Before humans milked cows, herded goats or raised hogs, before they invented agriculture, or written language, before they had permanent homes, and most certainly before they had cats, they had dogs.
Or dogs had them, depending on how you view the human-canine arrangement. But scientists are still debating exactly when and where the ancient bond originated. And a large new study being run out of the University of Oxford here, with collaborators around the world, may soon provide some answers.
Scientists have come up with a broad picture of the origins of dogs. First off, researchers agree that they evolved from ancient wolves. Scientists once thought that some visionary hunter-gatherer nabbed a wolf puppy from its den one day and started raising tamer and tamer wolves, taking the first steps on the long road to leashes and flea collars. This is oversimplified, of course, but the essence of the idea is that people actively bred wolves to become dogs just the way they now breed dogs to be tiny or large, or to herd sheep.
The prevailing scientific opinion now, however, is that this origin story does not pass muster. Wolves are hard to tame, even as puppies, and many researchers find it much more plausible that dogs, in effect, invented themselves.
Imagine that some ancient wolves were slightly less timid around nomadic hunters and scavenged regularly from their kills and camps, and gradually evolved to become tamer and tamer, producing lots of offspring because of the relatively easy pickings. At some point, they became the tail-wagging beggar now celebrated as man’s best friend.
Some researchers question whether dogs experience feelings like love and loyalty, or whether their winning ways are just a matter of instincts that evolved because being a hanger-on is an easier way to make a living than running down elk. Raymond Coppinger, a professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College, noted in his landmark 2001 book, “Dogs,” that “best friend” is not an “ecological definition.” And he suggested that “the domestic house dog may have evolved into a parasite.”
Researchers also point out that of the estimated one billion dogs in the world, only a quarter of them are pets. The vast majority of dogs run free in villages, scavenge food at dumps, cadge the odd handout and cause tens of thousands of human deaths each year from rabies. They are sometimes friendly, but not really friends.
Modern dogs are different from modern wolves in numerous ways. They eat comfortably in the presence of people, whereas wolves do not. Their skulls are wider and snouts shorter. They do not live in pack structures when they are on their own, and so some scientists scoff at dog-training approaches that require the human to act as pack leader.
Wolves mate for the long haul and wolf dads help with the young, while dogs are completely promiscuous and the males pay no attention to their offspring. Still, dogs and wolves interbreed easily and some scientists are not convinced that the two are even different species, a skepticism that reflects broader debates in science about how to define a species, and how much the category is a fact of nature as opposed to an arbitrary line drawn by humans.
Tracing the Origins
If current divisions between species are murky, the past lies in deep darkness. Scientists generally agree that there is good evidence that dogs were domesticated around 15,000 years ago. By 14,000 years ago, people were burying dogs, sometimes along with humans. But some biologists argue, based on DNA evidence and the shape of ancient skulls, that dog domestication occurred well over 30,000 years ago.
And as to where the process occurred, researchers studying dog and wolf DNA — most of it modern but some from ancient sources — have argued in recent years that dogs originated in East Asia, Mongolia, Siberia, Europe and Africa.
One reason for the conflicting theories, according to Greger Larson, a biologist in the archaeology department at the University of Oxford, is that dog genetics are a mess. In an interview at his office here in November, he noted that most dog breeds were invented in the 19th century during a period of dog obsession that he called “the giant whirlwind blender of the European crazy Victorian dog-breeding frenzy.”
That blender, as well as random breeding by dogs themselves, and interbreeding with wolves at different times over at least the last 15,000 years, created a “tomato soup” of dog genetics, for which the ingredients are very hard to identify, Dr. Larson said.
The way to find the recipe, Dr. Larson is convinced, is to create a large database of ancient DNA to add to the soup of modern canine genetics. And with a colleague, Keith Dobney at the University of Aberdeen, he has persuaded the Who’s Who of dog researchers to joina broad project, with about $2.5 million in funding from the Natural Environment Research Council in England and the European Research Council, to analyze ancient bones and their DNA.
Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at U.C.L.A. who studies the origin of dogs and is part of the research, said, “There’s hardly a person working in canine genetics that’s not working on that project.”
That is something of a triumph, given the many competing theories in this field. “Almost every group has a different origination hypothesis,” he said.
But Dr. Larson has sold them all on the simple notion that the more data they have, the more cooperative the effort is, the better the answers are going to be. His personality has been crucial to promoting the team effort, said Dr. Wayne, who described Dr. Larson as “very outgoing, gregarious.” Also, Dr. Wayne added, “He has managed not to alienate anyone.”
Scientists at museums and universities who are part of the project are opening up their collections. So to gather data, Dr. Larson and his team at Oxford have traveled the world, collecting tiny samples of bone and measurements of teeth, jaws and occasionally nearly complete skulls from old and recent dogs, wolves and canids that could fall into either category. The collection phase is almost done, said Dr. Larson, who expects to end up with DNA from about 1,500 samples, and photographs and detailed measurements of several thousand.
Scientific papers will start to emerge in 2016 from the work, some originating in Oxford, and some from other institutions, all the work of many collaborators.
Dr. Larson is gambling that the project will be able to determine whether the domestication process occurred closer to 15,000 or 30,000 years ago, and in what region it took place. That’s not quite the date, GPS location and name of the ancient hunter that some dog lovers might hope for.
But it would be a major achievement in the world of canine science, and a landmark in the analysis of ancient DNA to show evolution, migrations and descent, much as studies of ancient hominid DNA have shown how ancient humans populated the globe and interbred with Neanderthals.
And why care about the domestication of dogs, beyond the obsessive interest so many people have in their pets? The emergence of dogs may have been a watershed.
“Maybe dog domestication on some level kicks off this whole change in the way that humans are involved and responding to and interacting with their environment,” he added. “I don’t think that’s outlandish.”
Shepherding the Research
Dr. Larson is no stranger to widely varying points of view. He is an American, but recently became a British citizen as well. His parents are American and he visited the United States often as a child, but he was born in Bahrain and grew up in Turkey and Japan, places where his parents were teaching in schools on American military bases.
