Representative photo of a dog in Jodhpur, Rajasthan: schniewmatz/pixabay.
Well into the 1990s, it was possible to spot herds of deer at the IIT Madras campus, in Guindy, Chennai, from a moving bus or car, over the fence that only later became a wall. Visits to the campus usually meant closer encounters with wildlife, ranging from deer to jackals – and on one unforgettable rainy night, a crocodile at one of the ponds on campus.
Nearly three decades later, the lives of wild creatures on the IIT campus in Chennai have become the subject of debate about conservation practices in our country and whether we are shortchanging our wildlife for dogs.
In large wooded areas, dogs have displayed a tendency to hunt in packs at night. Susy Varughese, a professor of chemical engineering at IIT Madras, is interested in biodiversity and wildlife conservation. She has been living on campus since 1997, and began to learn of stray canine behaviour when she came upon the carcass of a blackbuck killed by dogs in 1999.
“Stray dogs form packs at night and attack wildlife, especially spotted deer and blackbuck,” she told The Wire Science. “The pack leader starts a kind of communication by barking and running, and collecting the other members of the pack. And once they spot prey like deer, blackbuck or a monitor lizard, the attack pattern is very similar to that of a pack of wolves.”
The dogs surround the animal on all sides, and attack its vulnerable hind legs while it tries to defend itself using its head. Some dogs also attack the neck. The result is shock and huge blood loss, and the animal’s near-immediate death. “While the attack is on, the dogs don’t make much noise by barking.” Night-patrol volunteers have been able to put this picture together based on long-term observations.
Meghna Uniyal, the director and cofounder of the Humane Foundation for People and Animals, Gurgaon, said, “Dogs, descended from wolves, are inherently pack animals and have a natural inclination to hunt and chase for food as well as for fun, regardless of season or place.”
Problems about the problem
The search for solutions to this dog-wildlife conflict has been riddled with struggle and challenge. Sustained interactions between Prakriti, which is IIT Madras’s wildlife club, and the administration focused on how dogs succeed in surrounding deer in enclosed and fenced-off areas.
“An important policy decision by the IIT management was to abolish fences in the academic area and reduce fenced areas that envelop residential buildings,” Varughese said. “The wildlife existing on the campus is part of the campus’s natural heritage. If their existence is challenged due to human callousness, it can’t be rectified by punishing the wildlife.” She added that the institute’s management has been very supportive of the cause to protect the campus fauna.
This said, the IIT’s animal birth-control (ABC) measures seem to have done little to solve the problem. One reason is that feral dogs continue to move in from outside the campus, and because trash is left out in the open and some people continue to feed them scraps. In addition, according to Abi Tamim Vanak, an associate professor at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, the dog population bounces back quickly from ABC measures because it’s just not possible to sterilise 90% of all dogs so that their population can be pulled down by 30-40% over four or five years.
“The whole issue of dog-lovers and stray dogs has become very muddled and confused in our country,” Vanak said. “We have conflated animal welfare and animal lovers with measures that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. We have, in some way, romanticised the idea of having dogs on the streets as an Indian way of life. But it’s not good for wildlife, not good for humans and not good for dogs. Dogs suffer enormously on the streets.”
There was some relief when the Chennai Municipal Corporation substituted dog-culling measures with ABCs in 1996. But since then, it has become clear that ABCs aren’t very effective either, especially since a 2001 policy that prevented dogs from being relocated.
“ABC requires the sterilisation of unowned dogs and their release back to the area where they were picked up from — the streets, public places, outside people’s homes, institutes, hospitals, markets, airports, etc.,” Uniyal explained. But “sterilisation does not address any of the problems related to free-roaming, domestic dogs – attacks on people, livestock and wildlife, accidents, nuisance of biting, chasing, spreading diseases and [their own] welfare.”
Sterilisation also ignores dogs’ predatory behaviour.
At IIT Madras, the administration has been struggling to contain the dog menace because of stiff resistance from dog-lovers. “Every single campus where there is wildlife develops three types of communities: one, the dog lovers and feeders; two, the ones who don’t want dogs around due to being harassed at some point or for some other reason; and three, the ones who are concerned about the impact that roaming packs of dogs can have on wildlife,” Vanak said. And the campus has become a battleground of sorts.
“The transient relationship that students have with the dogs, feeding and petting them, leads to no further responsibility or thought about the long-term implications of their actions,” Vanak said. In fact, those who feed the dogs have also resisted those who members of the administration would round up the problem dogs and move them to shelters.
“As far as a solution is concerned,” Uniyal said, “we need not reinvent the wheel.” She suggested a mandate to have people license their pets (“to trace lost or abandoned dogs to their owners”), neutering and vaccination, and sheltering unowned dogs (“for the welfare of homeless animals”).
She also said that municipal municipal policies as well as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCAA) were both already geared towards achieving these goals in India. “It is the ABC rules that are in fact subordinate legislation under the PCAA, which are unscientific and inhumane, and perpetuate the problem.”
Coexistence v. relocation
These arguments have reentered the spotlight since the forest department pitched to relocate the campus wildlife to another location, citing loss of habitat. While The Wire Science couldn’t confirm with IIT Madras authorities if the department will actually implement the idea, the idea has shocked many observers. One of them is filmmaker and writer Janaki Lenin, who focuses on wildlife science and conservation practice in India.
“All of the institutions like IIT Madras, the Cancer Institute and the Guru Nanak College, got land from the Guindy Deer Sanctuary, as it was called then, from the forest department,” she told The Wire Science. “This is not the first time IIT Madras has relocated animals.” Earlier, the institute has “caught bonnet macaques and released them elsewhere”. And she called this scheme of things “fallacious”.
“These animals are likely to die in the process. You need to monitor the wild animals that are moved around like this and provide a tremendous amount of support to help them survive. There is no indication the authorities will do this. If this move is worse for the wild animals than letting them be on the campus, what would have been achieved?”
If IIT Madras is able to find a more rational solution to its dog-wildlife problem, it will be a triumph for conservation practices in the country. But until then, it will also have to contend with the double-edged dog-people problem.
Scharada Dubey is the author of Monkeys in My Backyard (2012).