There is no baseline estimate of the dog population, inadequate sterilisation coverage and real world challenges which have not been taken into account in the Animal Birth Control (dogs) Programme
In Ladakh, the population of domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) that roam freely has grown dramatically over the past few decades — as locals say, “since the military came in a big way in the 1970s and then due to the tourism boom after 2010”.
The resulting influx of people in the landscape has led to an increase in food waste on which the scavenging ‘stray dogs’ thrived. Further, aided by the high-reproductive rate of these species, their populations have grown exponentially.
In the current proposal for amendments to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960, there is an attempt to legitimise ownerless dogs as “community animals” rather than bringing more responsibility towards them. It is, in fact, this lack of responsibility that makes free-ranging dogs (FRD) a menace.
There have been four instances of humans killed by these FRDs in Ladakh. The recorded dog-bite cases in Leh district alone have gone up to 1,839 cases per year in 2021-22 from 556 cases per year in 2015-16.
Predation on wild herbivores and cattle is frequent and there are reports of endangered brown bears and snow leopards being harassed and perhaps even killed by a pack of FRDs.
The breeding success of the Black-necked crane, the state bird of Ladakh, has decreased to 33 per cent in 2017 from 60 per cent in 1994 and is mainly attributed to FRDs predating on their eggs and chicks. So, there is a strong case for drastically reducing FRD numbers in the landscape.
The removal of food waste that stray dogs scavenge on and decreasing reproductive success in dog populations are the logical steps to be taken to reduce dog numbers. The administration in Ladakh is working on both these fronts.
Around 8,500 dogs were neutered between 2013 and 2021 under the Animal Birth Control and Anti-Rabies programme (ABC). But, recognising the need for more intense effort, the ABC Programme was launched in a “Mission Mode” August 14, 2021. The government’s resolve is evident from the fact that Rs 1.21 crore was spent and about 8,000 sterilisations were done in the very first year.
This author counted stray dogs on select roads of Leh town in the winter of 2019, and subsequently in the winter of 2022 on the same routes. Routes where new hotels have come up, show an increase of 90-110 per cent in dog encounters.
And, on some routes where the increase is not significant or there is a small decrease, the average number of adult dogs encountered is as high as 47 per kilometre. One route that saw no increase over three years nevertheless recorded 72 adult dogs per kilometre. In addition, pups and juveniles were encountered on all routes.
So, stray dogs continue to breed due to the ineffective sterilisation coverage and there is also enough food waste around to sustain them.
Pups and juveniles were encountered frequently, a clear indication that the "Mission Mode" sterilisation programme is not working. Photo credit: Narendra Patil
While the ineffectiveness of these interventions is evident, the reasons for failure are not recognised. A reasonably accurate estimate of the number of FRDs is necessary to quantify the required effort and monitor the effectiveness of interventions in controlling the FRD population.
The Animal Welfare Board of India protocol for the ABC programme mentions this requirement. But there was no reliable estimate of the number of ‘stray’ dogs in Ladakh when the Mission Mode ABC programme was launched. And yet, it was declared that 75 per cent of all the dogs in UT Ladakh would be sterilised in six months.
When making the grand resolve, it seems, no one even bothered to ask ‘75 per cent of how many dogs?’ The ‘official guess’ for the total number of FRD is 25,000-30,000 dogs. This could be an underestimate. Even so, the percentage sterilisation coverage achieved in one year is a measly 30 per cent, way below the set target of 75 per cent in six months.
In the years 1999 and 2008, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (the present-day MoEF&CC) when conducting internal reviews of the ABC Programme noted that reliable statistics on the stray dog population were not available with any agency implementing the programme. And, even after two decades, ABC is being implemented with the same disregard for science.
There is no justification for setting a 75 per cent target in controlling population growth — it is just a meaningless number. A modeling study undertaken by Aniruddha Belsare, research scientist at Emory University, Atlanta and Abi Tamim Vanak from ATREE, explores the effort required to reduce dog numbers under the best case scenario.
The ideal scenario is defined as when (1) no new dogs are added from other areas, (2) all dogs are easily catchable and (3) a high number of sterilisations is done in a population.
“Unless the number of sterilised dogs is maintained at approximately 90 per cent of a dog population for at least 10 years, substantial population reduction cannot be achieved,” said Abi Tamim Vanak.
“This is not to be confused with the World Organisation for Animal Health recommendation of maintaining 70 per cent ‘vaccination coverage’ to prevent transmission of dog rabies in the population,” he added.
The same computer model system DogPopDy simulates the population dynamics of FRD under real-world conditions also. In the real world, not all dogs are catchable and new dogs move into areas where a dog population is being sterilised. In such a scenario, even with a high-intensity ABC effort of 750 sterilisations per month “the exercise is futile.”
In the best-case scenario, the model dog population shows a significant reduction only after 10-15 years of high-intensity ABC effort (of ~750 sterilisation per month and high cost). In the real-world scenario with similar high-intensity effort, the population dips initially but increases to go beyond the initial number. [a graphical representation of original plots in the study]
A dog population has a turnover rate of about 40 per cent and “intact FRDs rapidly replace neutered dogs, as births prevented by ABC are compensated by remaining intact dogs,” said Aniruddha Belsare.
Due to the high birth and death rates, about half of the FRDs in a population that are replaced annually will be new dogs. This means that approximately half the number of dogs sterilised and vaccinated will ‘anyway’ die every year.
So, half of the effort put into indiscriminate sterilisation under the ABC programme is wasted. “Exactly for the same reasons, indiscriminate killing of FRDs also does not work,” added Belsare. “Systematic and geographically coordinated effort is absolutely critical for such interventions to succeed.”
“Most pet owners do not sterilse their dogs and discard unwanted pups on the streets,” said a veterinary doctor working on the programme. So, some more unsterilised dogs are added to the population by irresponsible pet owners.
Also, there are practical difficulties in catching dogs. An experienced dog catcher says that they can barely catch 30-35 per cent of dogs they encounter. With help from people, the dogs that they feed around their houses can be caught more easily.
However, the reality everywhere in the country is that no administration is willing to increase the number of dog catchers to improve catchability, nor trains them to increase their efficiency, and does not upgrade the techniques of catching. So, there will be a certain percentage of dogs that are inaccessible.
The animal husbandry department, whose responsibility is to enhance livestock production, implements the ABC programme. Also, their expertise is in performing surgeries and not managing animal populations.
The municipality and wildlife protection department, whose mandates are to remove dogs as a source of threat to people and wildlife, do not contribute to the programme in any way. This abject lack of understanding of departmental mandates and the absence of intra-departmental coordination limits the number of dogs that get sterilised.
Hence, in not addressing these practical problems and depending exclusively on sterilisations to control the dog population, even the ‘Mission Mode ABC’ is designed to fail.
Controlling the FRD population requires a multi-pronged approach. Apart from food waste management, defining and enforcing a responsible pet ownership programme and sterilisation, some FRDs also need to be physically removed from populations — to be rehomed in animal shelters or euthanised.
About the way forward, Aniruddha Belsare says that scientific estimation of FRD needs to be done first. Suggesting that the unrealistic target [given the practical constraints] of trying to sterilise over 85 per cent of dogs in a population or sub-optimal implementation has to be given up in favor of “identification of corridors or buffers to core dog breeding sites and adopt the targeted intervention.”
Reducing the dog numbers that have reached menacing proportions is nothing short of a battle. The adage — Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat (Sun Tzu), rings true when tactical interventions to control dog numbers are devoid of strategy shaped by the science of population ecology.
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