On the rare occasion I’m out alone at night, the cobblestone alley I walk down to get home is cold, deserted, and dark. My red, freezing fingers clutch a rock in one hand and a stick in the other, with backup ammunition in my pockets. I’m alert and walking quickly, with my head on a swivel. I both search for and dread the sight of a group of glowing eyes following me, my ears listening for the low growl of the pack of cold and hungry dogs that haunt my street. I’ve had several close encounters, and recent accounts have reinforced my vigilance against these creatures that were once my friends.
December 20, 2018, a dark day for wildlife conservation in Ladakh. A snow leopard was found dead, killed by a pack of feral dogs. The snow leopard, revered as the apex predator and indicator species of Ladakh’s healthy ecosystem, has been replaced by domestic stray dogs gone ravenous. Anyone who has spent time anywhere in India knows that dogs are frequent features in the backdrop, scavenging through garbage, scurrying through traffic, and enjoying the freedom of their own K-9 kingdom. However, the kingdom of rogue dogs has taken a lethal, dark turn in Ladakh, having claimed the lives of several humans and brutally attacked countless others.
These dogs find a haven in and around military camps throughout Ladakh, where excess food is disposed for the dogs to feast. Even military personnel cannot leave their barracks alone at night for fear that they too might become a feast. The tourist season also spikes the dog population, as more restaurants throw away excess food and tourists feed the “cute” puppies. However, as the tourist season fades and Leh begins to hibernate, the deserted streets are dominated by increasingly cold, hungry, and desperate dogs. Leh’s Wildlife Warden Pankaj Raina estimates that the dog population has grown to about 4,000 in Leh alone, with thousands more in surrounding rural regions. These dogs threaten not only humans, but also Ladakh’s endemic and endangered wildlife (Dutta 2018).
I recently attended a meeting held by the Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh, where members of the wildlife activism community gathered to discuss this issue and possible solutions. Members of the Wildlife Department, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and Otto Pfister (one of Ladakh’s leading ornithologists and wildlife researchers) facilitated the conversation on Ladakh’s killer dogs. According to them, the Black Necked Crane, Jammu and Kashmir’s state bird, is protected under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a vulnerable species. These birds are summer visitors to Ladakh for their breeding season, and chicks are a susceptible, easy snack for dogs. In 2018, only one chick was reported to survive, putting the future of the population at risk (Pfister 2018).
Stray dogs, and all of the various domestic and wild animals found throughout urban Indian landscapes, are protected under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1964 as well as various cultural and religious values. However, the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act of 1978 also states that any threat to wildlife must be dealt with. This is where the dog issue becomes complicated. What do we do if a threat to wildlife is wildlife?
The Ladakh Buddhist Association and the Young Drukpa Association are leading voices for animal rights in Ladakh. Live to Rescue, a humanitarian project established in 2014 by the Young Drukpa Association, has been taking action to mitigate the human-dog conflict in Ladakh. Initiatives such as mass neutering, rehabilitation and adoption have alleviated the issue to some extent, but the project has proven to be extremely expensive, costing 9 crores ($1,285,000) to host just 1,000 dogs. Additionally, the dogs are procreating faster than Live to Rescue can sterilize a small amount of dogs, and it now seems that humans cannot keep up with the surging and fatal crisis (Pfister 2018).
Another long-term solution is more effective food waste management, minimizing the ample opportunities for dogs to feed and procreate. UNDP has been facilitating an innovative food waste solution by means of a bio-digester in partnership with the Snow Leopard Conservancy, India Trust (SLC-IT) and the SECURE Himalaya project. According to Nikshep Trinetra, UNDP’s technical consultant, the bio-digester “anaerobically digests food waste from kitchens and canteens, eventually producing methane to be used as a fuel for cooking and also producing a rich fertilizer as a by-product” (Trinetra 2018). Strategically placed in one of Leh’s para-military camps, the idea is to eliminate food waste available to dogs and make the dog population less concentrated in specific, human populated areas. If this prototype proves successful, these bio-digesters will be implemented all over Ladakh in military and rural areas.
However, the seriousness and urgency of this issue is pressing an immediate, scientific solution, barring the long-term approaches. A few weeks ago, a woman was discovered on my street unconscious with fatal injuries, surrounded by ten dogs with one at her throat. This woman was known by many to feed the dogs occasionally. Only two separate incidents of fatalities have been officially recorded, in 2014 and 2015, of two women in Saspol and Spituk villages just outside of Leh (Dutta 2018). Many such incidents go unrecorded and suppressed in Ladakhi media, as many people know this emergency has grown to have only one controversial solution: euthanasia (Pfister 2018). This raises a lot of ethical red flags, but it’s a matter of deciding between one generation of dogs and future generations of serious public health hazards and an uncontrollable ecological crisis.
In Ladakh, the prevalence of Buddhism has kept Leh from taking the immediate and necessary action to protect humans and other wildlife (Pfister 2018). Buddhist ideals of compassion and harmonious coexistence with nature are good in theory, and have proven well in Ladakh for centuries. However, it should now be translated into the current, practical reality and life application as dogs become too numerous and dangerous. When people cue up for fresh mutton and harmless lamb at the market yet turn a blind eye when people and wildlife are attacked and killed by ferocious dogs, something crucial has been lost in the understanding of compassion for all living things, including the dogs themselves.
Being a foreigner can sometimes be a little lonely, but as an avid dog-lover, I have always found comfort in the dogs I’ve befriended along the way. My heart breaks every time I see the dogs on my street shivering in the cold, knowing I cannot engage or offer compassion. While there are more humane solutions like neutering, shelters and food management, the urgency of this problem demands more extreme measures. For me, especially coming from a society that generally reveres domesticated dogs, this can be a difficult reality to accept. However, just like many experiences I’ve had in India, I have to change my perspective and adapt to the context. The domesticated dog is woman’s best friend, but the dogs of Ladakh have evolved to something beyond recognition, a visceral fear present in the minds of many Ladakhis.
- Dutta, Sanjay. “Ladakh Wildlife Going to the Dogs.” The Times of India, 18 Dec. 2018.
- Pfister, Otto. “Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh.” Birds and Mammals of Ladakh, 21 Dec. 2018, Leh, SECMOL Office.
- Trinetra, Nikshep. Personal Interview. 8 Jan. 2018.