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
“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.

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

Keywords: Spiti livestock