Tag Archives: conflict

Misplaced compassion and animal welfare – a guest post on the enormous free-ranging dog problem in India

The following is a guest post by Abi Tamim Vanak, Ph.D. Fellow, National Environmental Sciences Program, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, and Fellow, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. Dr. Vanak’s research focus is on the conservation of mammalian carnivores. His work addresses the huge population of free-ranging dogs in India and the challenge they pose to wildlife conservation. Here he challenges misplaced notions of compassion championed by animal lovers that can perpetuate and amplify the problem.

A pack of free-ranging dogs in Kashmir, where their numbers have doubled since culling stopped in 2008. Photo by Abid Bhat, via Tehelka.com

Young Maitreyi Sundar, a class VIII student living in Chennai, wrote a heartfelt letter, published in the Pet Pals section of The Hindu (26 Nov 2013), about the demise of her beloved dog Bambi that was unfortunately run over by a “monstrous large car”. This was clearly not an isolated incident. Everyday, hundreds of such dogs, some beloved, some less fortunate, meet a similar fate or are left painfully and permanently disabled. Who is to blame for this? Surely it cannot be the cars whose right it is to use these roads. Remember, roads after all are made for vehicles of transport and every automobile owner pays a road tax. Indeed, the flip side of this coin, are the hundreds of accidents, sometimes even fatal, that motorists and two-wheeler riders suffer while trying to avoid dogs.

Thus the onus to keep street dogs out of harm’s way lies squarely with the people who befriend them. Millions of dog lovers across India are highly responsible and nurturing of their pets. They treat their dogs as family members and provide them with regular healthcare, take them for regular walks, but do so on a leash, because they are mindful of the dangers that roads pose. However, millions more still, would rather take the easy way out and enjoy the supposed guarding benefits of street dogs, without owning up to any responsibility of maintaining and housing them. Instead, they pretend to be compassionate, and gain “punya” by feeding street dogs, rather than the actual responsibility of keeping a pet. This, combined with various other factors such as poor sanitation and garbage management, is why India has a free-ranging dog population of more than 58 million (Source: M. E. Gompper 2013, Free-ranging dogs and wildlife conservation, OUP).

Is this then the lot of Man’s best friend? To forever beg for the odd scraps of food from well-meaning but irresponsible residents, suffer from easily preventable diseases, become the targets of anger and stones of those who are less tolerant, while dodging the inevitable brush with death on the roads?  On the other hand, dogs are not a benign neutral presence.

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A man feeding dogs in the street. Click on image for original photo.

India still has the highest incidence of rabies in the world, and an estimated 20 million people are bitten by dogs annually. Going by recent surveys in rural areas, this is still a massive underestimate.

The public outcry following a dog attack on a child (often from a lower economic stratum) is quickly lost in the even louder outcry against catching dogs (usually from those who are economically well off). Thus it seems that a silent vast majority continues to suffer the detrimental affects, because of a highly vocal minority who champion the cause of street dogs.

Indeed, these negative effects are not limited to humans alone. More and more evidence is gathering that free-ranging dogs can be very detrimental to wildlife and endangered species, not just as predators, but also as reservoirs of disease causing pathogens.

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Free-ranging dogs chasing a Wild Ass in its sanctuary. Click on image for original photo.

Animal lovers and animal welfare activists often quote Mahatma Gandhi’s famous line about the greatness of a nation judged on how it treats its animals. Perhaps it’s time to turn his comment around. By keeping and perpetuating dogs on streets, are we showing true compassion, or instead, are we simply assuaging our own sense of guilt by throwing a few scraps of leftover food? What does it say about people who insist that their beloved friends are left to fend for themselves on the streets?

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A dog ranging freely in the wilds of Rajasthan. Click on image for original photo.

Few people know that in fact Gandhiji was strongly in favour of ridding streets of dogs. Writing in his weekly, “Young India”, he said  “…it should be a sin to feed stray dogs and we should save numerous dogs if we had legislation making every stray dog liable to be shot. Even if those who feed stray dogs consented to pay a penalty for their misdirected compassion we should be free from the curse of stray dogs.

He then went on to say “I am therefore strongly of the opinion that if we practice the religion of humanity we should have a law making it obligatory on those who would have dogs to keep them under guard and not allow them to stray and making all stray dogs to be liable to be destroyed after a certain date.”

It seems quite ironic then, that animal welfare organisations, many founded in western countries and funded generously by international donor organisations, continue to propagate massive falsehoods about free-ranging dog control. Countries such as England and Japan, have almost no street-dogs. This was achieved through massive and sustained culling campaigns in the early and mid 20th century. However, in India, Animal Birth Control methods are seen as being the only solution, although there is no scientifically valid support for this belief.

