Can stray dogs become a threat to our tigers?

Can stray dogs become a threat to our tigers?
Three days ago, when I was in the woods with the forest department searching for a missing tiger, we found a cow that was recently killed by another tiger. In the afternoon, four dogs came there following the smell of the new kill. Unsuspectingly, they approached the tiger sitting close to the kill, when the tiger got alert and charged upon the dogs who ran away. I was reminded of another incident, when six foxes had died due to a viral disease transmitted by stray dogs in the forest area which is located on the other side of the same tiger reserve. This makes one wonder if the same disease is a threat to the tigers too.

The disease is caused by a canine distemper virus (CDV) carried by stray dogs, and through half-eaten food and used water. It can be transmitted to other animals such as tiger, leopard, wolf and fox among others. Before even being detected, it can kill the wild animal and sometimes spread an epidemic as well. In 1994, a CDV outbreak killed nearly 30 per cent of Tanzania’s second biggest lion population. The same diseases soon spread in Masai Mara in Kenya and infected many other animals such as leopard and hyena. Such diseases not only affect wild regions where they can spread, but if unnoticed, can reach captive areas too. In a wildlife centre of California in the US, 17 different cats died because of this disease. Recently, news came from Russia about a tiger affected by CDV. This news has alarmed our country’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

All tiger reserve heads have got an alert from the NTCA to keep careful vigil in the area for DCV-infected animals and to start an immunisation programme for stray dogs. The letter has been translated in regional languages and written to the subordinate staff too. However, the subordinate-level staff has no idea of the meaning of CDV and how to deal with it. The spread of such a disease cannot be handled without planning, education and handy resources. The suggested approach may also become a Herculean task just like the pulse polio campaign of the country.

Wildlife experts have two different opinions about the spread of CDV in our forests. Some feel that it is a big threat which is growing with the population of dogs (which is further connected with human population) and is also connecting it with the fragmentation of the forest where the stray dog population will rise. Others feel that it is not a big problem since some diseases occur in wild animals naturally, and the population would rebound after the dip. It is possible that some day, we all reach the verge of extermination without having any solution. This could be the situation for our few tigers as well. All these are results of us humans manipulating the planet, and someday due to this ignorance, this can affect the human population too.

(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Ranthambore)

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