The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in partnership with Rainmatter Foundation organised THE GREEN MANDATE EP. 5 on ‘Managing Feral Dogs in Wildlife Habitats’ with noted ecologist Dr. Abi Tamim Vanak. Dr. Abi T Vanak is a Professor in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation and interim Director of the Centre for Policy Design at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). Dr Vanak is an ecologist with broad interests in animal movement ecology, disease ecology, savanna ecosystems and wildlife in human-dominated systems.
Following are some highlights from the conversation held online on Friday, 29 Jul 2022, at 4 pm.
What is the origin of the term feral dogs, what it means and how are they different from the other synonyms such as stray dogs, street dogs, domestic dogs or wild dogs?
Dr. Vanak explains that the term feral is a very specific term and it has got a scientific definition to it. It means any domestic animal that has become wild again, and is now free of human dependence. By that definition, India does not have too many populations of true feral dogs. This is so because there are not many places in India without human influence. Most of the dogs that we see around us are free ranging domestic dogs. The term free ranging or domestic dogs is more accurate in the Indian context.
As for the terms stray dogs and street dogs, they are value-laden terms, there is no scientific definition of these terms. The Animal Birth Control Rules, 2001 that were passed by the Ministry of Culture created a legal entity called street dogs which does not exist anywhere else in the world.
How serious is the issue of free-ranging/domestic dogs in the wildlife habitats in India?
Dr Vanak highlights that domestic dogs are a carnivore, they are a subspecies of the wolf. Even though they have been domesticated, they still retain a lot of characteristics that allow them to keep their hunting instincts. Dogs are very curious by nature, they’re very playful. But when there is a large number of domestic dogs out in rural areas, either in farms or national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, then they tend to interact with the local wildlife. So there is a possibility that if a pack of dogs sees a deer or any herbivore, they are going to chase them and often hunt and kill them.
Dr Vanak refers to a survey conducted by him and his former PhD student Chandrima Home, which found that dogs were directly seen to attack or kill more than 80 species of wildlife in India. Many of these species are in the endangered and critically endangered lists. In addition to direct predation, domestic dogs can also be competitors with other wild carnivores. Moreover, there is a growing body of literature which states that wildlife tends to avoid areas where dogs are present. In addition, dogs can have a widespread effect because of their sheer number, they can be a reservoir for a lot of diseases that can impact wild carnivores.
Are there incidences of domestic dogs cross breeding with wolves or any other carnivores?
Domestic dogs are directly related to wolves. In the historical past, dogs and wolves did interbreed with each other. But when you have inbreeding and hybridization happening between domestic dogs and wolves, it can cause a problem with wild wolf populations. There has been growing evidence recording instances of mating between domestic dogs and wolves in the wild. In such cases, the wolf genome gets diluted because of the incursion of dog genes into wolf genes. This is problematic because the domestication process of dogs has incurred several changes in the morphology of the dogs. These changes include weaker jaws, smaller bodies and skulls. Dr. Vanak highlights that when these changes are passed onto the wolves it affects their ability to survive in the wild. Moreover, this is a critical problem because wolves are endangered in India currently.
Why are free ranging/domestic dogs endangering wildlife in protected areas? Are we failing to protect our wildlife?
Dr. Vanak reiterates that there is no place in India without human influence. In that context, in India, wildlife and humans have always had a shared history. Considering our human footprint, it is a miracle that we managed to conserve most of our wildlife species and we are a great success story in that regard. Europe and North America exterminated most of their large wildlife long ago. There is no spatial divide between wildlife and humans in India, our spaces are contiguous. However, we need to take a stand as to what it is that we value more. Do we value our wildlife or would we rather have our spaces be overrun with millions of domestic dogs? This is already happening, the increased dog population in certain areas is impending recovery of critically endangered species like vultures. The wildlife is always having to find its way around where dogs are. Dogs being an extension of humans are extending to all the areas with human influence and impeding upon the resources available to wildlife.
Are the free ranging dogs/domestic dogs affecting the recovery of the Critically Endangered Great Indian Bustard?
