S'porean wins Geographic Society's $13k study grant

Freelance photojournalist Debby Ng has won a US$10,000 (S$13,300) grant from The National Geographic Society to save wildlife in Nepal by studying its dogs.

The grant adds to the anti-rabies work she began there in 2014.

Ms Ng, 35, told The Sunday Times that the National Geographic Society Early Career Grant will allow her to research canine distemper virus in the Himalayas.

The virus is a deadly and highly contagious disease that threatens dogs and the fragile ecosystem there.

Many dogs in the region are not feral and are taken care of by local villagers. However, they roam freely across the countryside and can introduce diseases to people, other canines, and wild animals.

"Dogs have been identified as a source of canine distemper virus outbreaks that have affected wild carnivores around the world. These include wild foxes, wolves, giant pandas and red pandas. In 1994 canine distemper virus killed 30 per cent of the lions in Serengeti National Park," said Ms Ng.

"Learning how the dogs are moving in the environment and what diseases they are carrying can help us understand the likelihood of disease, and allow us to implement conservation measures to protect wildlife, people, and other domestic animals like sheep."

The grant, which was awarded last September and announced by Ms Ng on Facebook last Monday, will pay for a month of field work in Nepal's Upper Manang district, where she and her team will interview villagers about dogs in the area.

They will also observe how the canines live and collect blood samples during the study, which starts in May.

"Upper Manang is home to a wide variety of wildlife. Carnivores like Himalayan wolves, Pallas' cats, jackals, red foxes, snow leopards, bears and wolverines are known to occur here, so our study is very relevant in this area," said Ms Ng.

Separately, she will continue the Himalayan Mutt Project, her anti-rabies work that neuters and vaccinates dogs in Nepal. According to her calculations, it has prevented thousands of unwanted puppies from being born and becoming carriers of rabies, which a 2015 study said kills up to 100 Nepalese yearly.

National Geographic's Ms Jill Spear said: "Debby's project will add to our body of knowledge on disease ecology of domestic dogs, and how that affects wildlife in Nepal."

Ms Spear, who is the programme officer for Ms Ng's grant, said: "By filling this knowledge gap, the project can have a positive impact on both the wildlife and people in Nepal."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 07, 2018, with the headline 'S'porean wins Geographic Society's $13k study grant'. Print Edition | Subscribe