The watch tower overlooking Maravakandy dam at the edge of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve is an excellent vantage point to observe wild animals such as elephants, bears, otters and tigers.
One evening, the placidity of Maravakandy was broken by a pack of five village dogs in furious pursuit of a spotted deer. The chase was short-lived, and, within five minutes the deer lay limp on the forest floor.
The technique and coordination displayed by the dogs were not what we would expect from domestic animals. Three of the dogs ran towards the village and reappeared with a man who marched purposefully towards the dead deer. Upon noticing that he was being watched, he walked away. At that very instance, the dogs took off after another deer by the water’s edge.
It is common for domestic dogs to hunt small birds and mammals near forest edges. In the case of the spotted deer at Maravakandy, however, it is possible that villagers exploit the dogs’ ability to hunt, thereby acquiring wild meat for consumption or sale in local markets.
Several conservation issues surface in the light of such incidents. The most obvious one is lower prey availability for wild carnivores like tigers and leopards. These dogs may also be spreading diseases to wild animals. Domestic animals carry pathogens. Domestic dogs, especially, are known to be carriers of lethal pathogens like rabies virus, canine distemper virus and canine parvovirus.
Interactions with domestic dogs can result in repeated disease outbreaks among wild populations. This can have disastrous consequences. While certain infections can affect all animals, others like parvovirus specifically infect wild canids such as jackals, wolves and wild dogs.
This is of concern in forests like Mudumalai, as they support large populations of the endangered wild dog or dhole. Dholes often venture out of the woods into human-dominated areas like fields. Their highly social nature heightens the possibility of contact with domestic dogs. Diseases may also spread through consumption of infected carcasses. Local extinction of dholes due to diseases in one of their stronghold habitats is a very real threat. Lesser known animals like jackals and wolves that share surrounding habitats may face similar risks.
The Maravakandy episode is not unique. Accounts from other locations indicate that such incidents occur across the country. Training village dogs to procure wild meat is a criminal offence under the category of ‘poaching’. But the larger harm that goes unnoticed is that it indirectly threatens the survival of non-target animals.
And this can even affect humans. A study examining wolf attacks on people around Solapur (Maharashtra) revealed that the wolves were rabid. They, in turn, had contracted rabies from stray dogs. The disease transmission phenomenon may have repercussions beyond our current understanding.
Human settlements in and around forests of India have large and unaccounted number of dogs. These dogs have not yet been identified as a serious conservation threat. Studies in India dealing with disease transfer and the competition dynamics between domestic and wild animals are in the nascent stages. There are no conservation measures to monitor these issues. Dholes frequently move outside forests and foxes, wolves and jackals permanently dwell in the non-protected periphery. This strongly demands that we recognize protected area boundaries as permeable barriers. Management interventions should therefore reach beyond these edges in order to protect our wild canids.
Suman Jumani and Arjun Srivathsa
Alumni of the Post-Graduate Program in Wildlife Biology & Conservation
National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore