The Dogs: An Excerpt from "Elemental India"

20 January, 2016

Meera Subramanian’s Elemental India: The Natural World at a Time of Crisis and Opportunity tells five tales of India’s efforts to balance economic development and environmental protection. The book is divided into chapters entitled Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether–to investigate the five aspects of sustainable development: organic farming, clean cookstoves, freshwater, endangered species, and population and family planning.

Subramanian is a US-based freelance journalist who received a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellowship and a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism to support reporting for her book.

In the following excerpt, she describes the carcass dump in Bikaner, Rajasthan once home to the White-backed vultures and the longbilled vultures. However the widespread use Diclofenac, a common anti-inflammatory drug administered to livestock has resulted in their near extinction. The drug is fatal to vultures if they eat from the carcass of an animal that has been treated with it.

The vultures are gone, but the livestock carcasses they once consumed by the millions remain. Many are collected and deposited at carcass dumps like the one called Jorbeer on the outskirts of Bikaner, where dogs run wild amid an endless supply of food.

As I travelled around India, I kept hearing about aggressive dogs. Soon after I arrived in Bikaner, someone told me about two local girls, eight or nine years old, who were attacked by dogs at night, while they were sleeping. They were such easy prey. “They were hurt so badly, but not killed,” the man told me.

“The police came and took the dogs away, but I was so astonished…how can there be dogs like this?” Other dog-attack victims—seventeen million in India each year, mostly children—do not survive. A four-year-old boy named Manjunath in the city of Bengaluru didn’t make it. Nor did three-year-old Arshpreet Kaur, who was bitten in her home in New Delhi when a stray dog came through her front door; it bit both her and her grandfather. First Arshpreet got a headache, then a fever. She slipped into a coma where she remained for nine long years before she finally died. A journalist reported that dogs routinely enter the Patna Medical College in Bihar, where one had to be threatened extensively with a baton when it was found with the skull of a stillborn baby locked in its jaws in the gynaecology department. Munir had warned me of the dogs, and they were there when I arrived at Jorbeer and met Rameshwar and his wife Pandevi.

“I’ve been here for four years,” Rameshwar told me as we stood outside his family hut, a hundred yards from a 5-acre pile of carcasses. He was wearing a thin button-down shirt that had a neat tear in the back. His hair was thick, as dark as his onyx eyes. Lanky, he looked no older than thirty.

“I live here with my wife and four children,” he began. “These are my four goats, which we keep for milking. Every day from the city, a tractor comes with thirty to thirty-five carcasses…” His gaze lifted up as something captured his attention behind me.

“Heyyahh!” he yelled, his soft voice suddenly rising, as he shooed goats from the open doorway of his hut. They scurried away, but remained close. I asked him about the dogs. “I’ve seen the dogs coming, each day, more and more,” he told me. “During the day, they are very familiar with us, but at night, they are much more aggressive. Then, we don’t go outside without a stick, and I have to keep them away from the goats.” He motioned to an enclosure made of thorny brush, where he put the goats at night.

The sun blazed on us and the dusty desert ground, littered with a goat hoof, a stray tail, a single shoe, and the plastic bags that have become an integral part of the Indian landscape. We were upwind from the bodies, so the air didn’t smell fetid.

Bikaner is a city of a half-million that sits in the Thar Desert of western Rajasthan. Though it had been dry amid the cliffs of Ranthambore in the eastern part of the state, here were no forests, just expanses of sand dotted with occasional trees.

Once, the government of India grazed a huge camel corps at the Jorbeer site, until the military started adopting more modern means of transportation. But dozens of camels, long-legged dun mountains, still grazed on the surrounding lands, blending in with the tawny hues of the sand dunes, upon which grew gum acacias and khejari trees, Sodom’s apple and shrubby khimps. Gazelles, chinkara, desert foxes and porcupines still roamed the area. But since the camel corps had dispersed, the carcass dump had appeared in its stead—no one seems to know exactly when or how or by whose directive. It was a convenient place for the city to bring its dead cows, water buffalo, goats and camels, as well as some dogs I saw tossed from the back of a boxy yellow truck before it turned and sped away, kicking up a cloud of dust.

Rameshwar lived at the dump as the on-site skinner, a profession mostly left to the Dalits. When the carcasses arrived twice each day, Rameshwar and his wife Pandevi removed the hides, to be sold for leather, and then piled up the bare remains for the animals and elements to dismantle. They layered the skins with a desiccant in covered sheds at the side of their encampment, which consisted of a thatched hut that tilted to one side and an outdoor earthen platform with a traditional clay chulha for a kitchen. Their eldest son, at thirteen, worked as a labourer on the tractors that brought the deliveries. Their daughter lived with them, and their two younger sons were in and out of school, sometimes staying with the grandparents in town.