He graduated from Claremont McKenna College in California and received his Ph.D. at Oxford. In between college and graduate studies, he spent a year searching for the bed of an ancient river in Turkmenistan, and another couple of years setting up an environmental consulting office in Azerbaijan. He had an interest in science as an undergraduate, and some background from a college major in environment, economics and politics, but no set career plans. Instead, his career grew out of intense curiosity, a knack for making friends and a willingness to jump at an opportunity, like the time he managed to tag along on an archaeological dig.
He was staying in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and a local man who had helped him rent an old Soviet truck to explore the desert told him some Westerners were arriving to go on a dig, so he wangled his way onto one of the trucks.
“I think everybody there thought I was with somebody else,” Dr. Larson said.
By the time the group stopped to rest and someone asked him who he was, it was too late to question whether he really belonged. “I was a complete stowaway,” he said.
But he could move dirt and speak Russian, and he had some recently acquired expertise — in college drinking games — that he said was in great demand at night. By luck, he said, the researchers on the dig turned out to be “the great and the good of British neolithic archaeology.” One of them was Chris Gosden, the chairman of European Archaeology at Oxford, who later invited him to do a one-year master’s degree in archaeology at Oxford. That eventually led to a doctoral program after he spent some time in graduate school in the United States.
The current project began when he became fed up with the lack of ancient DNA evidence in papers about the origin of dogs. He called Dr. Dobney, of the University of Aberdeen in 2011, and said, “We’re doing dogs.”
After receiving the grant from the council in England, he and Dr. Dobney organized a conference in Aberdeen, Scotland, to gather as many people involved in researching dog origins as they could. His pitch to the group was that despite their different points of view, everyone was interested in the best possible evidence, no matter where it led.
“If we have to eat crow, we eat crow,” he said. “It’s science.”
A 32,000-Year-Old Skull
Mietje Germonpré, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, is one of the many scientists participating in the dog project. She was one of a number of authors on a 2013 paper in Science that identified a skull about 32,000 years old from a Belgian cave in Goyet as an early dog. Dr. Wayne at U.C.L.A. was the senior author on the paper and Olaf Thalmann from the University of Turku in Finland was the first author.
It is typical of Dr. Larson’s dog project that although he disagreed with the findings of the paper, arguing that the evidence just wasn’t there to call the Goyet skull a dog, all of the authors of the paper are working on the larger project with him.
In November in Brussels, holding the priceless fossil, Dr. Germonpré pointed out the wide skull, crowded teeth and short snout of the ancient skull — all indicators to her that it was not a wolf.
“To me, it’s a dog,” she said. Studies of mitochondrial DNA, passed down from females only, also indicated the skull was not a wolf, according to the 2013 paper.
Dr. Germonpré said she thinks dogs were domesticated some time before this animal died, and she leans toward the idea that humans intentionally bred them from wolves.
She holds up another piece of evidence, a reconstruction of a 30,000-year-old canid skull found near Predmostí, in the Czech Republic, with a bone in its mouth. She reported in 2014 that this was a dog. And she says the bone is part of evidence the animal was buried with care. “We think it was deliberately put there,” she said.
But she recognizes these claims are controversial and is willing, like the rest of the world of canine science, to risk damage to the fossils themselves to get more information on not just the mitochondrial DNA but also the nuclear DNA.
To minimize that risk, she talked with Ardern Hulme-Beaman, a postdoctoral researcher with the Oxford team, about where to cut into it. He was nearing the end of months of traveling to Russia, Turkey, the United States and all over Europe to take samples of canid jaws and skulls.
He and Allowen Evin, now with the National Center for Scientific Research in Montpellier, France, also took many photographs of each jaw and skull to do geometric morphometrics. Software processes detailed photographs from every angle into 3-D recreations that provide much more information on the shape of a bone than length and width measurements.
Dr. Germonpré and Dr. Hulme-Beaman agreed on a spot in the interior of the skull to cut. In the laboratory, he used a small electric drill with a cutting blade to remove a chunk the size of a bit of chopped walnut. An acrid, burning smell indicated that organic material was intact within the bone — a good sign for the potential retrieval of DNA.
Back in Oxford, researchers will attempt to use the most current techniques to get as much DNA as possible out of the sample. There is no stretch of code that says “wolf” or “dog,” any more than there is a single skull feature that defines a category. What geneticists try to establish is how different the DNA of one animal is from another. Adding ancient DNA gives many more points of reference over a long time span.
Dr. Larson hopes that he and his collaborators will be able to identify a section of DNA in some ancient wolves that was passed on to more doglike descendants and eventually to modern dogs. And he hopes they will be able to identify changes in the skulls or jaws of those wolves that show shifts to more doglike shapes, helping to narrow the origins of domestication.
The usual assumption about domestic animals is that the process of taming and breeding them happened once. But that’s not necessarily so. Dr. Larson and Dr. Dobney showed that pigs were domesticated twice, once in Anatolia and once in China. The same could be true of dogs.
Only the Beginning
Although the gathering of old bones is almost done, Dr. Larson is still negotiating with Chinese researchers for samples from that part of the world, which he says are necessary. But he hopes they will come.
If all goes well, said Dr. Larson, the project will publish a flagship paper from all of the participants describing their general findings. And over the next couple of years, researchers, all using the common data, will continue to publish separate findings.
Other large collaborative efforts are brewing, as well. Dr. Wayne, at U.C.L.A., said that a group in China was forming with the goal of sequencing 10,000 dog genomes. He and Dr. Larson are part of that group.
Last fall, Dr. Larson was becoming more excited with each new bit of data, but not yet ready to tip his hand about what conclusions the data may warrant, or how significant they will be.
But he is growing increasingly confident that they will find what they want, and come close to settling the thorny question of when and where the tearing power of a wolf jaw first gave way to the persuasive force of a nudge from a dog’s cold nose.
“I’m starting to drink my own Kool-Aid,” he said.
For a place often associated with confinement, suffering and death, the city animal shelter in Manhattan was a pretty happy spot last Friday afternoon, at least in the backyard.
A half-dozen pit bull mixes chased one another across an asphalt run behind the shelter, a cinder-block bunker on East 110th Street in Harlem, dancing and wrestling in midair.
Elf, a brown-and-white dog, chest-bumped with Cupcake, who was sporting a purple collar. Cupcake leapt over Ezra. An “enrichment facilitator” stood by with a spray water bottle, in case her charges got too exuberant.
