By Tashi Lundup, Murtaza Fazily, and Sunetro Ghosal, Stawa 12-19
Shamim Fatima was on her way home in Sheynam when she was attacked by a feral dog. The same dog had also attacked and injured others over the last few days. Fatima was immediately rushed to Sonam Norboo Memorial (SNM) Hospital for treatment where she came across several other patients who had been bitten by feral dogs.
A large number of incidents of dog bites have been recorded in both Leh and Kargil districts. Medical Superintendent of SNM Hospital, Leh, Dr Tsering Samphel said, "Dog bites have emerged as a major challenge in Leh. We receive a daily average of five dog bite cases in Leh." In comparison, the issue is less severe in Kargil but still presents a significant challenge. Chief Medical Officer, Kargil, Dr Ibrahim Khan explained that dog attacks are worsening in Kargil. He said, "Cases of dog bites are increasing in Kargil. In 2019, we have recorded 84 incidents of dog bites. We need to develop a solution to this issue." The highest number of dog bite cases were from Kargil town, Zangskar, Wakha-Shargole, and Drass.
The number of dog bites is significantly higher in the winter than the summer. According to Disease Investigation Officer at Animal Husbandry, Leh, Dr Stanzin Rabgais this is due to the fact that food is scarcer in the winters. "The temperament of feral dogs changes in relation to food deprivation and weather. Generally, the temperament of dogs is breed specific. We have nondescript breed in Leh and they become aggressive only when faced with deprivation," he added.
Dr Ishey Namgyal, President of Municipal Committee Leh (MCL) points to the closure of restaurants as the main reason for the increase in dog bite cases. "Dogs feed on the food waste generated by these eateries. Dogs don't attack humans when they are full. Most of restaurants remain closed between September and April. Since dogs don't get enough food in winters, they become aggressive," said Dr Ishey Namgyal.
According to World Health Organisation, each year there are 1.75 million dog bites worldwide. Infection resulting from dog bites leads to 20,800 deaths annually. India contributes around 36% of rabies deaths in the world i.e. one of three deaths in the world due to rabies occurs in India.
In October 2019, a man from Zangskar was allegedly killed by feral dogs near Skara Tokpo. Prior to this, a nine-year-old girl was killed by a pack of dogs at Spituk in January 2014. In December 2014, a woman was mauled to death by dogs at Saspol. This was followed by anther case of a woman in Nyoma being killed by dogs in 2017.
Estimating feral dog population
There are no reliable estimates of feral dog population in Ladakh as no systematic studies of feral dogs have been conducted in Ladakh so far. The estimates for feral dog populations around Leh town vary from 3,000 to 6,000. Chief Animal Husbandry Officer, Leh, Dr Mohammad Iqbal estimated that the dog population in Leh district is around 9,000 to 10,000. "In Leh town, the population of dogs has grown to around 30% of the human population," he calculated.
According to international standards, a town or a city should not have more than 3% of the human population. Dr. Stanzin Rabgais explained, "We conduct livestock census annually and according to the latest census which has not been published yet, there are roughly 11,000 to 12,000 dogs, including pets, in Leh district. A dog gives birth twice a year and a healthy dog can give birth to eight to 10 pups at a time. Even if five pups survive, and each pup grows and gives birth to five more pups and so on, the dog population will be 30,000 in six years. Therefore, it is very important to keep the dog population under control."
No such estimates exist for Kargil district. Newly-appointed Executive Officer of Municipal Committee, Kargil, Shafaqat Ali Khan said, "Kargil also faces a problem with feral dogs. However, we have not had any complaints from people and so there is no policy or population estimate of the feral dog population. I am hopeful that we are able to adopt a policy by March 2020 with one department coordinating the efforts to address this problem."
President of Municipal Committee, Kargil, Zaheer Babar admitted that Kargil was facing a problem with feral dogs, He said, "A month ago, I was travelling from Titi Chumik to Chanchik in the night. I counted 98 dogs along the way! This was just one part of town. As a representative of the people, I have already discussed this issue with Deputy Commissioner and EC — Wildlife." He added that the problem is growing in Kargil. "Recently a boy was attacked by feral dogs and he was rescued by some locals. The problem has grown over the last five years due to growing population, hotels and cafes that provide them with food," he added.
Department of Wildlife Protection, Leh conducted a survey in Changthang in January 2018 to estimate the feral dog population around wetlands in the area. Their study found a minimum estimate of 1,571 individuals with largest clusters around army camps, tourist areas, and villages. These numbers are significant as Changthang has a relatively low population than other parts of Ladakh. At the same time, the location of these dog packs around army camps, tourism areas, and villages is of significance, which is discussed later.
Impact of dogs on wildlife
In addition to the impact they have on humans, feral dogs also have a negative impact on wildlife. Regional Wildlife Warden, Mohd Sajod Sultan, IFS explained that having a large population of feral dogs in the landscape has a detrimental impact on wildlife. "While feral dogs harass and hunt all forms of wildlife, the most negative impact is on birds. We have reports of feral dog packs waiting for the arrival of migratory birds. These birds are exhausted from their long travel and are easy picking for the dogs. Also, most species of birds in Ladakh nest on the ground as there are few trees in the area. Feral dogs are known to prey on the eggs and young ones of birds." He added that the main problem is the dramatic explosion in feral dog numbers that is impacting humans and wildlife alike.