Over our heads, hundreds of birds kettled in slow circles in the sky. Of the sixteen Old World vulture species, nine are found in India. Eight of those can be spotted in the Thar. But overhead were other birds—mostly Eurasian griffons, bulky steppe eagles, (which could have travelled from as far as Siberia) and Egyptian vultures the size of large gulls. They all rode the warm whorl of desert thermals to the apex of the gyre without a single flap of their wide wings and then peeled off like a slowly cascading waterfall. The white-backed and longbilled Gyps vultures, hardest hit by diclofenac, were noticeably absent. In the prior six years, only one had been seen at Jorbeer.

On the ground, more birds adorned the few scattered trees that drew life from the desert, and others vied with the dogs for the fresh meat of the newest arrivals to the dump. The carcass dump had become a prime birdwatching spot, our places of refuse fast becoming the wildlife refuges of the future. There were fork-tailed kites, cawing crows and a few cinereous vultures. One landed in a treetop, scattering the eagles and griffons on the branches below. I saw the slender white wisps of cattle egrets—a bird more commonly seen riding the back of a water buffalo in a rice paddy—standing inside the remains of a massive bovine rib cage, picking at the leftover flesh. There were drongos with long forked tails, and hoopoes with blacktipped fanned crests like some Indian punk mohawk and cooing mourning doves and clusters of black ibis—one of which had its long, downward-sloping bill buried in an unidentifiable body part of a carcass. Skeletons of livestock past were piled 15 feet high in places. Some but not all of the meat was picked clean, awaiting the bone collectors’ arrival.

Two Egyptian vultures could barely wait for a dog to finish defecating before they gobbled up its faeces. Next to Rameshwar’s lean frame, his wife Pandevi was full and round. Her voice was raspy, and she smiled easily. Her dark skin contrasted with the bright orange paisley dress she wore and the orange scarf draped over her head. Matching bangles ringed her wrists. A solid gold flower adorned the side of her nose, and a black circular bindi graced her third eye.

Forest officials who lived far from Jorbeer insisted that there was so much available food provided by the daily delivery of carcasses that the dogs had no reason to leave the dump and be “naughty and mischievous.” Pandevi, who lived with the dogs, disagreed.

“Many go and roam, 2 or 3 kilometres from Jorbeer,” she said. “In the late night, I am very afraid of the dogs. If I have to go out at night for the toilet, I take a stick,” she said. “During the day, we’ll carry a stone, but most of them know us and it’s usually okay. But in the night, and when they are in the mating season, they are different.”

“If we are off working, and there is no one with our animals, and there have not been fresh carcasses, they will attack the goats,” Rameshwar added. “A few months ago, the dogs killed two of them.” I looked at the four remaining goats that hovered behind him and the weak fortress of thorny branches that protected them at night. “I’ve seen the number of birds go up,” he continued, “but I’ve also seen the dogs coming, each day, more and more.”

One forest official told me there were no more than 150 stray dogs at Jorbeer. Rameshwar said there were 2,000. The true figure lies somewhere in between. I tried to make my own count, but in the midday heat, the dogs were scattered, seeking shade under the desert berry bushes and acacia trees, ten here, three there, twenty vying for a spot around the newest carcass, chasing away birds that came too close. A female dog bared her canines at a couple of other worn females, defending three young pups that frolicked among the carnage. Even as I passed, dogs looked up and growled from a hundred feet away. Most of them seemed strangely healthy, thick and muscular, unlike the cowering, scrawny strays I’d grown used to seeing on India’s streets. But some, their sagging skin and ribs exposed, had lost their fur to dermatitis, which has been moving through the population, killing up to 40 percent of the pack according to one local biologist. The fatal disease has begun to show up in the wild gazelles that also pass through Jorbeer. The mortality rate is high among feral dogs—dermatitis accomplishes an extreme form of dog control that the government is unwilling to perform—but the dog population was still increasing. There used to be ten dogs to every hundred vultures. The ratio has now flipped.

“Since 1992,” Vibhu Prakash had told me back at the breeding centre in Haryana, “BNHS has surveyed for dogs as they do their vulture counts.” He hasn’t had time to analyse the data, but his anecdotal impression is incontrovertible. “At the carcass dumps—Jorbeer, one near Jodhpur, Gazipur near New Delhi, Tonk in Rajasthan and Devnar near Mumbai—at all of them I’ve seen vultures go down and dogs go up.” In the decade of major vulture decline, from 1992 to 2003, one estimate shows dog populations increasing by a third, up to nearly thirty million. Though there is no certain way to show there is a direct correlation, the escalation of the dog population corresponds perfectly with the disappearance of India’s vultures. “Just the day before yesterday,” Rameshwar told me, “a vulture was eating a cow carcass, and the dogs came and attacked the vulture and killed it. It doesn’t happen often, but they can catch the wings of the vulture and then the vulture will die.” Somehow Rameshwar managed to retrieve the dead bird from the dogs, and place it high atop a shrub, in case the forest managers needed to see it. It was still there on my visit, lying face down in the foliage. It was a Eurasian griffon, whose once-fluffy collar of buff feathers was now flattened with death.

Excerpted from Elemental India: The Natural World at a Time of Crisis and Opportunity, published by HarperCollins Publishers India.