This was “puppy playgroup,” one of many programs begun since 2014 at the Animal Care Centers of NYC (formerly Animal Care and Control), the often-criticized nonprofit agency that runs New York City’s three animal shelters.
The changes have been yielding results, agency officials say.
Euthanasia rates dropped sharply in 2015, down 36 percent for dogs and 25 percent for cats, according to statistics the agency plans to release at its annual board meeting on Friday. Adoptions rose by 17 percent.
In 2003, the shelters killed more than 60 percent of the dogs and the cats they took in. That number is down to 13 percent now.
Still, last year, over 3,000 cats and nearly 1,000 dogs were put to death at the overcrowded shelters. And private rescue groups, which adopt more than half of the shelters’ animals, say that all too often, animals that are brought in healthy get sick and either die or saddle their rescuers with high veterinary bills.
Animal Care Centers “tries to do the right thing,” said Councilman Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat who is chairman of the Health Committee. “But they’re extremely underfunded and don’t have the right facilities.”
But there is fresh hope on that front, too: A design firm the city hired last year is scouting sites to build full-service shelters in the Bronx and Queens, something advocates, lawmakers and Animal Care Centers itself have long urged. The existing shelters, in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island, are also being upgraded or expanded.
Animal advocates and agency officials alike said new shelters could go far to alleviate overcrowding and check the spread of disease.
“We really welcome the day that those two shelters are built,” Risa Weinstock, the executive director of Animal Care Centers, said. “In the meantime we still have those challenges. But we’ve proved that we’re an organization worth investing in.”
Since 2007, the city has increased Animal Care Centers’ budget to about $13 million from $7 million.
The money had been put to use: new “mobile adoption centers” — vans from which more than 700 animals were adopted last year; a food pantry for pets in the Bronx; a behavioral staff of 22 that, among other things, runs the playgroups, which the shelter says improve the dogs’ immunity and make them more docile and adoptable when they return to their kennels. (Coming soon to the backyard run in Manhattan: artificial grass.)
The shelters had also added admissions counselors who, since 2014, have persuaded about 1,700 owners to keep their pets rather than surrender them by connecting the owners with medical grants, low-cost boarding or behavioral advice. So often, people come in and think that’s their only option.
The agency has worked on its image as well. Last year it changed its name, though it does not yet have the money to alter its signs.
Ms. Weinstock said she hoped the $5 million adoption center the city is planning to build beside the Manhattan shelter would have its entrance on 109th rather than 110th Street, to make it seem more separate from the shelter itself.
“We want the public to see us the way they see Animal Haven and A.S.P.C.A. — warm and friendly,” she said.
Warm and friendly can be tough to pull off when the agency must take every animal that is brought in — something Animal Care Centers’ contract with the city requires — and it does not have the room or the capability to treat them all.
“Caring for 35,000 animals is an impossible task,” Ms. Weinstock said.
In 2015, the shelters euthanized 15 percent of cats and 9 percent of dogs. (The shelters also take in hundreds of rabbits but do not euthanize any unless it is medically necessary.)
The daily “at-risk” lists that the agency puts out — candidates for euthanasia if not adopted by the next morning — often include animals who were listed as “normal” on an initial medical exam and as having “major conditions” days later. Upper respiratory infections like kennel cough spread quickly through the shelters and can easily turn into pneumonia.
“All the brand-new dogs and the sick dogs are traveling in the same hallway all the time,” said a volunteer at the shelter in East New York, Brooklyn, who declined to give her name for fear of losing her post. “If a dog has kennel cough and they’re in the adoptions room, sometimes it’s not recognized for a day or so.”
Doug Halsey, the president of one rescue group, Ready for Rescue, told the story of Muska, a tortoiseshell cat who was counted in Animal Care Centers’ statistics as an animal saved.
She entered the Manhattan shelter healthy in November and came down with a crippling upper respiratory infection the day after Ready for Rescue took her from the shelter, Mr. Halsey said. She died, but only after Ready for Rescue had run up $5,000 in veterinary bills.
“The euthanasia rate is down while rescues bear the burden of taking on all the sick and hard-to-adopt animals,” he said.
A letter Animal Care Centers sent to rescue groups last summer was matter-of-fact about the situation, noting that if an animal pulled from a shelter “is already sick or becomes sick and requires hospitalization, please understand that medical care of several thousand dollars can be expected.”
The stubbornness of contagion is one of the main reasons advocates are pinning their hopes on the new shelters.
“By building facilities in all the boroughs,” said Christopher Mancuso of Staten Island Hope Animal Rescue, which accepted 2,300 of Animal Care Centers’ 20,000 cats in 2015, “that will give them more space to isolate the sicker ones and the animals will come out of there healthier.”
The current city budget includes $1.4 million to start the siting process, and Christopher Miller, a spokesman for the health department, said a design firm had begun identifying possible sites and researching zoning and building requirements.
Councilman Paul Vallone, a Queens Democrat and the prime sponsor of a 2014 bill that would require the city to build the shelters, said he hoped the budget the mayor was expected to propose on Thursday would have money to begin construction. “If you don’t get the fiscal commitment you’re just creating another empty promise,” Mr. Vallone said.
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that finding sites for the buildings had to come first. She said the mayor, a Democrat, “has made a major commitment to creating new animal shelters in Queens and the Bronx.”
In the meantime, the animals keep coming. One Saturday afternoon this month, David Santiago led his two pit bulls into the Manhattan shelter. Then he left, alone. His landlord in the South Bronx, he explained, had told him he could not keep the dogs. They were 2 years old, and he had raised them from puppies.
“They’re like part of your family,” Mr. Santiago said. “The hardest part is that you know what happens to them if they don’t get adopted.”
by Maneka Gandhi
The police need to take animal abuse seriously. Every survey done by crime squads across the world shows that animal abuse is directly linked to domestic abuse and to violent crime. In January 2016, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) declared that it has reclassified animal abuse as a “Group A” felony in its National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).
This means that, in America, it will be a top-tier federal crime. In the past, animal abuse crimes have been listed under “Group B,” which includes writing bad checks and trespassing, in the category of “All Other Offenses,” which is an aggregate of minor crimes making cruelty hard to find, hard to count and hard to track. Under the new guidelines, however, abuse against animals will be treated as serious crimes, such as arson, kidnapping and homicide.
