Khumbu dogs go wild after tourism declineWhen Nepal’s trekking income dropped due to the pandemic, hungry dogs behaved like the wolves they evolved from
Scientists have found genetic evidence that dogs were first domesticated by early humans on the Tibetan Plateau, and interbreeding with the Himalayan grey wolf gave them the ability to adapt to high altitude living. So, it is no wonder that dogs feel so much at home in the mountains.
When a team did the first traverse of the Great Himalayan Trail in 2017, a mastiff they named Setuk joined the group for 300km from Khumbu to Helambu, even climbing over the 5,700m high Tashi Labtsa pass. Setuk once accompanied mountaineers up the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 2.
Another Tibetan mastiff named Tashi once walked back from a village in Ramechhap to Kathmandu after his Japanese owner, at the end of his job in Nepal, took him back to the place where he adopted the puppy.
Dogs often trail trekkers in Nepal, they bond with them acting as guides and camp watchdogs in return for food and adventure. Some of these dogs stay on in the mountains and are feral, hunting in packs like their evolutionary ancestors. Wild dogs have been known to attack yaks in high pastures in Khumbu.
A community dog from Dingboche once accompanied us on the climb up to Nangarshang peak. He was a perfect gentleman (a gentledog if you will), and carried himself with much dignity. Not obtrusive or greedy, he was just there all the time, walking ahead of us on the trail.
Tibetan mastiffs look intimidating at first glance, but they seldom quarrel among themselves when resources are plentiful. They however can be loyal and fiercely protective of the yaks, sheep or humans that they watch over, and do not hesitate to attack “outsiders”.
There is a difference between domestic dogs confined to households, and community canines that watch over the whole village they belong to. As an example, this particular tourist dog was attacked by local dogs at Namche Bazaar. As my patient wouldn't let me suture the lacerations, wounds were cleaned and repaired using staples.
Lately, however, I have noticed that with the drop in tourism following the pandemic in the past two years, previously friendly community mastiffs in the Khumbu have become more aggressive.
As a doctor here, I have had to treat an increasing number of dog bite cases. Not only have the incidents of dog-attack increased, but the injuries are also more serious. No longer are they casual fang marks and scratches, but deep wounds as if the predator had the intention of killing and eating its prey.
Some people have stopped walking alone along village trails, and children are warned by parents not to go out alone. I had to treat a child who was attacked by a group of dogs in Pangboche and had deep life-threatening injuries on her back. She was lucky, as neighbours chased away the dog pack in the knick of time.
There used to be a puppy in Dingboche that used to play with a yak calf which was about his size. He was being raised by the community to be a watchdog to protect the yak herd from wolves and snow leopards.
Recently, the pup was killed and eaten — not by a snow leopard, but by other feral dogs. There have been other instances of dog-eat-dog, a phenomenon locals here had never heard of before.
The people of the Khumbu rely heavily on trekkers for income, and the collapse of tourism has had a domino effect on families here. The fall in income has also meant that the dogs now do not get enough to eat
Community dogs that used to be well-fed, and sleep all day in the sun, are now showing more aggressiveness. Triggered by hunger, they have fallen back on their primitive wolf instincts.
They hunt in packs, and there are frequent territorial gang wars between rival groups. Dog fights have become more common, and dogs do not hesitate to eat their own kind if one is killed in a fight.
Khumbu’s langur monkeys, which were wary only of snow leopards and wolves, are now being attacked and eaten by dogs. In Dingboche, one unfortunate monkey met such a fate and was left half-eaten by dogs.
It is an indication of how much locals are worried about dog attacks that the deeply religious people here, who usually do not harm animals, have started requesting the authorities to poison rampant dogs. This is against what doctors believe in and practice, and hence was denied.
Luckily, with the Covid-19 pandemic tapering off, there is a trickle of trekkers. With more food available, the number of dog bite cases at the health posts in the Khumbu is going down noticeably.
This behavioral change in Khumbu's dogs should be studied in more detail but what we witnessed first hand was thousands of years of domestication fading away in a matter of months, as a result of food deprivation, an interesting side effect of the whole Covid-19 pandemic.
Abhyu Ghimire is a Medical Officer at The Mountain Medical Institute at Namche Bazar and Dingboche in Solu Khumbu.