- Recent studies find that free-ranging dogs in India pose a threat to human and livestock safety, and biodiversity.
- In the central Indian savannahs and the Leh region of Ladakh free-ranging dogs have been mating with wild canids to form hybrids with altered diets, that also display more aggressive behaviours.
- It is imperative for a megadiverse country like India to actively consider a scientific response to mitigating dog populations that benefits both wildlife and human well-being.
- The views in the commentary are that of the author.
“Meanwhile, domestic dogs brought ashore from British ships had gone feral in Tasmania, and those rampaging wild dogs were themselves killing quite a few sheep,” writes David Quammen in his seminal book The Song of the Dodo. As he vividly describes species extinction in islands, he repeatedly mentions about the threat of extinction due to multiple anthropogenic factors. Among the many factors, invasive species is noted as the most common and frequent cause of extinctions. The problem was simple yet multidimensional; traders and explorers from the colonial era, both accidentally and intentionally, introduced many species in new places where their occurrence was otherwise impossible.
Scientists and conservation practitioners studying invasive species have great insights about the quick abilities of these species to adapt to new conditions. Eventually, their adaptations and growth lead to the death of many native species. But what happens when such an invasive species also happens to be a faithful companion to humans?
Free-ranging dogs are causing widespread biodiversity loss, one that is visible not just in island systems as David Quammen mentions, but in countries throughout the world. Their implication for biodiversity decimation and loss is plentiful. India, a megadiverse country, is no exception. The scientific community has established with proof that dogs have been responsible for directly threatening endangered and at-risk wild species across India.
Let us take the case of the central Indian savannahs. A group of researchers and citizen scientists recently confirmed (by conducting genetic studies of the hair samples) the presence of a wolf-dog hybrid in the savannah grasslands near Pune in Maharashtra. Such hybridisation has deleterious consequences, leading to loss of genetic diversity which can be detrimental for a species like the Indian wolf, which is understudied and has a fragmented distribution due to habitat loss. This hybridisation by dogs is not limited to Central Indian wolves alone. In India, there are instances of dogs mating with other wild canids, like golden jackals.
In the Leh region of Ladakh, for example, Tibetan wolf-feral dog hybrids are locally called khibshank, which are known to be bolder and more aggressive in behaviour and have put humans, wildlife and livestock species at risk. A recent study led by Neeraj Mahar of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, corroborates this statement. The study entailed collaring free-ranging dogs to monitor their movement and analysing dog scats to understand their feeding habits. The study found that a major part of their diet constituted of livestock (74.29%) and wild species (13.06%). Among wild prey species, birds (4.49%), lagomorphs (3.67%), rodents (2.45%) and Tibetan wild ass (1.63%) had a high occurrence in the dog diet. Other species in the diet included pikas, marmots, blue sheep, and birds including several species of ducks, crane, and pelicans.
Mahar’s study also highlighted the difficulties of pastoral communities in dealing with continual losses from free-ranging dogs. A large proportion of pastoral communities they worked with considered dogs to be a problem but were unable to act for the solutions to mitigate it. Similar results were found from other landscapes, including in the high altitudes of Spiti in Himachal Pradesh where Chandrima Home and colleagues found almost 64% livestock loss attributed to dogs.
Apart from predation, dogs also cause the spread of various diseases which is another major concern for wildlife conservation. In recent studies, researchers documented high prevalence of infectious diseases in free-ranging dogs, including parvovirus, canine distemper virus and canine adenovirus. All these diseases have high permeability across species and have impacted carnivores worldwide (be it wiping out 30% African lions, amur tigers and even giant pandas).
In fact, the 2018 report Status of Tigers, co-predators and Prey in India, one of the largest systematic biodiversity studies in the world, reported the presence of free-ranging dogs from most tiger reserves in the country, alluding to their multiple impacts on carnivores like tigers, leopards and other carnivores.
Dogs do not, however, impact only wild animals. Humans are equally susceptible to impacts caused by dogs, both in rural and urban areas. From direct mortality cases which get reported across the country, to attacks and disease that spread through rabies, free-ranging dogs are a serious threat to safety.
Dog attacks also disproportionately impact people from lower economic backgrounds who are more vulnerable as they do not often have the means to get proper treatment for dog bites. In 2022 alone, 307 people died due to rabies in India.
With such instances of the vulnerability of humans and wildlife, scientists are left wondering about the ways to incorporate lessons about the risk of dogs. This is vital, especially at a time when society remains polarised about the impacts of free-ranging dogs due to dismissal or misunderstanding of scientific evidence.
“Build it over time. Change will not happen in a day,” says Subhashini Krishnan, a wildlife biologist-turned-teacher. “You need to build the capacity for people to trust the science and the evidence.” Working as a science teacher and exploring the concept of place-based education in schools, Krishnan insists that good science education should be prioritised.
Although people are aware of the impact of free-ranging dogs on human and wildlife systems, working towards a solution is complex, some are driven by a false sense of animal conservation and mistaken notions of natural systems have led to misguided efforts of dealing with the issue of free-ranging dogs in our country. Even if some efforts were well-intentioned, almost all of them lacked scientific and political temper. Needless to add, this results in more harm than good.
The loss of livestock or the attacks on human children by free-ranging dogs are not convincing enough to warrant efficient, science-backed mitigation of dog populations. Instead, measures such as birth control or adoption, which do not cause a significant dent in the extremely high population of dogs, are actively supported. It is imperative for India to actively consider a scientific response to mitigating dog populations that benefits both wildlife and human well-being.
The author is a PhD student in Conservation Science at the University of Minnesota.
Banner image: Feral dogs in Rajasthan’s deserts. Photo by Jesse Gillies/Wikimedia Commons.