The change will make it easier to track and quantify animal abuse crimes. This move will achieve three things: reduce animal abuse by citizens, make municipal police change their attitude towards animal crime offenders – which, as with most police forces, is lax and not taken seriously – and also make it possible to catch animal abusers who cross from state to state. This will mean stronger accountability.
The new animal cruelty category includes four categories: simple or gross neglect, deliberate abuse and torture, organized abuse (e.g. dog fighting) and sexual abuse against an animal. The FBI has been collecting data for the last one year, from the National Sheriff’s Association and Animal Welfare Institute, of such offenders. Animal Cruelty statistics will be available publicly on their Uniform Crime Report from 2017 on their site. The FBI’s annual crime report is the primary source of information on criminal trends in the United States, so including crimes against animals formally recognizes the seriousness of animal abuse crimes and their negative impact on the welfare of society. Local police departments across the country will now submit their animal crime statistics to the FBI
Why has the FBI finally taken animal crime seriously? Because they have found what we all know, that young people who torture and kill animals are going to do the same to people if these tendencies are not checked. More than 80% of the people in jail for violent crimes started their careers by being vicious to animals. All serial killers fit into this category. The FBI now recognizes the importance of this data and the links between crimes against animals and crimes against humans. There is a link between animal crimes and domestic abuse, drug trafficking and other crimes. A new federal category for animal cruelty crimes will help root out those pet abusers before their behaviour worsens.
More than 18,000 city, college, county, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies participate in the FBI’s crime-reporting program. The FBI’s animal cruelty statistics will allow law enforcement agencies, policy makers, researchers and the public to better understand the factors associated with animal abuse and the characteristics of the offenders.
Unfortunately in India, animal crime is treated lightly because it has a Rs. 50 penal provision attached to it. But this punishment and fine was made in 1960 when Rs 50 was one tenth of an army officer’s pay. In 1960 were most animal crimes under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 made cognizable. However, over the years, even though the nature of crimes has become far more ubiquitous and serious, anti-crime agencies treat them lightly.
Our second and most serious problem, however, is the fact that there is no National Register of crimes at all. This is something my Ministry has been repeatedly asking for: for sexual offenders, murderers, arsonists, kidnappers to begin with. If we could get that on the road, we could – and should – add animal abusers to it.
Here are a few of the crimes that need to be taken seriously:
- People who rape animals. Recently three boys were admitted to a Delhi hospital with sores on their private parts which they incurred while raping lambs who had died from the violence.
- People who keep pet animals locked up the entire day. This is usually accompanied by starving them and making them turn vicious towards human beings.
- People who indulge in vicious group abuse like dog fighting, cattle racing, Jallikattu where biting the bull and throwing it to the ground is an important part.
- People who harass dog feeders, especially women.
- People who poison street animals or throw acid on them.
- People who intentionally run over street animals
- People who put puppies / kittens into sacks and then throw them somewhere else.
- People who go hunting for fun with guns and traps.
- People who make their underage children (often as young as four years old) work in slaughterhouses.
- People who film themselves hitting animals and then post it on the Net.
- People who tie fireworks to animals.
- People who set fire to forests.
- Animal breeders who misuse and abuse their animals. This also applies to pet shop owners.
- People who are cruel to animals in their animal based industries: poultry, piggeries, dairies.
- People who hoard animals. These are not criminals. They are very sick and need to be dealt with by psychiatrists.
- People who test on animals without sanctions.
- People who use animals for entertainment: circuses, for instance, have been found to poach animals and then sell them when they have been beaten and starved beyond repair.
They also use kidnapped children and women and have been found to rape the women into submission and beat the children into performing dangerous acts.
Persons who choose to consistently release their aggression by harming defenceless animals are the lowest scum in society, and hopefully there is a special place in hell reserved for these individuals.
by Goodwell Nzou
My mind was absorbed by the biochemistry of gene editing when the text messages and Facebook posts distracted me.
So sorry about Cecil.
Did Cecil live near your place in Zimbabwe?
Cecil who? I wondered. When I turned on the news and discovered that the messages were about a lion killed by an American dentist, the village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One lion fewer to menace families like mine.
My excitement was doused when I realized that the lion killer was being painted as the villain. I faced the starkest cultural contradiction I’d experienced during my five years studying in the United States.
Did all those Americans signing petitions understand that lions actually kill people? That all the talk about Cecil being “beloved” or a “local favorite” was media hype? Did Jimmy Kimmel choke upbecause Cecil was murdered or because he confused him with Simba from “The Lion King”?
In my village in Zimbabwe, surrounded by wildlife conservation areas, no lion has ever been beloved, or granted an affectionate nickname. They are objects of terror.
When I was 9 years old, a solitary lion prowled villages near my home. After it killed a few chickens, some goats and finally a cow, we were warned to walk to school in groups and stop playing outside. My sisters no longer went alone to the river to collect water or wash dishes; my mother waited for my father and older brothers, armed with machetes, axes and spears, to escort her into the bush to collect firewood.
A week later, my mother gathered me with nine of my siblings to explain that her uncle had been attacked but escaped with nothing more than an injured leg. The lion sucked the life out of the village: No one socialized by fires at night; no one dared stroll over to a neighbor’s homestead.
When the lion was finally killed, no one cared whether its murderer was a local person or a white trophy hunter, whether it was poached or killed legally. We danced and sang about the vanquishing of the fearsome beast and our escape from serious harm.
Recently, a 14-year-old boy in a village not far from mine wasn’t so lucky. Sleeping in his family’s fields, as villagers do to protect crops from the hippos, buffalo and elephants that trample them, he was mauled by a lion and died.
The killing of Cecil hasn’t garnered much more sympathy from urban Zimbabweans, although they live with no such danger. Few have ever seen a lion, since game drives are a luxury residents of a country with an average monthly income below $150 cannot afford.
Don’t misunderstand me: For Zimbabweans, wild animals have near-mystical significance. We belong to clans, and each clan claims an animal totem as its mythological ancestor. Mine is Nzou, elephant, and by tradition, I can’t eat elephant meat; it would be akin to eating a relative’s flesh. But our respect for these animals has never kept us from hunting them or allowing them to be hunted. (I’m familiar with dangerous animals; I lost my right leg to a snakebite when I was 11.)