Wildlife Warden, Kargil, Raza Ali Abdi explained that there have been such cases of conflict between feral dogs and wild animals in Kargil too. He said, "So far the cases have not been very serious. However, as we started asking around, we were told that feral dogs have been attacking livestock."
The human-dog relationship
Dogs and humans have shared a special bond for thousands of years. While living near humans increases access to food resources for dogs, some human groups rely heavily on dogs for companionship and safety. However, this relationship has become rather complex over the last few decades due to the exponential increase in dog population. Stanzin Yangchan, a resident of Skampari, said, "It has become almost impossible to walk on the streets in the night as there are so many dogs. The incidents of dog bites have instilled fear in people's mind. For this reason, we no longer allow our children to play outside after dark. The situation is very grim now."
Two of the main reasons for the increase in number of stray dogs are the inefficient disposal of waste and feeding of dogs at army camps. Stray dogs cluster to garbage dumped in front of restaurants or houses. They are also found by the roadsides in front of poultry traders and meat shops. Stray dogs are rarely seen along clean streets. It is, therefore, essential to manage garbage and ensure that there are no open bins and garbage dumps in the area. Dr Rabgais explained, "The biggest factor for boom in population of stray dogs is a lack of change in habits of the people. We dump garbage irresponsibly. People usually dump food waste in streets and roads. It's natural for dogs to eat the food. Unless people become responsible and stop dumping food waste, this issue shall remain prevalent."
Assistant Veterinary Surgeon, Leh, Dr Stanzin Thakchos echoed Dr Rabgais. He said, "People living in villages don't face issues related to dogs because they feed food waste to the cattle. This problem is prevalent in towns or places with army units due to careless disposal of waste."
The presence of large number of stray dogs in army units is due to the amount of kitchen waste produced by them. "A lot of kitchen waste is generated in army units, which supports a large number of dogs. The army recently collaborated with us and we are working with them to sterilise dogs in army areas. The army does not complain of dogs as the dogs are confined to a small area. When the army faced issues due to increase in dog population, they started relocating them. However, we cannot blame the army alone as civilians too have contributed to the problem. For instance, we need to find a way to prevent access to traditional Ladakhi toilets as many dogs enter these toilet chambers in search of food. We now need to work together to find a solution," explained Dr Rabgais.
The first canine veterinary clinic for Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme and anti-rabies was inaugurated in 2015. It was one of the major initiatives to control population of stray dogs in Leh district. Dr Rabgais said, "We started the ABC programme six years ago despite facing financial crunch and inadequate staff. We also have major responsibilities such as production of milk and poultry in the district. We need to ensure that animals are healthy. Despite this, we still took out time for this programme and dedicated two hours from our daily schedule for it. Then, we set up the ABC clinic at Changspa with the help of Young Drukpa Association and MCL. We have performed more than 5,000 surgeries at this clinic since 2013. However, people still complain that we are not doing anything."
Another major initiative was the Stray Animal Care and Management Centre that was opened in 2014 at Nang as a part of 'Live to Rescue' initiative carried out by the non-profit, Live to Love. Dr Thakchos said, "Animals which are injured and in serious conditions are kept at the Live to Rescue centre at Nang. Also, dogs which are ferocious and a threat to human lives are caught and kept at the centre in Nang. Most of the people think that they can keep any dog at the centre in Nang which is not the case."
Meanwhile, Animal Husbandry department aims to achieve the target to bring down the pop-ulation of dogs by 70% under the government's Ladakh Feral Dog Initiative (LFDI). Dr Rabgais said, "We received a fund of 62 lakhs from LAHDC, Leh under this initiative that is being used for three components. First, we are looking to outsource the process and pay the salary of a doctor and dog-catcher. Second, the fund will cover the cost of medicines used for sterilisation. Finally, we will purchase surgical instruments from the fund, which we will use over three years."
A mobile ABC clinic was inaugurated in July 2019 under the LFDI. Dr Rabgais said, "We use the mobile ABC clinic to conduct surgeries on dogs at the periphery of Leh town."
However, M. Sajid Sultan explained that sterilisation is a long-term initiative and will only be effective if 70% of the total dog population is sterilised at one go. "Even then, the animals remain in the ecosystem for six to seven years more and continue to harm humans and wildlife for that many years. We need a multi-pronged approach that includes all stakeholders with sterilisation being one of multiple solutions."
Shortage of staff is a major challenge for the Animal Husban department in controlling the population of stray dogs in Leh district. Dr Rabgais explained, "Under LFDI, we intended to hire two veterinary doctors and two dog-catchers. Unfortunately, one of the doctors we shortlisted got another job and we could hire just one doctor. We have invited applications to fill the vacant post. Due to staff shortage, we could only conduct sterilisation drive in army units twice a week. One we have more manpower, we will increase the frequency of sterilisation drives."
