomes a bigger problem. Who should take responsibility for the actions of these stray dogs?” Godame asks. And he says the more the number of street dogs, the more likely they are to come in contact with jackals, increasing the possibility of their contracting rabies.
“Dogs are by nature territorial,” says Ng. “Sterilisation works because it keeps the mutts from expanding their territory. That helps ensure they don’t attack red foxes and jackals.”
In March 2014, Godame and Ng, along with some of their friends visited several villages in Manang district to collect baseline data about the number of street dogs in the villages, as well as to assess the attitudes of the villagers towards sterilisation as a form of population control. Because Godame is a local resident and knows the locals’ mores and norms well, he was able to convince them about the benefits of sterlising the dogs.
“Our aim is to enable long-term animal population control through a series of annual Capture, Neuter, Vaccinate, and Release (CNVR) programmes. The objective is to not only improve the welfare of the dogs through neutering and vaccination, but to also the alleviate pressure and impact that the dogs are having on rare and endangered native wildlife, as well as on the villagers, who live amongst these dogs”, says Ng.
To get the project going, Mukhiya and Ng raised funds for the project in Nepal and Singapore. Much of the fundraising was done via crowdfunding. Vets from Singapore also donated medical supplies.
A total of 158 dogs have been neutered and an additional 43 were vaccinated by the project this year. Except for one dog, says Rana, nearly all the sterilised dogs are in good health. The Himalayan Mutt project, with some support from the VDCs and HART, plans to return every year to revise their campaign and also vaccinate more dogs against rabies.
But the problem is not just confined to Manang, and Godame says that similar initiatives need to be carried out across the nation.
“Dog poisoning has been going on in Sauraha, too. Fences are weak in the buffer zones there, and when dogs see new creatures, they attack them. A deer, for example, recently got stuck in a barbed wire fence and the dogs attacked it and killed it. There is a need for programmes to take care of this problem in different places of the country,” says HART’s Sharma.
Godame has been asked to help in Gorkha and the Manaslu region, which face similar problems with feral dogs. The locals there want him to extend his project to their areas. Godame would love to help out, but because of budgetary constraints, he can, for now, only focus on Manang.
As it is, even the project in his home district is still running on a shoestring budget. “Our main problem is funding. I’d like to save some trekking money to do this every year and run two camps a year. We’d like to eventually hand the project over to the government,” he says.
For more information: www.himalayanmuttproject.org