The American tendency to romanticize animals that have been given actual names and to jump onto a hashtag train has turned an ordinary situation — there were 800 lions legally killed over a decade by well-heeled foreigners who shelled out serious money to prove their prowess — into what seems to my Zimbabwean eyes an absurdist circus.
PETA is calling for the hunter to be hanged. Zimbabwean politicians are accusing the United States of staging Cecil’s killing as a “ploy” to make our country look bad. And Americans who can’t find Zimbabwe on a map are applauding the nation’s demand for the extradition of the dentist, unaware that a baby elephant was reportedly slaughtered for our president’s most recent birthday banquet.
We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.
Don’t tell us what to do with our animals when you allowed your own mountain lions to be hunted to near extinction in the eastern United States. Don’t bemoan the clear-cutting of our forests when you turned yours into concrete jungles.
And please, don’t offer me condolences about Cecil unless you’re also willing to offer me condolences for villagers killed or left hungry by his brethren, by political violence, or by hunger.
Think of all the dogs out there: labradors and poodles and labradoodles; huskies and westies and dogues de Bordeaux; pit bulls and spaniels and lovable mutts that go to doggy day care.
Add them up, all the pet dogs on the planet, and you get about 250 million.
But there are about a billion dogs on Earth, according to some estimates. The other 750 million don’t have flea collars. And they certainly don’t have humans who take them for walks and pick up their feces. They are called village dogs, street dogs and free-breeding dogs, among other things, and they haunt the garbage dumps and neighborhoods of most of the world.
In their new book, “What Is a Dog?,” Raymond and Lorna Coppinger argue that if you really want to understand the nature of dogs, you need to know these other animals. The vast majority are not strays or lost pets, the Coppingers say, but rather superbly adapted scavengers — the closest living things to the dogs that first emerged thousands of years ago.
Other scientists disagree about the genetics of the dogs, but acknowledge that three-quarters of a billion dogs are well worth studying.
The Coppingers have been major figures in canine science for decades. Raymond Coppinger was one of the founding professors at Hampshire College in Amherst, and he and Lorna, a biologist and science writer, have done groundbreaking work on sled dogs, herding dogs, sheep-guarding dogs, and the origin and evolution of dogs.
“We’ve done everything together,” he said recently as they sat on the porch of the house they built, set on about 100 acres of land, and talked at length about dogs, village and otherwise, and the roots of their deep interest in the animals.
Both had dogs as children. Lorna had several kinds. An uncle brought Ray his first dog, a pup from a female that hung around a loading ramp at a chemical plant in Cambridge, Mass. “He lived to be 17 — he looked like any other village dog in the world,” he said. After they graduated from Boston University, where they were both undergraduates in the late 1950s, they continued to keep them.
“I gave her a dog for a graduation present,” he said. It was reputedly a collie-shepherd mix.
After they both graduated, they moved to the Amherst area, where Lorna taught Russian and received a master’s degree in wildlife biology and Ray pursued a Ph.D. in zoology, both at the University of Massachusetts. They did field studies together, but on different subjects, and then dove deeply into the canine world.
A neighbor raced sled dogs, and one thing led to another until Dr. Coppinger started racing them himself and they had a hundred dogs housed in cement dens on a hill behind his house. In 1969, he joined Hampshire College as part of the founding faculty, and continued researching energy expenditure in the dogs. He also developed a winning strain by hybridizing Alaskan village dogs with Border collies.
For the first time in their lives together, the Coppingers are now without any dogs at home, and they talk with some nostalgia, more about the bad dogs than the good. Like Jane.
“Worst dog I ever had,” Dr. Coppinger said. “I could tell you a thousand bad stories about Jane.”
“But,” he said, “put her on a mountain pass behind 3,000 sheep, and she’d worry them all the way up the mountain and pick up the strays and everything.”
They don’t miss having dogs by the score, but Ms. Coppinger said, “I miss the pet dogs.” The last, who died in 2013, was Poppyseed Shackleton, a Jack Russell terrier who belonged to their grandchildren, but lived with them.
One benefit, however, is that they are enjoying observing a flood of wildlife that avoided their land when so many dogs were around — vultures, foxes, deer and other animals.
In the early 1970s, they began studying sheep-guarding dogs and traveled around the world finding dogs that sheep herders used. They brought some home and helped develop the Anatolian shepherd breed in the United States, and started a livestock guarding-dog project at Hampshire to study how effective dogs were in protecting sheep and other livestock.
In 2001, their book “Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution” challenged the way scientists thought about the beginnings of dogs.
They argued against the widely held view that one day a hunter-gatherer grabbed a wolf pup from a den and started a breeding program. Instead, they argued, dogs domesticated themselves.
Some wild canines started hanging around humans for their leftovers and gradually evolved into scavengers dependent on humans. Not everyone in canine science shares that view today, but many researchers think it is the most plausible route to domestication.
During their travels over the years — to look for sheepdogs, to introduce them to sheep farmers who hadn’t used dogs, to attend conferences — they noticed dogs in the street wherever they went, and after a while they began to think about the dogs’ lives.
“They were so much more interesting than what we’d ever done before,” Dr. Coppinger said. “Here were animals that had their own unique kind of social behaviors. So we started to study them.”
That was in the early 1990s. He worked with Luigi Boitani of La Sapienza University of Rome, who was studying urban dogs that lived off garbage. “I taught classes in the Mexico City dump,” Dr. Coppinger said. And the Coppingers continued to observe village dogs around the world.
They argue in their new book that these dogs “are not mongrels or strays,” as is often assumed. Some lost pets do wander into groups of village dogs. But by and large, these dogs are much the same around the world, whether in Africa, Mongolia, China or the Americas.
Dr. Coppinger said he was once told by a Navajo sheep herder that a good herding dog was “not too big and not too small,” which perfectly describes village dogs, too. They are larger in colder climates, but in the tropics, he said, a 30-pound, lion-colored dog is the norm.
They are completely polygamous. “There can be as many fathers to a litter of puppies as there are puppies to a litter,” Dr. Coppinger said. And after about 10 weeks, the puppies fend for themselves. Most of the pups don’t survive, as is the case with many wild animals.
