The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in December 2020 released a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) document to tackle feral and stray dogs in tiger reserves (TRs) across the country. It spells out detailed measures and procedures to be followed for handling the dog populations in those areas to avoid injuries and the spread of diseases in tigers and other wild animals.
However, experts with wildlife and dogs called the SOP inadequate and said it lacks the depth to properly deal with the issue.
According to the Status of Tigers Co-predators and Prey in India 2018 report that was unveiled by the Indian government in 2020, feral dogs were detected in camera traps in most of India’s 50 tiger reserves; the report describes dogs as a threat to both ungulates (which they hunt) and to carnivores since they carry infectious diseases like rabies, parvovirus, and distemper. Dogs were reported to attack nearly 80 species of wildlife and most of the attacks were on mammals, largely ungulates like cattle and small carnivores in India, according to a 2018 study.
The SOP could have had more teeth if India, where free-ranging dogs are human subsidised, had a robust wildlife disease surveillance system and assessment of risks of disease in wildlife linked to free-ranging dogs. India is considered home to the world’s fourth-biggest dog population but their populations, from human-dominated landscapes to protected areas, remain unestimated scientifically.
The NTCA document treats stray and feral dogs equivalent to street dogs as classified in the Animal Birth Control (Dog) Rules, 2001 or ABC Rules. It suggests the constitution of a committee for technical guidance and implementation of interventions, especially planning and management of the dog control programme.
According to the SOP, the committee to be headed by the deputy director of the tiger reserve may include a veterinarian from the animal husbandry department and another veterinarian from non-governmental agencies, a representative each from a local non-governmental organisation, animal welfare organisation (if operating in the area), district society for the prevention of cruelty to animals and local panchayat (local administration).
Aniruddha Belsare, a disease ecologist with a background in veterinary medicine, welcomed the SOP for addressing the issue of dogs and wildlife but said it seems to be hastily cobbled together without any information from science. An objective assessment of threats posed by dogs is mandatory before planning our response to such threats, he stressed.
“We need to quantify and assess the disease risk posed by dogs to wildlife by having a surveillance system in place. We need to have a system to catch an emerging disease that can potentially pose conservation or public health threat. We need to assess dog populations not only in cities but also in areas where we think dogs can pose threat to wildlife,” Belsare, Research Associate, Boone & Crockett Quantitative Wildlife Center, Michigan State University, told Mongabay-India.
“Additionally, dog populations in India have not been scientifically estimated. In the wake of COVID-19 we need these systems in place because wildlife diseases are also public health threats,” he said.
Even as it suggests actions to “delineate areas of feral dog movement and areas susceptible to ingress of stray dogs”, mapping and monitoring these areas by “visual assessment for dog population in coordination with the local animal husbandry department,” the SOP misses out on community involvement.
“Local communities have to be involved in any mitigation measure, so outreach and education of communities around TRs are most important and should be a component of such an SOP,” observed Belsare.
The SOP also notes that the capture of stray and feral dogs should be in accordance with the norms of the Animal Welfare Board of India which identifies several techniques such as the ‘sack and loop’ technique. “They should be also transported in a manner that they do not fight with one another,” said the SOP while suggesting that the captured dogs should be dewormed on the day they are caught and subsequently subjected to animal birth control measures. It noted that feral and stray dogs captured from within the tiger reserves should “under no circumstances be released back” and instead a “suitable alternate site be selected for their rehabilitation.”
Dog populations have a high turnover rate, therefore vaccination coverage can rapidly fade away and vaccination has to be consistent. “You cannot catch free-ranging dogs at the rate that is required to break the disease transmission cycle – unless you have a coordinated approach,” emphasised Belsare.
Imran Siddiqui, who is senior director, conservation, with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, said: “the document is juggling between trying to be technical, scientific and pragmatic.”
Flawed classification in SOP
Unlike in Africa (where massive die-off of lions from the Serengeti Reserve in Tanzania in late 1993-early 1994 coincided with an outbreak of canine distemper disease) and the Russian Far East (where CDV has recently emerged as an extinction threat for the endangered Amur tiger), dog populations in India are human subsidised.
Dog populations in India are exclusively dependent on human-derived food. What is seen in India is a meta-population of dogs: they are interconnected by movement (natural as well as anthropogenic) stretching from cities to rural landscapes and beyond. These factors influence management of dog populations.
“What we have is a huge dog population across India; you will find free-ranging dogs everywhere in India; even dogs in tiger reserves dogs do not subsist by hunting alone; they eat human-derived food and then go out and hunt,” Belsare elaborated while adding that the classification of stray/feral dogs in the SOP is flawed.
“You have high-density dog populations in cities and around them you would have peri-urban dog populations and then you have a diffusion of dogs in rural areas and further. So you have dog populations connected by movement,” he explained.
Wildlife biologist Sumit Dookia who has over 20 years of experience in the field, including working with the forest department, said dogs kill chinkara, blackbuck, nilgai, spiny-tailed lizard, monitor lizard, peafowl, etc. in Rajasthan to supplement their human-derived diet. He opined that while the SOP covers TRs it won’t have much of an impact on the gravity of the situation.
Dookia also echoed the need for a surveillance system, raising the issue of spread of sarcoptic mange, a contagious skin disease, in a population of desert fox in and around Desert National Park, Jaisalmer. “This park is housing the only breeding population of great Indian bustard in the world and they are facing disturbance from dogs.”
