- A recent study conducted in the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary in Ladakh found the density of free-ranging dogs per 100 sq km to be 310 in Hanle and 61 in Tso Moriri areas of the sanctuary.
- Free-ranging dogs, particularly in protected areas, prey on wild animals and also compete with them for prey. Disturbance, disease transmission and hybridisation are other impacts of free ranging dogs on wildlife.
- Changthang has a rich diversity of mammals, including three wild cats that are the snow leopard, Eurasian lynx and Pallas’s cat.
Climate change is a major threat to wildlife In India’s trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh, with studies suggesting it forces many wild species to shift their habitat to deal with the rising temperatures. However, at present, another threat for wildlife looms in Ladakh – free-ranging dogs.
A recently published study investigated the patterns of free-ranging dogs’ predation on livestock and wildlife in the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary of Ladakh, from 2015 to 2017, and found that there are 310 free-ranging dogs per 100 sq km in Hanle area and 61 free-ranging dogs per 100 sq km in Tso Moriri area of the sanctuary.
The mammals found in the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary include Himalayan blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), Ladakh urial (Ovis vignei), Tibetan argali (Ovis ammon), Tibetan wild ass (Equus kiang), Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), Tibetan gazelle (Procapra picticaudata), snow leopard (Panthera uncia), dhole (Cuon alpinus), Himalayan or woolly wolf (Canis lupus), Eurasian lynx or Himalayan lynx (Lynx lynx) and Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul).
Among the mammals, there are three wild cats in Changthang – the snow leopard is the apex predator and the largest felid, Eurasian lynx is a medium-size cat and Pallas’s cat is a small cat.
Neeraj Mahar, a researcher with Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the lead author of the study conducted in the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary and published in April this year, is of the opinion that even though these dogs don’t kill Ladakh’s wild cats such as snow leopard, Eurasian lynx and Pallas’s cat, they still affect them to a great extent.
“The free-ranging dogs are in a way stealing the resources of carnivores. So there is a competition. They are also big in size, so Pallas’s cat and Eurasian lynx get intimidated by them, even brown bears can’t stand in front of them. I have seen a pack of these dogs chasing away a whole pack of wolves. So there is an impact on wild cats and there is a competition,” he told Mongabay-India.
Apart from predation, which appears to be the major impact, feral dogs are also involved in competition for prey with wild species. Disturbance, disease transmission and hybridisation are other impacts on wildlife.
“Because of their instinctive nature, dogs will still form packs, and chase animals, either for food, or for fun. Such encounters can have potentially deadly effects on wildlife, either through direct killing, or by constant harassment and stress,” Abi T. Vanak, conservation scientist with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), who has studied the impact of free-ranging dogs, was quoted in a paper on the management of free-ranging dogs in and around protected areas.
Speaking to Mongabay India, Vanak said, “Hunting is not the only problem. Dogs have been known to kill smaller carnivores, as well as chase away snow leopards from their kills.”
“For small wild cats, the free-ranging dogs are most detrimental. First, they force these cats into competitive exclusion. Second, during the competition they are involved in direct killing as well. So, in today’s date, managing the free-ranging dogs is the main threat,” said Pankaj Raina, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Ladakh.
How bad is the problem?
A dog that is not under supervision is considered a free-ranging dog, particularly in the context of protected areas.
Presently, official data on the population of free-ranging dogs is not available. But, according to the Animal Husbandry Department, the current number of free-ranging dogs in Ladakh is about 25,000. As per the 20th Livestock Census 2019, there were 3,08,897 stray dogs in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In the 19th Livestock Census 2012, the number of stray dogs in the state was 2,70,577. During both the surveys, Ladakh was a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
In Ladakh, the presence of free-ranging dogs has been established by researchers. While scientific surveys are limited, anecdotal evidence from researchers and others shows that the number of free-ranging dogs has increased in recent years and their population is also increasing in protected areas that are home to some of the rare wildlife species of India and central Asia.