Great Indian Bustard is a ground bird that lays one egg, and raises one chick a year. Any predation by any species on this bird is going to be problematic. The other natural predators in the Bustard’s landscape are Indian foxes and jungle cats. A bustard can chase away a fox and protect its eggs against predation by foxes but it can’t do that against domestic dogs. There have been reports of domestic dogs eating Bustard’s eggs or killing the chicks. Even in places like Rajasthan where Bustards have their last stronghold, there were reports of this happening for instance in the Desert National Park. That is why the authorities are now taking active steps in managing the dog population there. And this is imperative because we are down to the last hundred or so birds and every single one of them is important.
Unlike the US, India does not have specific laws to deal with wildlife-dog interaction. India has the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA) under which there are Animal Birth Control (ABC) rules which focuses on vaccination and sterilisation of dogs. Do you think this legal policy will help wildlife conservation?
Dr. Vanak brings to light the unscientific and unfeasible nature of ABC rules. The vaccination and sterilization of eighty million dogs will take enormous time, money and effort. The question that comes in here is, what is the objective? Is it to maintain dogs on streets in perpetuity? Or is it to treat dogs as valuable companion animals that should be at home with good care given to them? If that is the objective then the ABC rules are not going to work because they are designed to keep dogs on the streets forever. The ABC rules are highly problematic and are in violation of the parent Act. The PCA allows for euthanasia of domestic dogs. Additionally, the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) should overrule the ABC rules. Under the WPA people can be removed from national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, then why should dogs be allowed there? Moreover, sterilising dogs does not necessarily reduce their aggression, roaming pattern or hunting instincts. All sterilisation does is, it reduces aggression in dogs during their breeding time.
Are the issues of street dogs in urban areas and free ranging domestic dogs in wildlife areas different?
Dogs on the streets and dogs in the wildlife areas are not different, they share a lot of similarities. In urban areas as well, the dogs which are peaceful during the day get aggressive during the night time. Moreover, there is another important question which remains unaddressed – do we not want wildlife in our urban areas? World over cities have been changing in ways to accommodate urban wildlife. In the US and the UK there are foxes on the streets. Same was the case with a lot of places in India till about ten years ago. Development should not necessarily mean spatial segregation of human and wildlife spaces. Every urbanised city in India has a large population of free ranging dogs. And wherever there are large packs of free ranging dogs, they will attack and kill wildlife. So the distinction of dogs in urban, rural and wildlife areas is not as rigid.
NTCA in 2021 has released a Statement of purpose (SOP) for managing feral dogs in Tiger Reserves. Do you think the measures prescribed in the SOP are enough to manage the dog population?
The SOP released by the NTCA is a tinkered extension of the ABC rules. What it says is that if there are any dogs found within the Tiger reserves they should be removed. It does not however say anything about where those dogs will be removed to or who is going to remove those dogs. The SOP says in the buffer zones dogs should be sterilised and vaccinated and kept back there. So again it follows the logic of the ABC rules. None of this is going to solve the actual problem of competition and predation, and the conflict between dogs and wildlife. The SOP is basically impracticable. No tiger reserve has the capacity to carry out this operational exercise.
What according to you should the ideal law and policy framework be for managing the free ranging/domestic dog population?
Dr Vanak highlights the need for reimagining our relationship with dogs. The problem of dogs in wildlife areas is not unique to India, but the scale of the problem is certainly unique to India. Dr Vanak juxtaposes the relationship of people with dogs in the western countries with India. In the western countries people are expected to keep their dogs on leash because if the dogs are let to wander around they can disturb the breeding birds and have a negative impact on the wildlife. Whereas in India we seem to have no control of our dog population and that stems primarily from us not being able to fix our own relationship with dogs. There is no silver lining to that fundamental problem and it cannot be fixed by hurriedly taking decisions. We need to create awareness among our population, for instance with the farmers in the rural areas. It is vital to give better health care to the dogs that are there, so they can live long healthy lives. The need to sterilise those dogs is vital so they do not reproduce. Especially in areas which are of conservation concern, we need to come up with a programme to prevent those dogs from moving to wildlife areas. Dr Vanak highlights that dogs in India enjoy more protection than even tigers do.