Recent studies have shown that to achieve a 70% reduction in population size over a 13-18 year period, it is necessary to sterilize 90% of the dog population. Less than 40% sterilization coverage will only maintain populations at current levels. In India, there is very little systematic and robust research to even determine the levels of sterilization coverage. Rough estimates based on reports suggest between <5% to 40% coverage, with only one properly documented case of up to 86.5% in Jodhpur.

If we want our streets to be free of dogs (which not everyone agrees with), then clearly what is required is a multi-pronged approach. This should start with (as Gandhiji suggested) a strict regulation on dog ownership, a penalty on allowing owned dogs to range freely, capture and confinement of free-ranging dogs, strict penalties for feeding dogs in public spaces, and finally, a concerted and sustained campaign that includes education, responsible pet ownership, trap and neuter and humane euthanasia where necessary, especially in critical wildlife habitats. Our best friends don’t just need our compassion, they also need a good home.

The street is no place for a dog.

Flying Tiger, Crouching Mahut (on Elephant), and some worries about protected areas in India

Its been a lean time here as far as my writing on this blog goes. I’m hoping this winter break somehow takes me over the hump and releases some pent up words, which, hopefully, will flow across this blog once again. Meanwhile, just to keep you hooked, allow me to share some more videos, like this one featuring a ferocious tigress.

You may be wondering, why is leafwarbler (yes, the same, who wrote this polemic against tigers) suddenly sharing videos of lions and tigers? Well, that lion getting tossed by a buffalo was obviously worth sharing as a fantastic bit of natural history! This one below is particularly interesting because it puts one of the most viewed viral videos—you must have seen that clip of a tiger leaping right up to the top of an elephant to attack the Mahut riding on its back, haven’t you?—within the proper broader context of the ongoing conflicts (and potential reconciliations) between tigers and people in India.

[youtube T0kzdu_wTM0]

What do you think of that key point hammered in at the end of the video, about the importance of protected areas for tiger conservation? Hard to argue against that when dealing with a large carnivore which obviously needs large territories, and has such obvious potential for conflict. Yet, I have my doubts (which may be more suitable for another proper post) about the over-reliance on protected areas, and have often (most recently in India earlier this year) found myself arguing with conservationists in India about the need for more of a reconciliation ecology approach to at least augment the reservation ecology framework that has been enforced for some decades now. Protected areas, I feel, have done about all they can offer in a land full of so many people. Yet tigers—and even more, leopards—continue to “stray” outside their sanctuaries and national parks, and manage to persist in the surrounding human-dominated landscape matrix for various periods of time. These farm / village / suburban landscapes and what these animals do in them have only recently begun to attract the attention of researchers and conservationists alike. Much to think about and many stories to be told from this zone of conflict/overlap and potential reconciliation between humans and tigers (and leopards and elephants and…) but for now, it is good to have at least one dramatic visual story being told in its proper context.

So the Iraq war is over, you say? Well… let’s not forget the History of Oil

As my American friends celebrate / breathe a sigh of relief at the announcement today that the US war on Iraq is finally officially over, I can’t help but go back to this brilliant history lesson (which I have posted here before):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DCwafIntj0?wmode=transparent]

So what of the American Plan to Bring Democracy to the Middle East? Well, the war may be officially over, but don’t lose heart, not yet… just have a look at this map, for this is what the “end” of a war looks like now:


Now welcome the weary broken American troops back home from their multiple long stints in Iraq (let’s not think about their Iraqi counterparts); dust them off, patch them up, replenish their ranks, and let’s get them back out there. There is much Democracy yet to be brought to many a thirsty, hungry, desperate (but rich in oil or other resources) corner of this world!

Enjoy the peace, my American friends…


Humans and wildlife, by the numbers

So the census takers tell us that both the human (no surprise) and tiger (hmm…?) populations are up in India. Good news for both, eh? Who says humans cannot coexist with wildlife, of even the large carnivorous kind? We Indians have done it for a long time, no? Four times the human population of the US squeezed into a third of the landmass, and we still have most of our megafauna with us. So far. With much of it still outside protected areas too.