Controlling the spread of diseases in wildlife
Holding that the authorities should document prevalent canine diseases with special reference to zoonotic, notifiable and emerging disease with the local animal husbandry department, the SOP also called for identifying wild animals which may acquire these diseases. “Vaccination against Canine Distemper and Rabies should be carried out on the day of release after sterilisation. The release of dogs during early morning hours is recommended,” said the SOP.
Infectious diseases are increasingly recognised as an extinction threat for endangered carnivores, and viral pathogens, particularly those linked with domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), have been the cause of major declines in several populations. One of these pathogens, canine distemper virus (CDV) or Canine morbillivirus, is commonly associated with domestic dogs but has also caused disease outbreaks globally in Serengeti lions (Panthera leo), Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis) and Channel Island foxes (Urocyon littoralis), and is now also emerging as a threat to Amur tigers, research has spotlighted.
In India, in September 2018, an epizootic infection caused by canine distemper virus emerged in an Asiatic lion population in Gir, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research, which said in a paper that before 2019, few instances of CDV were reported in lions, tigers, red pandas, and leopards from zoos and forests in India. “However, canine distemper is prevalent among dogs in India, and the free-ranging dog population often poses a threat of CDV transmission to wildlife. Other wildlife species also could play a role in maintenance and transmission of CDV,” the paper added.
According to an Indian government report, as many as 85 Asiatic lions died in the Asiatic Lion Landscape (ALL), Gujarat between January and May 2020, from various diseases including rabies.
Belsare questioned the veracity of diagnosis of diseases in wildlife in India in the absence of robust disease surveillance systems, pointing out the earnestness of authorities “to make a diagnosis that feral dogs pose a threat to lions and tigers and they can transmit CDV to wildlife and hence we must go around vaccinating dogs in and around protected areas.”
“Can we quantify the threat posed by these diseases to wildlife? Yes, some lions or tigers have died of CDV but do we have lab-confirmed diagnosis in India to attribute the cause of death? Furthermore, is CDV the sole cause of death,” Belsare asked, referring to research on climate extremes “disrupting historic stable relationships between co-existing pathogens and their susceptible hosts.”
Retrospective research on Serengeti’s lion die-offs in 1994 where one-third of the population (1,000 animals) died coinciding with a CDV outbreak and a CDV epidemic that struck the nearby Ngorongoro Crater lion population in 2001, revealed that the combination of CDV infection and unusually high levels of Babesia infection triggered by extreme climatic events (a drought) created the perfect storm of events that led to their deaths.
“What about other dog diseases that are not vaccine-preventable but pose a conservation/public health threat? We haven’t looked for such diseases, and we will find them only if we look systematically,” Belsare reiterated.
Experts note that SOP has a narrow focus area
WCS-India’s Imran Siddiqui also brought up the issue of the SOP’s staunch focus only on “canine distemper and rabies.”
“There are several zoonotic or parasites which are not mentioned. State veterinary departments are expected to do so much extra work. Ideally, the NTCA should propose for having vets at each tiger reserve and should invest in research,” Siddiqui told Mongabay-India.
Animal birth control is not the only solution. “It has to be coupled with waste management in rural areas probably tied up with the Swachh Bharat Mission. Free-ranging dogs have several hiding places in the scrub, village scrap, or riverine patches and thus it becomes almost impossible to catch them all and apply the animal birth control measures,” he said.
Belsare connected the dots between high turnover rates in dogs and measures to prevent disease spillovers from dogs to wildlife. Vaccination, restriction in dog movements, and population control measures should work in tandem to check disease spillovers from dogs to wildlife. And knowing when to vaccinate a population of dogs is an important connection to make in disease control processes.
Studies on dog and wildlife populations in the Russian Far East show that a number of wildlife species are more important than dogs, both in maintaining CDV and as sources of infection for tigers. Critically, therefore, because CDV circulates among multiple wildlife sources, dog vaccination alone would not be effective at protecting tigers.
“Canine adenovirus (CAV), canine parvovirus (CPV), and CDV are dog diseases of global concern and they pose a threat to wildlife; they are in India and there are only a few studies in the Indian context. These diseases usually persist by infecting young animals that do not have immunity against the pathogens. CDV is highly transmissible and dogs that survive the infection become immune to the disease for life.”
“Their high turnover rates add to the magnitude of the vaccination challenge and if you are vaccinating adult dogs that have antibodies against these diseases then it is a waste of money and time,” he said.
Belsare spoke from his experience of a vaccination experiment in villages adjoining the Great Indian Bustard Wildlife Sanctuary in central India, where dogs in three villages received jabs against rabies virus, CAV, CPV, and CDV (treatment dogs), while those from three other villages were only vaccinated against rabies virus (control dogs).
The experiment showed that in situations, where adult dogs had the antibodies against these viral pathogens, vaccination “seemed unnecessary and would escalate the cost‐benefit ratio of dog disease control programs.”
“I looked at dogs around a wildlife sanctuary in India; but this is true of any free-ranging dog population anywhere in the world, so you need to consider a nuanced vaccination strategy that addresses such issues,” he added.
Referring to the mange disease in desert foxes in Rajasthan, Dookia narrates how officials in Rajasthan did not show an interest even after “raising an alarm with the authorities with photos, location details, and extending help to take them to the location.” “The reason is very simple, no vet is available in the forest department system in Rajasthan. And also vets are never trained to deal with wild animals. They are always taught and trained to treat domestic animals. There should be well-coordinated efforts from both departments to deal in such gray areas, where domestic animals are venturing into wildlife habitats and vice-versa,” added Dookia.