Free-ranging dogs have emerged as a potential threat and predator to the local nilgai and blackbuck populations in parts of Haryana, according to a recent study conducted in the Badopal area of Fatehabad district and the Mangali-Rawatkhera region of Hisar district.

The two non-protected, wildlife-dominated sites are home to the Bishnoi community that reveres the blackbuck.

The study found that the free-ranging dogs formed packs to attack wildlife and more sightings and casualties were reported during the breeding season, as the mothers and fawns are more vulnerable to an attack.

According to the Haryana State Forest Department, from January 2016 to May 2020 in the Hisar division alone, 361 blackbucks, 1,641 nilgai, 25 peafowl, 29 chinkara and 35 monkeys were killed by dogs.

“Dogs generally turn stray when their owners disown them or they are born on the streets. As a result, they roam freely, breed unrestrictedly and attach themselves into a local population. They have now become a major cause of concern in wildlife-dominated areas that are surrounded by high human habitation in the state,” says Vikram Delu, a PhD in Zoology on blackbuck behaviour and genetics in western Haryana, and the co-author of the study.

The data from the state forest department about the number of wildlife casualties to stray dog attacks provided the baseline information to categorise the dogs as the only predator in this region.

“The cheetah was the blackbuck’s main predator in Haryana. After its extinction, there have been no large carnivores in the state, except for in the Kalesar National Park. The state is also agrarian and has high human habitation. So, in the absence of large carnivores, domesticated dogs turned stray, and started to fill the gap left by the absence of major predators. They have now emerged as the only predator for isolated wildlife populations in Haryana,” says Delu.

Reducing risk

Over the years, there has been regular research and reports on the threats that free-ranging dogs – approximately 35 million – pose to wildlife in India. Other than attacks on wildlife, including ground nesting birds, experts have voiced concerns about the possibilities of canine distemper and other viruses being transmitted to other species.

Some research has also indicated that free-ranging dogs are a threat for at least 80 species, including 31 that are classified as “threatened” and four that are listed as “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

In India, there have been attacks reported on the golden langur (Trachypithecus geei), the great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) and the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), among others.

A nilgai. Credit: Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In western Haryana, where the study was conducted, an increasing number of stray dogs have been reported over the past few years. To evaluate the threat directly posed by stray/feral dogs in the study areas, monthly mean sightings were calculated from field visits based on random encounters.

The chasing and group or pack hunting behaviour exhibited by stray dogs were also observed randomly in single, pair and moderate size packs. Significant presence of dogs was found during the investigation and data on blackbuck and nilgai kills by dogs was obtained from the state forest department, which revealed that stray or feral dogs were indeed a serious concern for wildlife.

“Every species has its own role in the ecosystem. In the case of Haryana, herbivores are present in very low in density, so the presence of these dogs can lead to a detrimental effect on the local wildlife population. Also, we must bear in mind that these dogs did not emerge as a predator in one or two years. They have taken many years or decades to behave like this,” said Delu.

The study lists a number of ways to address and mitigate this issue, not just in Haryana but across the country. It states that a detailed countrywide or state-specific Standard Operating Procedure is required to mitigate dog-wildlife conflicts.

The establishment of dog sterilisation and vaccination as well as wildlife rehabilitation centres can also be a solution at the local level when wildlife exists outside protected areas. The study also suggests having strong legislation to restrict people from disowning pet dogs so as to prevent them from shifting into the stray category. A dog census around wildlife-dominated areas is proposed for risk assessment.

In the context of Haryana, since most of the mammalian and other wildlife populations are surrounded by high human habitation, a spurt in dog-wildlife-human conflicts is possible in the future. “There is also the risk of spread of zoonotic diseases, so overall awareness and groundwork is needed right now to prevent this problem from escalating further,” says Delu.

This article was first published on Mongabay.