In the foothills of the Himalayas, feral dogs have become a nuisance to villagers, attacking livestock as well as wildlife, and end up being poisoned by locals.
Trekking in the Everest region in 2008, Singaporean photojournalist Debby Ng decided it was time to act.
“While interviewing locals to learn more about the habits and behaviour of native wildlife, we learned that it was commonplace for wildlife like musk deer and red panda to be attacked and killed by domestic dogs,” she said.
“Locals also mentioned that the number of ground-foraging birds in the village had decreased because they are vulnerable to dog attacks.”
The stray dogs in Manang district of northwestern Nepal, have been known to have attacked deer, young Blue sheep and wild birds, according to Khageshwar Bhattarai, director of Himalayan Animal Rescue Trust (HART).
“I witnessed a pack of dogs attacking sheep,” he said. “The dogs are usually a mutt from Tibetan mastiff and mongrels. They follow tourists around because they give them food and when they can’t find food, they attack livestock and sometimes wildlife.”
Mukhiya Godame, a natural history guide from Manang, and Ng learnt that people were poisoning the dogs.
“Individual villagers, in an attempt to manage the rapidly exploding dog population, have sought to cull the dogs by leaving food laced with poisons along the trails.”
Yet, villagers admit that these attempts to kill the dogs have not been effective, and they face an ever-growing population.
“In addition, the poisons left out on the street kill indiscriminately, and any animal that encounters it, such as foxes, jackal, and vultures, fall victim to the poisoned bait,” Godame said.
Ng recommended neutering as a humane way to control stray dogs. The Himalayan Mutt Project conducted its first spaying and neutering camp for dogs in Manang last month.
“The traditional method of culling street dogs with poisons has proven to be unsuccessful because the population of street dogs depends on available food and space of a given area. When street dogs are killed, the remaining population multiplies rapidly to fill the empty biological gap,” she added.
The poisons from the carcasses also leach into the soil, contaminating the ground and polluting water sources.
Initial funds were raised through crowdfunding.
“But we will need government support to make it sustainable,” Godame said.
With the support of veterinarians and animal handlers from HART, just over 150 dogs were neutered in the first phase.
“Our aim is to mitigate the impact of street dogs on wildlife, on Himalayan communities, as well as to improve the health and welfare of the dogs themselves, through free anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation procedures,” said Ng.
It was probably the first neutering and vaccination programme conducted in Nepal’s Himalaya, and possibly the highest such field camp in the world, at an elevation of 3,600m in Ngarwal village.
Godame said starting up the project was not easy, because local residents did not realise the impact that poisoning can have. It required several committee meetings with villagers before they could get close to starting up the project.
“I think it’s just a lack of awareness regarding what kind of a role dogs play in the ecology,” he explains.
Godame said he is worried that the problem could spiral out of control.
“Nepal has the tourism industry, which is its backbone. Much of it rests on wildlife and natural beauty. Wildlife has been disturbed by dogs. Charismatic mascots of the mountain like the Blue sheep are in danger,” he said. “It’s a fragile environment.”