Free-roaming canines in Sikkim’s Tso Lhamo plateau are putting conservation efforts in the region in peril

Feral dogs in the landscape have become a conservation concern and a threat to the livelihood of tribal communities. Photo: UNDP India/ Ugen Tashi Bhutia

As the world emerges from one of the most terrifying episodes in the history of disease — zoonotic and otherwise — I recall one significant journey I undertook to the Tso Lhamo Plateau in Sikkim on a cold December morning in 2017.

With mighty neighbours like the Khangchendzonga  and the Tso Lhamo Lake, one of India’s highest lakes, from which it derives its name, the Tso Lhamo Plateau is one of the most biodiverse and topographically-unique regions in India. It is the birthplace of the Teesta river and several significant glaciers, and is home to highly threatened species, such as Tibetan argali, Tibetan gazelle, southern kiang, snow leopard, Tibetan sand fox, Tibetan wolf, and Pallas’s cat.

While several issues have posed a threat to the region like increased man-animal conflict and habitat degradation, the latest entrant on that list in recent years has been feral dogs. I remember that while I was walking across an Army camp above Thangu, I noticed two feral dogs feeding on a dead yak.

Free ranging dogs the most adaptable and abundant hunter in the landscape. Photo: Suraj Subba/UNDP India
Free ranging dogs in the landscape. Photo: Suraj Subba/UNDP India

While dogs have always been present in the landscape, incidences of open dumping and improper garbage disposal have provided them with plenty of food resources, leading to high population growth. Limited competition with other carnivores in the high-altitude pasture lands has also let to their proliferation. Dogs become feral when they develop hunting and scavenging habits, gradually transforming into the most adaptable and abundant carnivore in the habitat. 

Free-roaming dogs pose the risk of zoonotic diseases like canine distemper and rabies which can then spread to wildlife and humans. They also attack herbivores and other rare ungulates. According to Forest Department officials, there have been several feral dog attacks on wild and domestic ungulates and marmots in the past five years.

“Annually, around 20 yaks are killed by feral dogs.  Even the Tibetan wolf is not seen these days due to constant increase in the population of dogs. We are really worried,” says Gya Lachenpa, a Dokpa, a unique ethnic group of nomadic pastoralists (consisting barely 15-20 families), who move to Tso Lhamo Plateau in winters and return to lower areas in summers.

The ability to move and hunt in packs enables feral dogs to target and bring down much larger prey than themselves and such ferocious packs often pose serious threats to humans too, especially when it comes to moving alone and unguarded at night.

Sterilization of the feral dogs by WWF and SARAH. Photo: UNDP India/ Suraj Subba
Dokpas survive with limited livelihood options like the cheese making also called as churpi. Photo: UNDP India/ Ugen Tashi Bhutia

Finding a Solution: Coexistence with Feral Dogs

Since 2005, the Government of Sikkim has been trying to tackle the menace under its Sikkim Anti-Rabies and Animal Health (SARAH) programme through periodic sterilization and vaccination of these dogs.

UNDP has been working in Sikkim under the project SECURE Himalaya in collaboration with the Government of India and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and has also initiated convergence with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and SARAH to work out long-term strategies to combat the issue. Under the initiative, a team composed of vets, community members and Forest Department officials have successfully sterilized and vaccinated 167  dogs in two phases in highest conflict areas around Thangu and Yongdi.

UNDP, in partnership with the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) and district administrations, has also initiated a Rapid Financing Facility (RFF) project called “One Health” for zoonotic diseases management under the Green Recovery pathway for India. The One Health model is a globally accepted one which recognizes that health of humans is connected to health of animals and environment. Under the project, initiatives like development of capacities of stakeholders, building training modules, and establishing a monitoring and information system are being undertaken.  

While several studies have proposed solutions to the issue, many of those have not been considered practical, ethical, or are against the Buddhist philosophies of the communities in question.  They have also not been assessed vis-a-vis the long term.

Public awareness campaigns on proper care and confinement of dogs and strict laws against abandonment by the owners can be some of the solutions. A proper waste management disposal system in human habitations will also inhibit the populations from growing. On these lines, SECURE Himalaya has already planned to pilot a bio-digester (a tank that digests organic waste into cooking gas) in collaboration with the Indian Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

Hopefully, a combination of research, policy changes and interventions will help to control the population of feral dogs and protect Sikkim’s wildlife from their vicious attacks. 

The writer is a UNV Project Associate at UNDP India.


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