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India’s wildlife is under threat from free roaming dogs

by Narendra Patil & Meghna Uniyal

The Animal Birth Control Rules for dog management are unscientific and being challenged in the Supreme Court

Deer fawn attacked by dogs in Baramati, Maharashtra. Photo: Omkar Sumant

There are an estimated 60 million dogs in India and much has been written about the threats that free-ranging / feral dogs (approximately 35 million) pose to wildlife.

While this is clearly a human-made disaster, we, the people and the administration at all levels, seem to have become indifferent and numb to the horrendous consequences unfolding around the country. Consequencing this tragedy for wildlife is the obfuscation of otherwise clear wildlife protection laws.

Free roaming dogs are threatening India’s wildlife

From possibilities of canine distemper and other deadly viruses being transmitted to populations of felids to reports of actual attacks on pinnacle predators in different landscapes, to threats of hybridisation of wild canids and actual predation on ground nesting birds, experts warn of dogs endangering and contributing to the loss of wild fauna.

They specifically caution that dogs may be responsible in large measure to the possible extinction of the Great Indian Bustard and the Black Necked Cranes (BNCs) abandoning their only breeding area in India.

Black-necked Cranes being chased by dogs in Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, Ladakh. Photo: Neeraj Mahar

For instance, the breeding success of the BNC, the state bird of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, has less than halved to 29 per cent in 2016, from 60 per cent in 1995. By all accounts, the biggest threat to these birds are free roaming dogs.

Neeraj Mahar, a researcher from the Wildlife Institute of India, who has studied the birds of Changthang, says, “During the nesting season, I also encountered dogs feeding on the chicks and eggs of BNC and Bar-headed Goose.”

The Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary in Ladakh, also home to the Snow Leopard, Urial, Kiang and the Himalayan Marmot, has an estimated 3,500 free roaming dogs, that now threaten every one of these species.

Wildlife biologist, Sumit Dookia, working for the conservation of biodiversity of the Thar desert, reports, “Free ranging dogs are responsible for more killings of Chinkara (Indian Gazelle), the state animal of Rajasthan, than any other agent.”

The population dynamics of domestic dogs that have become a threat to wildlife, have to be understood within the source-and-sink framework. Dogs found in and around human habitation are the ‘source population’, with the surplus dispersing into adjoining Protected Areas (PAs) with wildlife.

Ineffective control of these source populations indefinitely sustains domestic dog populations inside PAs. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (WPA) provides protection to Schedule species, both inside and outside PAs. So, what prevents wildlife managers from using these legal provisions to remove domestic dogs that are threatening wild animals and birds?

A female blackbuck being eaten by a feral dog in Rajasthan's Tal Chappar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Photo: Sumit Dookia

Animal Welfare Board of India’s ABC policy is detrimental

Instead of a scientific and rational policy being implemented in the country, the issue has, most alarmingly, been hijacked by the self-styled “animal welfare” community in India, that has promoted the maintenance of unowned dogs in public places and even areas with wildlife.

The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), an advisory body set up under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, has promoted the Animal Birth Control policy (ABC Rules) and funded the sterilisation of free roaming dogs as the panacea to all related problems.

It has stated that the “relocation of dogs is not permissible” and that “it is imperative that dogs are released back to the exact location from where they were picked up”, because “sterilised dogs have to remain in their original areas.”

It goes on to claim that “…this results in a reduction in the number of feral dogs predating on endangered wildlife species, and thus promotes wildlife preservation...”

The AWBI, however, does not take the trouble to explain why public places and wildlife sanctuaries should be considered ‘original areas’ for unowned, domestic dogs and how sterilisation prevents dogs from getting hungry and hunting wildlife.

… and renders The Wildlife Protection Acts futile

There is no legal ambiguity inside PAs that are under the purview of the WPA completely, and wildlife managers are duty bound to remove domestic dogs with no legal hinderance.

However, the ABC Rules, that have taken on the status of official dog management policy, contradict, undermine and muddy the WPA. ABC, in effect, only deals with sterilisation of free-ranging, unowned dogs, that too with great ineffectiveness.

So, while dogs need to be removed from wildlife areas, the ABC rules require that they be released back from wherever they were picked up. They have therefore constrained well-intentioned and capable field officers around the country from carrying out their duties.

In doing so, the ABC policy puts Schedule species outside PAs at risk as well and additionally enables the survival of source population of dogs, from where they become threats radiating into PAs.

Conservation scientist, Abi T Vanak of ATREE Bangalore, who has studied the impact of free ranging dogs on humans and wildlife, says, “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.”

It is pertinent to point out here that the ABC Rules are subordinate legislation under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. As such, their only mandate is to further the parent law.

They can neither create entities like ‘street / Indian dogs’ that are not found in the parent law, nor can they supersede central laws like the Wildlife Protection Act.

MK Ranjitsinh, India's leading wildlife conservationist and author of the country's Wildlife Protection Act says, "Free-ranging domestic dogs have emerged as the greatest threat to wildlife around the country and relevant sections of the WPA must be implemented to remove them from PAs to protect wildlife."

The Supreme Court, the last bastion 

Since the bureaucracy is unable to render its constitutional duty because of an unscientific and unconstitutional policy, we have reached the doorstep of the highest court in the country.

On behalf of wildlife and wildlife managers that are paralysed in an atmosphere of false narratives, we seek relief from crippling effects of ABC, its very abrogation and ask for a rational, humane and scientific policy framework.

Wildlife organisations and conservation scientists must take this opportunity to articulate their concerns with respect to the dangers of free roaming / feral dogs before the court, that is currently seized of this issue.

We have pleaded to the court to direct the government to remove all free roaming dogs from wildlife sanctuaries and areas with wildlife within a fixed time period.

This would, therefore, be the time for all others concerned about the protection of wildlife in India, to make their voice heard.

*Article republished from Down to Earth publication dated 23th April 2020.

About the Authors:

Narendra Patil is a wildlife conservationist.

Meghna Uniyal is Co-founder & Director, Humane Foundation for People and Animals. 

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