They have remarkably varied connections to human beings. Some live completely on their own at dumps. Some are neighborhood dogs, recognized and perhaps given handouts by people who live in a certain area. Others may feed and breed on their own, but spend nights at the homes of people. Sometimes they are adopted by people. But really, Dr. Coppinger says, it is the dogs who adopt humans.
The number of dogs that can survive in a city or a neighborhood or at a dump is determined by the available garbage. The Coppingers calculated that in the tropics it takes about 100 people to produce enough garbage to support seven free-living dogs.
There is precious little funding for studying these dogs, except in the context of preventing rabies, which is an enormous problem, with close to60,000 human deaths a year, mostly from dog bites. But some scientists have tracked their behavior. Sunil K. Pal in India has studied them and written a number of papers on their social lives and behavior.
Why Wolves Aren’t Dogs
The Coppingers were joined for the recent conversation at their home by Kathryn Lord, a former student of Dr. Coppinger and now a researcher at Hampshire College, who studies the development and reproductive behavior of dogs, including village dogs. She shared her insights on what makes a dog a dog, and not a wolf, for example. Wolf puppies depend on their parents and other adults regurgitating partly digested food.
“This is all but lost in dogs,” she said. It does happen, but reports suggest that in village dogs it may occur several times a week.
Among wolves in the wild, she said, “it’s seven times a day,” and it is an uncontrollable reflex. In one experiment, she tried testing adult wolves by putting them into a pen with unrelated pups after a big steak meal.
“They’d actually run around with their heads in the air to avoid the puppies,” she said. “Eventually they’d lose their lunch.” At which point they would run off and let the youngsters have at it.
The point the Coppingers and Dr. Lord make about these behaviors is not that dogs are somehow less caring or noble than wolves, but how perfectly adapted they are to the lives they lead.
They don’t need to be big and strong to bring down prey. They don’t need the kind of parental care and hunting instruction that wolf pups get. As Dr. Lord said, dog pups don’t need to catch and kill anything. “They need to walk up to a rotten melon and eat it, which they can do at 10 weeks.”
Puppies, after they are weaned, cannot compete with adults, so unless disease or dogcatchers have put a dent in the adult population, most of them starve. They have a true superpower in reserve, however, that can help them escape their fate. They can convince a human to feed them.
Dr. Coppinger recalled a woman in South Africa who had many dogs in and around her house. He asked her how it happened that she had so many dogs. “I don’t know,” he recalled the woman saying. “They just keep coming.”
But what are village dogs? Are they a breed, or a superbreed apart? Or are they just a mixture of many breeds with origins too messy to trace?
Adam Boyko, a biologist at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, who was inspired to pursue canine science by the Coppingers’ 2001 book, has also compiled DNA from village dogs around the world. One of his research papers concluded that village dogs in Mongolia are at the center of dog diversity. That suggests that they are geographically nearest to the place where dogs first evolved.
Other evidence has suggested that dogs originated in Europe or China, however, and Dr. Boyko is one of a number of participants in a major study being led by Greger Larson at Oxford to use ancient DNA and fossils to clear up some of the confusion about the origins of dogs.
And other village dogs seem to have different genetic makeup. For example, Dr. Boyko and his colleagues analyzed DNA samples from village dogs on remote islands in Fiji and French Polynesia that he hoped would show a historical pattern of migration as people and their dogs moved from place to place.
“Almost without exception the dogs were 99 percent European,” he said, meaning their ancestors were dogs on European ships that came to Pacific islands ages ago. Dogs in other places, like Borneo, he said, show almost no trace of European breeds.
In a study published last fall, Wieslaw Bogdanowicz at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw led an international team of scientists in analyzing the DNA of free-breeding dogs in Eurasia. He concluded that these dogs were different from purebreds and mixed breeds.
“I would like to call them a superbreed,” he said.
He also found that modern European street dogs trace their ancestry to East Asian dogs that migrated with humans to Europe. Earlier studies place that migration sometime between 4,000 and 11,000 years ago.
Beyond that, however, lies the ultimate origin of dogs, which is still clouded in mystery. The consensus among scientists is that dogs evolved from ancient wolves, perhaps ones not found in the fossil record, 15,000 or more years ago.
Dr. Coppinger has suggested that dogs evolved after the invention of agriculture, perhaps around 8,000 years ago, and that today’s village dogs are the closest to these first dogs. But this idea has little support from other scientists.
The Coppingers’ main goal is to draw attention to the world’s vast majority of dogs that are hidden in plain sight. They represent a treasure trove of scientific information.
Although the Coppingers recognize the social cost of animals that are unvaccinated and running free, they argue that killing the dogs, as some countries do during rabies epidemics, does not help. It’s impossible to kill them all, and because they breed rapidly, the population quickly rebounds.
Nor do the Coppingers have any sympathy for rescue groups that, as Dr. Coppinger puts it, “kidnap and mutilate” street dogs from the Caribbean and elsewhere to bring them to American shelters to live as pets, “where they are made totally dependent and entirely restricted.” This is supposed to benefit the dogs, but Dr. Coppinger argues that they are taken from a rich social environment, with many dogs, to lives of relative isolation.
What to do? The Coppingers suggest a simple answer. One way or another village dogs depend on garbage. If society wants fewer dogs in the street, there’s a surefire solution.
by Maneka Gandhi
I have a vegetable garden. The monkeys take my brinjals, the parakeets take the chillies, the moles take the cauliflower, leaf curl gets my tomatoes, and squirrels come for some seeds. I get the mint, dhaniya and the different saags. But over the last one year I have been dealing with different ways in which to get a more equitable share of the vegetables, and some of these work. For instance, we discovered that monkeys only eat the round brinjals so now we plant only the long ones. (However, the probable truth is, that we feed the monkeys every morning with two chappatis and a banana and then they go away)
You can keep animals out of your farm and garden without resorting to traps, guns and poisons. Let’s start with the farm first. I had written about this earlier but here are some more ideas :
In Saswad near Pune they are experimenting with machines, on the perimeters, that use motion sensors which can detect the presence of a wild animal. Once the sensors detect the presence of a wild animal, the gadgets set off flashers with bright lights or loud sounds, which drive the animal away from the field.
