Saving wildlife, dogs and people at the same time

S'porean helps prevent rabies infections in Nepal with project to sterilise, vaccinate dogs

Ms Debby Ng started the Himalayan Mutt Project in 2014 with her guide in Nepal to neuter and vaccinate dogs in the Annapurna Conservation Area.
Ms Debby Ng started the Himalayan Mutt Project in 2014 with her guide in Nepal to neuter and vaccinate dogs in the Annapurna Conservation Area. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

When Ms Debby Ng, 35, went searching for red pandas in the Everest National Park in Nepal in 2013, she asked villagers if they had seen the rare furry creatures.

Yes, they replied, dogs were carrying their carcasses around in their mouths. That is, when they were not killing other rare wild animals.

The story was the same in the seven other villages she visited that year. Ms Ng, a Singaporean freelance photojournalist, said most villagers cared for the dogs, but could not control their ballooning populations and so resorted to the only available method: rat poison.

But this makes dogs die slowly and painfully. And when scavengers like vultures feed on the dogs' bodies, they get poisoned in turn.

She found out that in addition to killing wildlife, the dogs attacked livestock and spread diseases like distemper virus, which affects only animals, and rabies, which affects both animals and humans.

According to a study published last year, up to 100 people die from rabies annually in Nepal. Singapore, in contrast, has been rabies- free since 1953.

Ms Ng's guide told her that free-ranging dogs were also a problem in central Nepal, around the Annapurna Conservation Area.

In 2014, Ms Ng decided to start the Himalayan Mutt Project with her guide, the first and only movement to neuter and vaccinate dogs in the Annapurna Conservation Area.

  • 100

    Number of people who die from rabies annually in Nepal. Singapore, in contrast, has been rabies-free since 1953.


    Number of dogs that the Himalayan Mutt Project has neutered and vaccinated to date. Another 100 have been vaccinated.

She and her team work together with Nepalese veterinarians to go around villages and convince villagers to round up free-roaming dogs and bring them in, along with their own, to be sterilised and vaccinated against rabies.

Their journeys last 16 days, and they hope to go yearly, though they could not go in 2015 because of the earthquake that struck the country.

Initially, they faced resistance from villagers, who feared their dogs would not survive sterilisation.

Ms Ng said: "You and I would not think twice about sending our pets to the vet, but these people had never before seen surgery being performed on an animal and its internal organs being removed."

Dogs are integral to the pastoral livelihood maintained by a majority of Himalayan communities.PHOTO: HIMALAYAN MUTT PROJECT

But they soon learnt it was very safe, and Ms Ng was soon able to continue the project. To date, the Himalayan Mutt Project has neutered and vaccinated 447 dogs, and vaccinated 100 more. That may not seem like a lot, till you consider that a female dog can give birth to four to six puppies, twice per year. Ms Ng said with about half of the dogs neutered being female, the project has prevented up to 5,500 puppies being born since 2014.

Furthermore, the number of culled dogs has dropped dramatically. In the first batch of villages visited in 2014, only 10 dogs were culled in the same year and none was culled last year.

The red panda is an endangered animal that lives in the Himalayas and south-western China. It gets attacked by free-roaming dogs in villages in Nepal that also kill livestock and other rare wild animals. PHOTO: LAURA JOYCE GADZIALA

Perhaps most importantly, her project has helped protect local communities and wildlife against rabies. Ms Ng said that sterilising and vaccinating dogs costs only about US$15 (S$20). In Singapore, the human rabies vaccinations cost around $450, while treating a human infected with rabies can start from around $3,000, a sum unaffordable to most villagers in one of the world's poorest countries.

But while the sterilisation process itself is not costly, reaching hundreds of dogs in mountainous villages is.

Ground-dwelling birds like the Himalayan snow cock seem to have fallen in number with the increase in the free-roaming dog population. PHOTOS: TASHI R. GHALE

Ms Ng said each trip costs US$20,000, with 35 per cent of the cost going to transportation and another about 40 per cent divided equally between the medicine and surgery, and staff salary. The rest goes to food and accommodation.

Ms Ng's largest challenge is fund-raising. "Investment in managing wildlife diseases is often left as a response rather than prevention. This is especially problematic when trying to protect species that are already rare," she said.

The pika is a small mammal that can be easily killed by free-roaming dogs. It is also vulnerable to the poison that villagers use to kill the dogs.PHOTOS: TASHI R. GHALE

"We have this perception that conservation is only about saving wildlife, and that is one of the main gaps that the Himalayan Mutt Project is trying to bridge. The wonderful thing about this project is that by taking care of the dogs, we take care of both people and animals."

Next month, she will go to the Himalayas again for another round of the project. And next year, she will conduct research into the diseases spread by dogs.

"This is a data-deficient field," Ms Ng said. "I want to look at the diseases present in Annapurna carried by dogs and how these dogs are moving throughout the landscape. By filling in the gaps about diseases, I hope to predict the kinds of diseases that emerge and help prevent them."

The Himalayan griffon vulture is a scavenger that can get poisoned by feeding on the carcasses of dogs killed by rat poison.PHOTOS: TASHI R. GHALE

Her goal, she said, is to help all the villages in the Annapurna Conservation Area, which total 57.

That will admittedly take some time, but Ms Ng is nothing if not determined. She founded the Singaporean marine conservation volunteer organisation, Hantu Blog, and volunteered with the National Parks Board and the World Wide Fund for Nature (Malaysia).

She is also pursuing her bachelor's degree in geography and zoology at the University of Tasmania.

One of the organisations funding the Himalayan Mutt Project is the Britain-based Rufford Foundation, which supports early-career scientists in developing countries that are undertaking nature conservation projects.

Its trust director Terry Kenny said he was "delighted to confirm" the charity provided Ms Ng with £5,000 (S$9,000) earlier this year. He said this was because "Debby is promoting safer alternatives to controlling dog populations in collaboration with local communities".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline Saving wildlife, dogs and people at the same time. Subscribe