A Pack of Troubles

How Spiti is coping with its stray-dog problem

01 February 2018
“If they are not fed, they become aggressive and attack people,” Angdui, a Kibber resident, said. “Besides, we have to show compassion.”
himanshu khagta

On a windy afternoon in July, Moolchand walked into Kibber, a village in the Spiti Valley in northeastern Himachal Pradesh, following closely at the heels of a foreign tourist. “Moolchand ji,” a passerby called out. “Izzat toh deni chahiye”—you should show some respect. A group of people, waiting for the daily bus out of Kibber, laughed. Moolchand, a friendly and trusting dog, is regarded with affection by tourists and tolerated by villagers, even when he wanders near the sheep pens.

But the treatment he receives is rare. In this corner of the Himalayas, dogs are entangled in a difficult conflict with locals. Spiti has long been a pastoral economy, and it depends on livestock—sheep, goats, horses, yak, donkeys and dzo—to provide resources such as meat, manure and wool. A study published in January 2017, in the Swedish journal Ambio, found that feral dogs were responsible for a little over 63 percent of the livestock deaths in Spiti, and 80 percent of those that died were sheep and goats. Chandrima Home, a doctoral student at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, and the lead researcher of the study, found that over the span of one year, dogs had killed 238 livestock in 25 villages. Although sterilisation was thought to be the best way to tackle this problem, local enthusiasm for participating in sterilisation camps has dwindled. According to Home, culling measures need to be considered. “I think we have to come to terms with the fact that we have to physically remove some dogs from the landscape,” she said, “but it has to be done systematically and in a humane manner.”

On 14 and 15 July, the animal husbandry department and veterinary hospital in Kaza—the subdivisional headquarters of the Spiti Valley—hosted an animal birth-control programme, an annual camp arranged to sterilise some dogs in the town, where the canine population was growing rapidly. It was a collaboration between two NGOs. Funds for medicines were provided by Ecosphere, which works on tourism and local livelihoods, and four staff members from the Nature Conservation Foundation, or NCF, which works on snow leopard conservation, had come down from Kibber to assist in the proceedings. Led by Tanzin Thinley, a field coordinator at NCF, they cheerfully sedated, cleaned and prepared dogs for the operations, while two vets from the Animal Husbandry Department performed the surgeries.

When I visited on the first day, the mood at the camp was almost festive. Cups of Rasna were passed around to organisers and onlookers, and a colourful tent under a willow tree functioned as a makeshift operating theatre. But the success of the camp hinged precariously on the residents of Kaza catching dogs and bringing them in. When Thinley returned to his home in Kibber, I asked him how many dogs were sterilised in Kaza this year. “A hundred,” he said, and the other NCF staff burst into laughter. “Actually it was 12,” he admitted with a small smile. “Nobody brought any dogs on the second day.”

The first sterilisation camp took place in 2013. In preparation for it, the village council in Kaza instructed every household to catch at least one dog, or pay a fine of Rs 500 if they failed to do so. Ajay Bijoor, who manages NCF’s conservation projects in Spiti, told me over the phone that 102 dogs were sterilised during the first camp and around 326 dogs were sterilised in the annual camps held between 2013 and 2017. In the last two years, the number has steadily reduced. Only 35 dogs were sterilised in 2016. Bijoor estimated the stray dog population to be between 700 and 900 today, while Home’s study suggested that there are at least 571. “Sterilised dogs still have a lifespan of at least eight to ten years,” Bijoor said. “They continue to hunt livestock and wildlife during this period, and this has made local people lose interest in sterilisation.” Yet it is still the preferred method of dealing with the problem. With dogs in Kaza, Bijoor explained, sterilisation might be an adequate measure, but villages where dogs reside in pastures or the jungle might need a different strategy.

Another dilemma faces the people of Spiti—a predominantly Buddhist society—who feel that killing dogs goes against their faith. In 2014, students from the Kachen Dugyal Memorial Girl’s Hostel in Kaza made a short film, urging locals to co-operate with the annual sterilisation drive. In one scene, a young student interviews Phunchok Namgial, an elderly resident, who claims that he sold his stock of sheep and goats because he could not bear to lose any more of them to dogs. “I feel very angry when I lose my animals because of the losses I face,” he says. “I am old and I cannot kill these dogs.” After what appears to be some prodding by the interviewer, he also says, “It is a sin and the laws also do not permit such action.” Namgial’s response suggests that people in Spiti are sometimes caught between the compassion that their faith preaches and their urge to protect their livelihood. For instance, Bijoor recounted that during the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakraa lectures in 2000 at the Kye Gompa—a well-known Tibetan monastery—around 200 dogs were loaded onto a truck by local people. The dogs were then transported to Manali, because it was considered inauspicious to kill them during a holy event. Last year in Kibber, according to Thinley, 33 dogs were rounded up and killed. “They troubled us so much. Nothing”—referring to livestock—“remained last year,” he said.

Sonam Angdui, a Kibber resident, told me during a phone conversation that dogs were not a problem in Lahaul and Spiti until the central government published the Animal Birth Control Rules (Dogs) of 2001—guidelines on the treatment of stray dogs. These rules banned the killing of stray dogs, and instructed municipalities across India to sterilise and vaccinate dogs instead. “The Animal Husbandry Department used to routinely cull dogs in the region,” he said. After the 2001 rules, according to Angdui, the department “washed their hands of it.” The population of dogs increased, as did attacks on livestock and wild herbivores. Meanwhile, in Kaza, restaurants and cafes that sustained dogs during the summer by generating food waste shut down in winter, cutting off food supply for the dogs. They either died or became aggressive, sometimes even resorting to cannibalism. Bijoor recounted that in February 2017, the issue captured the attention of People for Animals, or PFA, an animal welfare organisation run by Maneka Gandhi, a well-known animal-rights activist who is currently the cabinet minister for women and child development. PFA contacted the local administration, and suggested that it start feeding the dogs in winter with the support of local NGOs. Vikram Singh Negi, the additional district commissioner, told me when we met in Kaza in July that his office provided around Rs 10,000 towards the cause. “We help as much as we can,” he said.

The Spiti Welfare Society, a women’s self-help group in Kaza, began making chapatis for the dogs in the winter of 2016—a decision that irked some locals in Kibber. Thinley appeared to be frustrated that the administration itself is sustaining dogs in Kaza, despite ongoing attempts to reduce the dog population. “Do not kill them, but why feed them?” he said. “In smaller villages when we try to organise sterilisation camps, they tell us to first take care of all the dogs in Kaza. But in Kaza, people are encouraging the dogs.” Angdui, on the other hand, was adamant that locals hardly have a choice in the matter. “If they are not fed, they become aggressive and attack people,” he said. “Besides, we have to show compassion.”

Bhanu Sridharan is an independent journalist interested in writing about ecology and the environment.

Keywords: Spiti livestock