Farmers in Tamil Nadu use second-hand fishnets as fences. They are not expensive, look like metal and so deter both boar and gaur. They buy the fishnets in Gudalur for Rs.80 a kg. Monkeys stay away because they are scared of being caught in the net.
Rotten eggs, mixed with water, also works in some areas. Some farmers burn sticks dipped in phenyl.
Burning dung with half a kilo of chillies is being done by farmers in Himachal Pradesh, who have found the method effective in keeping away wild boar. Demonstrations in Odisha, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh shows it works even better in keeping away elephants. The simplest method consists of planting a wide row of chilli peppers around cultivated fields and gardens.
However, according to all scientists, animals, especially deer /gaur etc. only come into the farms during the dry season. If the farmers dug water holes in the forests and planted fruit/berry trees and bushes they would not come out at all.
In Benares, fences are being made with reels of audiotape that are wrapped round bamboo stands. Other farmers use reflective ribbons.
Here are the garden ideas:
Vegetables should be planted on raised beds. Small animals, like squirrels, moles, rats, are reluctant to get on to raised beds as they avoid areas that make them visible. Make the paths between the beds very narrow so that they feel they cannot hide there.
Coffee grounds add nitrogen to the soil and keep slugs and snails away. It is also good as a base when you grow radishes, peppers, potatoes. Soak a couple of packets of chewing tobacco in a bucket full of water.
Let this sit overnight and next day spray it all over the garden. The snails run. Mint, sage, parsley and lemon balm will also keep slugs and snails away; and so will small bunches of human hair kept in different places in the garden. Dog and cat hair will also do.
Corn can be protected by interplanting pumpkins or gourds and cucumbers.
Aphids are small insects that suck the sap from plants, resulting in leaf curl or yellowing. They feed in clusters on new plant growth. Neem oil should be sprayed onto plants infested with aphids. Place aluminium foil at the base of your plants. The foil reflects light onto the undersides of the leaves, which scares away aphids. Sunflowers are hardy and a trap crop for aphids and other pests.
Neem oil also controls funguses. A solution of several teaspoons of Baking Soda dissolved in water can help prevent and treat fungus and powdery mildew on plants. Use as a preventative and acute treatment as needed. Chilly plants that are showing leaf curl should be sprayed with diluted curd or buttermilk.
Growing garlic and onions in between aphid-prone plants is another way to keep them away. Or bring in ladybirds who are natural aphid eaters. Growing coriander and marigold attracts ladybirds. In fact interplanting any of these, and chives and lavender, keeps most animals at bay.
It’s difficult to detect rats or to get rid of them. I just notice those huge holes in the vegetable patches and my heart sinks.
But lavender, marigold and mint keep them away as they really hate these. In fact if you spray peppermint oil, or soak cotton in it and put it all over the garden, they will stay away.
Squirrels like freshly planted seedbeds. They also like beans, cucumbers and eggplants. To keep them away, mix 1/3 cup flower, 2 tablespoons red chilli powder and two tablespoons powdered mustard and sprinkle around the garden. If you want to spray it, add 4 cups of water and some vinegar.
Even just sprinkling vegetables with pepper will deter monkeys from eating them.
Using mulch, which includes straw and small bits of wood bark, between the vegetables not just regulates the soil temperature but it deters animals who don’t like walking over it.
Place a few stout sticks near the vegetables you want protected from monkeys. They have an aversion to sticks (as we all do).
Make sealed small packets with boneless dry fish pieces and keep around the field. After opening the packets monkeys rub the fish with both hands. They hate the smell and constantly rub their hands on rocks till they bleed. They don’t come back after that.
Adilabad farmers use colour and sound. They use cheap coloured saris to fence fields, and empty liquor bottles and large tin cans to create unnatural sounds that spook the fauna.
Killing Of Animals That Destroy Crops Can Not Be Justified
I have never seen a wild boar. I see Nilgais sometimes, magnificent tall blue-grey creatures, in small herds on the edges of small copses. Both these animals are used as bogeys. They are supposed to be destroying all the crops. They are the main reasons for our lack of food etc. Some politicians go up and down ministries trying to get governments to order these animals to be killed in the name of farmers’ demands. Some state governments have obliged. In fact our Environment Minister was so eager to be “compassionate” to farmers that he wrote a hasty, unthinking letter to the state governments asking them to list all the animals and birds – including elephants and blackbucks – who should be shot, for the good of farmers. Thankfully wiser sense in the states prevailed and he got no answers and a barrage of criticism from the media.
I am bemused by these so called demands through the mouths of politicians. Even when some state governments allow the nilgai and the wild boar to be killed, they are never shot by their supposed victims, the suffering crop growers. They are killed by tourists who pay for the sport of killing wild boar. They are killed by the rich, illegal hunting ex-maharaja types, the lafanga children of property dealers who like dog fighting and making bonfires at night where they drink , roast and eat the meat of wild boar. They are killed as sport by the same people who go on secret weekend killing trips like the Nawab of Pataudi who used to chase blackbuck, shoot at their legs and then slit the throat of the wounded animals. His son Saif Ali Khan was caught doing the same thing. Recently there was a picture in the newspaper of an MLA standing proudly by the dead body of a beautiful nilgai, claiming that he had shot her as social service. It drew nothing but outrage from his own farmers.
So, let me say here , that I simply don’t believe that farmers want either the boar or the nilgai killed. This is simply a convenient excuse for hunters to be able to carry on their dastardly sport. However, there should be a way to keep nilgai and other wild animals, who are being driven out of their forests by the forest department repeatedly setting the undergrowth on fire during January/February in order to hide their own cutting of trees, out of the fields. Recently the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department had a seminar on how to manage / minimize crop damage by wild animals. The professional hunters, retired wildlife bureaucrats and the local DFOs, of course demanded killing. Strangely a number of “nawabs” attended the conference (one of them is the “ chief killing officer, Government of Bihar) and predictably wanted slaughter.
