- Dogs in Nepal enjoy a special status during the Tihar festival, but for the rest of the year are often overlooked or even abandoned.
- The latter often turn feral and pose a threat to the country’s iconic wildlife — from tigers to snow leopards to dholes — through potential disease transmission and competition for prey.
- Studies show a high prevalence of diseases such as canine distemper and parvovirus among dogs near key protected areas. Conservationists say it’s up to humans to better manage their pets, including vaccinating them routinely, sterilizing them, and not abandoning them.
KATHMANDU — Four of the five days of the Nepali Hindu festival of Tihar, which occurs at the same time as the better-known Deepavali, are dedicated to animals. Kukur Tihar, the second day of the five-day festival, was celebrated on Oct. 24 this year, and venerated all dogs, seen as protectors and loyal companions to humans.
On the day, adherents seek out dogs, including strays, and adorn them with garlands and give them delicacies to eat. It’s seen as a way of seeking blessings from Yama, the god of death and justice, who in Hindu lore has dogs as his vahana, or assistants.
For conservationists, however, the day is a stark reminder of the serious threats that feral and stray dogs pose to wildlife across the country. Part of the problem is people simply abandoning a dog once they tire of keeping them, said Babu Ram Lamichhane from the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), a semigovernmental body.
“These dogs are habituated to human food, but their natural instinct is to attack and kill wild animals such as spotted deer when they see them,” he told Mongabay. “They have been seen to hunt in packs like the way they did in the wild before they were domesticated.”
The most pressing concern related to dogs is that they’re known to carry various pathogens that could potentially infect wild animals, said Lamichhane, co-author of a soon-to-be-published study on the prevalence of disease among domestic dogs in areas bordering Chitwan National Park.
As part of the study, researchers tested 163 local dogs in the park’s buffer zone, looking for antibodies associated with canine distemper virus and canine parvovirus. They found that 17% were infected with canine distemper virus and 33% with canine parvovirus.
The dogs’ state of health is a major concern as they spend a lot of time with humans and are also in contact with wild animals, Lamichhane said. Infected dogs can potentially transfer these pathogens to wild animals, especially carnivores such as tigers (Panthera tigris) and dholes (Cuon alpinus), he said. Both species are found in Chitwan National Park and already face a host of other challenges to their survival. Similarly, dogs could bring diseases found in wild animals to humans.
Another study found a high prevalence of canine distemper antibodies in dogs from villages in Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area. This could potentially threaten the region’s iconic species such as the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) and the snow leopard (Panthera uncia), conservationists say.
Conservationist Rinzin Phunjok Lama, based in Nepal’s Trans-Himalayan region, says the mass migration of people away from the mountains and into the urban areas in Nepal’s plains has left many dogs abandoned and feral.
“Although the dogs may not attack snow leopards, they may attack blue sheep [Pseudois nayaur] and transmit the disease to them, and from there to the snow leopards,” he told Mongabay. Also, when dogs attack prey favored by snow leopards, such as blue sheep, they create disturbances in their habitat, he added.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns in Nepal, images of feral dogs running around hungry on the streets touched the hearts of many in the country. But in rural areas, where tourists would normally feed the feral dogs, the animals were found to “behave like the wolves they evolved from,” local media reported, and even attacked locals.
In neighboring India, where the impact of feral dogs on wildlife conservation has been studied more extensively, a pan-national online survey reported domestic dogs attacking 80 species of native wildlife, of which 31 are categorized as threatened on the IUCN Red List. Experts say the situation could be similar in Nepal, as it not only shares many of the same landscapes as its southern neighbor, but also cultural attitudes toward dogs and poor ownership rules.
In eastern Nepal, Whitley Award winner Sonam Tashi Lama, who has been working on improving the habitat of the red panda, also takes the threat of dogs seriously. With dog-borne parasites already reported in red pandas, it’s necessary to keep the canines on a leash and to vaccinate them routinely, he said. As part of the red panda conservation campaign, conservationists have sterilized, vaccinated and administered vitamins to dogs to ensure they don’t transmit any diseases to red pandas.
Lamichhane said the dogs tested during the Chitwan study were later vaccinated to prevent them from spreading diseases.
“These measures could help to some extent,” he said, “but the human community needs to take care of its dogs so that they don’t turn feral and hurt endangered wildlife and sometimes even themselves.”
Banner image: A Nepal Police dog performs at a show organized on the occasion of Kukur Tihar in Kathmandu. Image courtesy of Nepal Police.
Sadaula, A., Joshi, J. D., Lamichhane, B. R., Gairhe, K. P., Subedi, N., Pokheral, C. P., . . . Pandey, P. (2022). Seroprevalence of canine distemper and canine parvovirus among domestic dogs in buffer zone of Chitwan National Park, Nepal. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.4191609
Ng, D., Carver, S., Gotame, M., Karmasharya, D., Karmacharya, D., Man Pradhan, S., … Johnson, C. N. (2019). Canine distemper in Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area — Implications of dog husbandry and human behaviour for wildlife disease. PLOS ONE, 14(12), e0220874. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0220874
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