“More than 6,500 feral dogs are there in Ladakh alone. These are mainly in two sanctuaries in Ladakh; one is Changthang and the second is Karakoram. There are more wild animals being killed and maimed across India by dogs than human beings. No action is being taken because dogs are an emotive subject,” wildlife expert M.K. Ranjitsinh Jhala told Mongabay India.
“The dogs are in conflict with the humans and cattle, but the conflict with the wildlife is much more severe and at a higher proportion. Ladakh is a part of the northern flyway, so a lot of birds migrate here. Second, in Ladakh, most of the birds are ground breeders so they lay their eggs on the ground. These dogs pick the chicks of black-necked cranes to ruddy shell duck and bar-headed goose, and this is a serious threat for us,” said Raina. Birds such as the black-necked crane and ruddy shelduck as well as small mammals such as voles, pikas, marmots and woolly hares are predated upon by unowned dogs.
The war of law
Wildlife experts suggest that in protected areas, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 should prevail over any other Act or Rules. The government, under the Wildlife Protection Act, can declare any wild animal, except Schedule I and II animals, a ‘vermin’ in case they become a threat. However, since feral dogs were not ‘wild animals’, they cannot be declared vermin.
Researcher and research director of True Conservation Alliance, Ryan Lobo said, “It takes just one chief wildlife warden to take the decision and order the permanent removal or euthanasia of dogs from a protected area. But, at present, everyone is afraid of pressure from animal rights organisations and a particular politician who pushes this agenda both in the courts and behind the scenes.”
“In our country, the whole problem stems from the ABC rules that are very animal rights inspired. The policy in some way gives dogs greater rights than human beings, or wildlife for that matter,” Lobo told Mongabay India.
During a meeting held with the Ladakh UT administration in 2021, Ranjitsinh had suggested that the Wildlife Protection Act should be used to protect Ladakh’s wildlife from the free-ranging dogs.
“The Act says that if anybody brings (inside a protected area) anything injurious to wildlife and the habitat they can be prosecuted, the same applies to weapons,” Ranjitsinh said.
“If the chief wildlife warden is allowing any activity to take place in a national park or sanctuary in national defence, whether it is the army, Ladakh scouts, police or the border road organisation, if they have dogs with them, it is their duty to tie them up. If they don’t keep them tied then they should be prosecuted for the act of bringing in the animal,” Ranjithsinh suggested.
ATREE’s Vanak said he believes that the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) gives enough powers to the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) to protect the wildlife from feral dogs. “The WLPA empowers the CWW to take any action to protect and safeguard wildlife. Therefore, the CWW can order the removal of dogs from wildlife areas by any means necessary. This was done by the Maharashtra government by changing the Forest Rule,” Vanak told Mongabay India.
“There is no clear policy about free-ranging dogs in the country till now. The animal birth control (ABC) programme mostly remains unsuccessful as it needs long-term efforts and its results also start showing at least three to four years later. Culling is also not an accepted norm, as of now. So, it’s a serious question that needs answers,” Raina said.
Improper waste disposal and its management is being cited as one of the major reasons behind the increasing population of free-ranging dogs in Ladakh.
The scat analysis in Mahar’s recent study shows that most of these dogs feed on waste generated by humans. The density of free-ranging dogs around human settlements, like temporary pastoralist camps, army camps and labour camps, is higher in comparison to places where there is no human settlement.
“As free-ranging dogs tend to depend on human subsidies, we predicted that a major part of their diet constitutes readily available food from human-dominated landscapes,” the study says.
“In the tourist season there are hundreds of restaurants and cafes and the dogs survive on their waste. But in winters, when there is nothing, the dogs don’t get anything to survive on and they start attacking the wildlife and even humans. It’s an alarming situation for the administration,” said chairman of Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh, Lobzang Visuddha.
Banner image: A free-ranging dog on the hunt, capturing a pika. Photo by Neeraj Mahar