Lack of a clear-defined role between the Animal Husbandry department and Municipal Committee, Leh (MCL) is another challenge. Dr Rabgais said, "All cities in India are facing problems of stray dogs, but you will never hear the Animal Husbandry department coming out to control feral dog populations. It is the role of the municipality but since they lack a proper team, we work with them for birth control of stray dogs. All organisations must work together to achieve the common goal of controlling feral dogs."
Dr Ishey Namgyal shared that the MCL is also working towards controlling population of stray dogs in Leh town. He said, "We provide two dog catchers and a vehicle to Animal Husbandry and Live to Rescue to catch dogs and sterilise them."
The pressure from the public to get rid from problem of stray dogs is another challenge for the Animal Husbandry and MCL. Dr Thakchos said, "People want us to relocate dogs from their locality but they don't understand that other dogs will come in its place."
There are some people who call for the systematic killing of dogs. However, this is opposed by animal rights groups and some religious groups. The former cite Indian laws such as Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 to oppose the culling of feral dogs. Dr Rabgais explained, "Some years back, there were attempts to euthanise dogs through electrocution and poisoning. These methods were inhumane and were soon stopped. It is said that unless 70% of the population of dogs is not targeted, even culling will not yield results."
Joint Secretary of Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Phuntsog Wangyal said that all animals suffer in the winters when people don't take care of them. "If we show compassion and love to animals they will never harm us. We have received land near Bomb Guard and intend to relocate all dogs to that site where they will be fed and cared for. People need to take responsibility for managing the feral dog issue."
Coordinator of Live to Rescue, Rigzin Dorjey said they had planned to rehabilitate and relocate all dogs to their facility in Nang. "We had close to 400 dogs. However, the Animal Welfare Board objected to the caging of healthy dogs. Now, we only keep injured animals at our facility."
Lieutenant Governor of UT of Ladakh, R. K. Mathur recently passed an order asking Animal Husbandry department to sterilise and rehabilitate all stray dogs with help from local NGOs. Also, the department would pay for the care of all the stray dogs for life. "The L-G has asked us to look for immediate solutions for stray dogs. We could lift ferocious dogs from the market but it is not possible to relocate and rehabilitate all of them. However, we will do our best to resolve this issue," shared Dr Rabgais. MCL has started working with Live to Rescue to find ways to rehabilitate feral dogs.
The Animal Husbandry department is now working to strengthen the ABC clinic at Changspa. Dr Rabgais said, "We currently perform around 10-12 surgeries in a day at this clinic but we want to hire more doctors to perform 35-40 surgeries in a day. This way we will be able to sterilise more dogs. It takes seven-eight years to see the result of ABC programmes but people want immediate results."
MCL and Animal Husbandry are working on a plan to feed stray dogs and other animals in Nang. "MCL and we discussed the idea of providing a separate bin to the public to store edible food waste that could be fed to dogs and other animals later," shared Dr Rabgais.
While there are efforts to control the feral dog population in Leh and Kargil districts, it is also the responsibility of the general public to contribute towards the solution. Dr Rabgais said, "People should stop dumping garbage irresponsibly. Restaurant owners and the general public should not dump food waste. They should wait for the municipality truck to dispose this waste. In addition to better waste management, ABC is possibly the best possible strategy to address this issue."
Dr Thakchos appealed to people to inform the Animal Husbandry department when they see newborn pups in their area. He added, "People must inform us about unsterilised dogs in their locality. Once the dog is sterilized, the population of dogs in that locality will decrease. Also, if a dog is friendly with us, then it will not harm anyone. Dog bite cases are prevalent when dogs are harassed or people throw stones at them."
According to Dr Thakchos, ABC and adoption are key initiatives to solve the problem of feral dogs in Ladakh. Dr Thakchos said, "Dogs which have been neutered do not pose any problem as they cannot give birth to pups. People are ready to complain but they don't want to adopt a dog and be a part of the solution. There was an instance where women from Thiksey adopted 50 neutered dogs and cared for them, Leh district is rabies-free due to vaccination efforts. All neutered dogs are given anti-rabies vaccination and de-wormed to ensure that they are safe for people."
What to do in case of dog bite?
Medical Superintendent of SNM Hospital, Dr Tsering Samphel said, "A dog bite is fatal if the dog has rabies and the patient does not receive treatment. If a person has been bitten then he/she should immediately visit a medical centre or hospital for treatment. In case of a wound, it should be washed with soap and cleaned thoroughly to wash the saliva of the dog. The patient should visit the hospital or a medical centre for treatment and get a shot of anti-rabies vaccine. The anti-rabies vaccination is given on the 1st, 3rd, 7th, 14th, 21st and 48th day from the bite. It is also important to keep a tab on the dog that has bitten the person. If the dog has rabies it will die within 10 days. If the dog doesn't die, it should be mentioned to the treating doctor who will decide on the vaccination required."