Nepal’s wild dogs also need to be saved

Tigers and rhinos get all the attention, but there are other less glamorous endangered wildlife

A dhole, also known as the Asiatic Wild Dog, captured by a camera trap in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area. Photos: AMBIKA PRASAD KHATIWADA

Villagers in Nepal’s Kanchenjunga region were baffled-- wild animals were preying on their livestock but they had ruled out leopards.

Finally, a camera trap caught a dhole (Cuon alpinus) also known as the Asiatic Wild Dog at an altitude of 3,800m. Subsequent scatology study concluded that 22% of the dhole’s excrement contained remains of goats and juvenile cattle, confirming that they were the culprits.

This study, led by researcher Ambika Prasad Khatiwada, was the first to research the habitat and habits of wild dogs in Nepal. Since then, other studies have identified the presence of the animal in the southern plains of Chitwan and Parsa.

The research concluded that Nepal’s wild dogs are seriously endangered, and only about 200 remain. With habitat loss, wild dogs increasingly venture near human settlements where they are trapped and killed.

Despite being on the brink of extinction in the country, the conservation of tigers, rhinos, wild elephants, snow leopards and other charismatic species get more priority in Nepal. This is why the wild tiger population in Nepal has rebounded with total numbers tripling in the past 13 years.

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But such extensive focus on iconic wild mammals has meant that other wildlife like wild dogs, pangolins, porcupines, snakes and others have been largely ignored and do not get as much targeted protection.

The Cuon alpinus is native to Asia, is brown with large rounded ears and a black muzzle, and a drooping black-tipped tail. Wild dogs have a lifespan of about 16 years and can grow up to 17 inches in height and up to a metre in length.

They move in packs of five to ten and can swim, usually living in caves or under rocky outcrops near a water source. They collaborate to chase and attack their prey, able to hunt animals ten times their size. Other predators like tigers and leopards do not attack wild dogs, deterred by their packs.

Dholes are found across 11 Asian countries, including Nepal, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. India currently has the largest population of wild dogs at 2,500.

Dholes are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) list of endangered species, meaning the animals are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but may become in the near future. They are similarly included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and currently updated data confirms that this species is critically endangered or rare.

“Because critically endangered and rare species are at risk of extinction, their conservation must be done expeditiously,” says dhole researcher Ambika Prasad Khatiwada.

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Dhole NT 2

In Nepal, Dhole sightings have occurred up to 4,350m above sea level in the Rara and Khaptad National Parks, the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve in the western Himalaya, the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area in the east and Chitwan and Bardia National Parks as well as Parsa and Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserves in the Tarai.

Wild dogs are sighted in several districts outside protected areas, but populations are low and threatened by low prey base, poisoning and habitat loss.

Indeed, an increase in the number of tigers has meant that wild dogs are in direct competition with dholes which share their prey base. “An in-depth study is required to find out if it is this scarcity that has drawn them out in the Parsa region,” says Khatiwada.

That wild dogs have begun to attack and feed on cattle seems to support the theory that dwindling prey has drawn the previously elusive species nearer to human habitats, and locals have retaliated by poisoning the prey to protect livestock.

Because the species move across the Nepal-India border, there must be international efforts in its conservation, says Martin Gilbert, a veterinarian at Cornell University conducting conservation research in Nepal. In 2019, dhole experts, researchers, and scientists from across the world came together at the first International Dhole Conference in Thailand. The following conference was held in Chitwan in 2023 and saw the participation of 42 experts from 14 countries, including 11 members of the IUCN Dhole Working Group.

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Khatiwada is a member of the IUCN group and represents Nepal in the study of wild dogs, and says the conference has renewed momentum for wild dog conservation. So far none of the wild dog range countries have formulated a Conservation Action Plan.

As important as the government’s role is to the protection of dholes, experts believe that local efforts will be much more effective than national laws. Khatiwada explains: ”In other countries, the danger to wild dogs stems from habitat loss, but in Nepal, it comes directly from humans.”

Indeed, while there is less human-wildlife conflict because dholes move within protected areas in the Tarai, the same cannot be said for mountain regions of Nepal and Bhutan where the animals are hunted, trapped, and poisoned for preying on livestock.

According to Nepal’s National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973, those who kill, injure or otherwise harm protected wildlife are punishable by imprisoned for 6 months to 1 year, a fine ranging from Rs20,000-Rs50,000 or both.

As with snow leopard and tiger conservation, financial compensation can reduce the hostility of local farmers towards wild dogs.

Says Khatiwada: “Some compensation is already provided to those who lose livestock to protected animals provided the livestock are insured. This provision must be amended to provide people with full compensation when there are attacks on livestock so farmers do not poison endangered wild dogs."

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