Well… before you celebrate the census figures on behalf of both species, let me point out that its an increasingly uneasy coexistence at best:


Elsewhere, on another continent, the CEO of GoDaddy.com got himself and his company in some hot water for sharing this video (warning: video requires a relatively strong stomach) of a hunt he participated in, apparently to help farmers in Zimbabwe in danger of losing their subsistence crops to elephants whose own numbers force them to range far outside the protected areas within which we would like to confine them. The rather boastful tone of the video and pictures of him posing with the poor dead elephant don’t do him or his company any favors, and have resulted in quite the predictable backlash. But if you do watch the video all the way through, you see in the aftermath a rather desperate looking mob of African villagers stripping the carcass bare, harvesting all the meat in a manner that brings to mind scenes of other scavenger species attending to dead animals. It is easy for us, from the comforts of our suburban homes, to advocate for the rights of the elephant and criticize the rich American tourist who paid a hefty fee to be able to hunt the elephant and gloat about it afterwards. What, though, of the poor farmers whose crops are being raided by the elephants? Doesn’t Zimbabwe have an official policy of culling elephant as a way to manage their populations, especially when they start overflowing the habitat’s carrying capacity (bearing in mind, of course, that it is our actions which have shrunk the habitat, and diminished its carrying capacity)? Therefore (provocative as I may seem in suggesting this), it would seem that this hunt was legal, perhaps legitimate even from the wildlife management perspective, and brought some measure of relief/benefits to the locals, however distasteful the retelling of the tale afterwards. Why do we (those of us in the conservation movement) find it easier to sympathize with the elephant than the farmer in its path, when both are being screwed out of their basic means of subsistence by larger socioeconomic forces beyond either of their control? The chest-beating sounds particularly hollow coming from Americans, who have exterminated most of the larger native species, especially carnivores, from most of their country, and continue to slaughter thousands of wild animals of all kinds every year, ostensibly because they may cause damage to farms and crops.

Meanwhile, back in India, the land where most animals are tolerated (even worshipped, especially elephants) far more than perhaps anywhere else on this planet, even that long-held tolerance is wearing thin as our numbers grow and wildlife populations find themselves crowded into narrower bits of habitat. You can’t keep them confined even in the most protected areas though – that has never been nature’s way. Most organisms will always find ways to disperse and if most of the places they disperse into, we now claim as our own, conflicts are inevitable – especially when it is big and dangerous wildlife appearing in our midst. And, sadly, there is a point, it seems, beyond which even the most tolerant cultures can be pushed into savagery (warning: this video may require an even stronger stomach):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_V0HAA0UIT0]

As the report indicates, there is a veritable rash of such incidents in India lately, with leopards in particular being cornered, beaten, even burned to death, with forest officials and even police apparently helpless to do anything to stop the mobs. What is driving people to such extreme frenzy? Are we past a tipping point in our civilization, with simply too many people crammed into too little space, which many of us still want to share with other animals too? Perhaps so, when you consider the numbers in India. Yet… how is this killing of leopards straying into India’s teeming towns different from the massacre of wolves in the mostly empty northern Rocky mountains of Wyoming and Montana at the behest of ranchers who want to maximize their profits and not risk losing a single sheep? The latter is government sanctioned and done in an organized, clean, professional manner, unlike the frenzied savage mobs in India. Of course. OK, then.

How do we reconcile ourselves with the rest of wild nature? Can we? Will the rest of biodiversity (if given the choice) even want to reconcile with us, at this point?

Leopards in the Lurch

Well and truly in the lurch, some of these leopards, if the footage in this film is anything to go by – some very disturbing stuff in there, so be warned. (I might warn you about the narration also, which is more annoying than disturbing!)

As for the leopards, I’m not sure what to make of the numbers cited: are leopards really being killed by the tens to hundreds annually across India? All due to their “incursions” into human habitation – or vice versa, really – given dwindling deer and other prey populations and the ease of finding dogs and even humans. On the one hand, one feels optimistic if that many leopards are indeed being killed annually, by professional hunters or frenzied mobs, yet the problem persists. The overall population may yet be healthy if it can absorb such mortality at human hands and continue to thrive amid human enterprise. On the other hand, we might be seeing a real ecological trap (if not sink) in the villages that attract these leopards, and a bigger crisis in their wild habitats in terms of their natural prey – so the number killed by people may be really decimating the population. I’m not sure if there is a reliable estimate of leopard populations across India – but leopards have proven themselves to be highly adaptable to human dominated landscapes, thriving even within the municipal limits of the megalopolis of Mumbai. The real question is whether we can adapt our own actions to make sure we don’t push this lovely cat over the brink and send it spiralling towards extinction even as we try to save human lives.

And what of the traditional Indian culture, steeped in Hindu philosophy, that is supposed to make us much more tolerant of wildlife than in other parts of the world? Some of the footage above certainly runs counter to notions of tolerance – but could it be more an indication of people’s desperation and frustration at losing so many humans (how reliable are those numbers cited here) to these cats? In the context of those casualty numbers, the overall response seems actually rather restrained, especially when compared with the number of mountain lions “taken” in the American west even when they harm far fewer humans.

[Hat-tip: Waghoba Tipkya]

What does a green-hippy community do when a cougar shows up in their midst? Shoot it, of course!


The appearance of a mountain lion Tuesday near downtown Berkeley, Calif., caused a stir in this animal-loving, environmentally conscious community, where residents may obsess about locally grown organic food but don’t expect to be on the menu.

The mountain lion, a 100-pound female, was spotted around 2 a.m. Tuesday in the city’s Gourmet Ghetto district, according to the Berkeley Police Department.

The cougar roamed within pouncing range of Alice Water’s Chez Panisse restaurant, the temple of California cuisine, where twice-cooked kid goat with cumin, ginger, eggplant, and chickpeas was the featured dish that evening. But the state’s top-level predator probably was on the hunt for venison and got lost, according to wildlife experts.

“A mountain lion traveling through an urban environment is infrequent but looking at aerial photographs of the surrounding area you can see why it chose Berkeley,” said Marc Kenyon, the statewide mountain lion program coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Interesting to read this debate crop up again, after yet another mountain lion got shot dead for “straying” into yet another bit of suburban sprawl blotting its former habitat in California. Living with large carnivores is a tough nut for reconciliation ecology, especially in a trigger-happy society that shoots first, asks questions later (if at all).

What would you do if one showed up near your favorite restaurant?

Holding government and politicians accountable to save nature gets you killed in India

In a democracy, citizens are supposed to have access to information about what their government is up to, so that the said government and its elected officials can be held to account. In the world’s largest democracy, India, however, the sun has rarely been allowed to shine on the goings on of politicians who “represent” the people, the bureaucracy that is supposed to run the country for the people, and the police and military apparatus that is supposed to protect the people, from threats within and without. This huge democracy took a lumbering step in the right direction in 2005 when the Right To Information or RTI Act – a sunshine law – was passed by parliament to provide a mechanism for the public to find out what was being done in their name, and to hold those in power accountable.

Of course, having laws passed on paper is one thing – actually implementing them is another, especially in India. While the RTI law has definitely provided quite a powerful tool for citizen activists to hold this democracy to account, invoking it can still leave these brave citizens exposed to deadly retribution, which itself can be covered up by the nexus between politicians, bureaucracy, and police. As the environmentalist and RTI activist Amit Jethwa found out this week. He wasn’t the first (and likely won’t be the last, alas) to put his life on the line to exercise this basic right (RTI).

As the reports below indicate, in this case, a local Member of Parliament is a prime suspect in Jethwa’s murder. An MP from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which isn’t exactly known to shy away from violence to achieve its ends. Or from using the state apparatus to both commit violence on some of its citizenry, and to cover it up. I don’t know what the likelihood is that the Gujarat police will bring the murderers to justice, especially when they are so politically well connected. Their track record during and in the aftermath of the 2002 “communal riots” doesn’t inspire much confidence. I just hope that the media continues to keep a spotlight on this murder to bring some justice to this brave young man who martyred himself for the environment. And may his sacrifice inspire more young people in India to push the country towards true democracy.


The conservation battle takes another young activist’s life in India. RIP: Amit Jethwa

Bloody sad news from the conservation battle front in Gujarat, India: Amit Jethwa, a young wildlife activist whom I knew only through his occasional postings on Nathistory-India about one or other of the conservation issues he was tackling, was shot dead right in front of the Gujarat High Court in Ahmedabad! He was there to take on the mining mafia threatening the last natural home of the Asiatic Lion at Gir National Park, which Amit had dedicated his young life to – now literally soWildlife conservation remains a dangerous business in India (as indeed elsewhere) – perhaps more so now than ever, and my (academic conservationist’s) hat is off to people like Amit who take on these real battles in the trenches despite the risks.
Here’s a message from Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India announcing the sad news:
Dear All,
Amit Jethwa, former President of the Gir Nature Club who recently took on the mining mafia operating around Gir National Park in Gujarat with a public interest lawsuit, was tragically murdered outside the High Court in Ahmedabad on Tuesday night. Amit had just left a meeting with his lawyer and was getting into his vehicle when he was shot. Although seriously injured he managed to grab his two assailants from their motorbike. He died on the spot, while his assailants fled from the scene. 
A former member of the Wildlife Advisory Board of Gujarat, Amit ran numerous campaigns for the protection of the Gir lions and other wildlife, and to stop illegal mining in Saurashtra. In 2007, he fought an unsuccessful election to become a member of the Legislative Assembly under the banner of a Green Party.
In sorrow, Belinda
More news coverage of his activism and death herehere (with video), and at Sanctuary Asia (as also on Nathistory-India, which you should be subscribed to if you aren’t already).