But the villagers and the wildlife activists, who attended, had so many interesting suggestions based on their traditional knowledge that I thought you might like to hear them and perhaps pass them on :
- The Hyderabad agricultural scientist has invented a bio-acoustic machine which keeps wild animals away from the fields. The machine is solar powered and simply amplifies the recorded calls of predators such as tigers (even dogs will do) . This machine is being used in the Beijjur panchayat area of Adilabad, Telengana and farmers report that it has been very successful in keeping away animals that would have attacked the maize crops. It costs Rs 25,000 but pays for itself within the year. Similar acoustic repellents can be used.
- Using the urine or faeces of tigers, or other carnivores, always works to repel herbivores. (The problem would be – how does one get tiger urine!)
- Interspersing maize with chillies or burning chillies around the field keeps elephants away. Honey bee keeping on the periphery of the fields also scares them away.
- Planting Lachhka and barseem (alfalfa) as a buffer crop reduces crop raiding by blackbucks.
- Mixing the leaves of sitafal (sharifa), Besharam (Ipomoea carnea), cow urine and neem and spraying them over crops, stops animals from eating the crop even if they enter the field.
- Trained guard dogs. In their absence dog faeces can be spread on the edges of each field.
- Fencing with medicinal plants.
1) Milk thistle (Silbum marianum) not eaten by animals, and of high medicinal value, can be sold for a lot of money every few months.
2) Guggal : almost extinct in India but can be brought in from Pakistan. Makes good fences against animals and can be sold in a few years for medicine.
3) Sagargora / Bagad / Gataran / Nirgundi are thorny medicinal plants which form impenetrable barriers on the edges of farmland. The thorns are so dense that birds cannot pass through and there is a high demand for them medicinally. Other plants are opuntia, thuar, rambans, prosopis, ratanjot, castor. Other suggestions were barbed wire meshing, chain link fencing, mildly electrified fences, trenches, digging pits. These have been tried – especially in Haryana and Orissa – and have led to the killing of large numbers of animals.
It is amazing that no agricultural university scientists have been involved in finding solutions. There is no mention of crop damage by animals in the National Agricultural Policy. No traditional knowledge has been used or even asked for. And there is a complete lack of data of the actual loss of crops due to wildlife. Of course, the only permanent way is to rejuvenate the degraded small forests and to stop people from cutting trees illegally and burning them. Also, to forbid the forest department from setting any fires and suspend any local DFO in whose areas fires break out. Each agricultural area has to be told to plant at least 5 lakh trees a year, adjoining and in the middle of existing copses. Only then will the animals stay in their designated areas and leave us in ours. If we do not nurture the traditional tolerance of the farmer communities towards wildlife there is little that we city dwellers can do to protect any animals.
Scant attention is paid in Pakistan to subjects like environmental protection, water pricing, minority rights and wildlife conservation and even less to furthering literacy and planned parenthood. Wildlife in Pakistan is being decimated because of two reasons.
First, there is insufficient state regulation, leading to a near failure to punish those who violate the law and conventions.
Second, wildlife habitats have shrunk massively because of more cultivation and the building of roads and human settlements.
Till a few decades ago, there was an abundance of grey, black, and chikor partridges on the outskirts most of the country’s towns and villages. The hog deer, barking deer, goral, chinkara and urial were found in all provinces. Jackals, iguanas, mongoose were endemic even on the fringes of the cities. Fifty years ago, up to ten million water fowl and ducks would arrive in the subcontinent before the winter and there was no shortage of graylag, bar headed and snow geese and a variety of cranes, swans, flamingos, snipes and curlews.
Now, there are times when the total influx of migrating birds is less than 500,000. The hilly regions one boasted of plenty of chir, koklas and the western tragopan pheasants and the woodcock was a regular visitor. While the geese, ducks and houbara bustards get temporary relief because they migrate to cooler climes in springtime, the domestic species like the para, fox, chinkara, urial and partridge face an uncertain future. Even the jackals, mongoose and iguanas are threatened.
Hardly anyone is effectively punished for violating wildlife laws. Partridges and ducks are shot in the hundreds during every trip of our hunters, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan. As soon as ducks and cranes arrive from the Kurram and other flyways, they are subjected to merciless fire and netting. The fishing contractors in all barrages earn millions for trapping ducks. A pair of mallards sells for only Rs1,500. Last year, in the Kaghan valley, 110 kilogrammes of trout were caught by a team of local and refugee shepherds in one day using massive nets. Every Arab hunting party catches between 1,000 and 2,000 houbara bustards during a single visit; their facilitators benefit financially as well.
With the hunting season having just ended, here are a few suggestions for the Wildlife Action Plan. There should be no construction on state forest area, land on the banks of rivers and floodwater escape areas. Private land, including agricultural fields, should be earmarked for wildlife protection and the landowners should be allowed to sell wildlife permits themselves, as is done in community game reserves.
By law, one third of the land allocated to armed forces personnel on the Indian border should not be denuded of natural vegetation for the cultivating crops. This land should be reserved for forest cover to provide sanctuaries and breeding ground for hog deer, chital, jackals, iguanas, neel gai, wolves, otters, foxes and birds like peacocks and partridges. The wildlife permit fees should be collected by the owners, while the Rangers should continue to allot permits.
The Trophy Hunting Program introduced in 1993 in Gilgit-Baltistan has been a great success. This needs to be expanded to include mahseer and other river fish, as well as private game farms. The money should be paid to the local people of the area.
Offences against wildlife and fish should preferably be tried by honorary magistrates, who could be retired senior officers of the defence and civil services and other prominent people.
Hunters today kill hundreds of birds in Sindh and Balochistan. The number of birds shot in game reserves should be limited to between six and ten per gun.
Game breeding farms should be kept tax exempt and incentivised through grants on the lease of state land. In Europe, such farms breed tens of thousands of partridges, grouse and pheasants.
The hunting of cranes, using nets and lassos, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Bal0chistan needs to be regulated, reduced and then eliminated.
Tens of thousands of quails, sparrows, parrots and other small birds are netted and sold in all our cities. Why does the district administration not net these netters? Similarly, the pythons of Bhimber and the desert snakes need protection from poachers.
The Indus dolphin requires more than lip service to thrive; the main culprits are licensed fishermen.
Water fowl hunting season must end by mid-February, because after that a great majority of the ducks that are shot are female, with the males having left earlier to build their nests. Every female duck killed means 12 less ducklings the next year.
What Can You Do Help the Poor Bustard?
- Designate well-protected core breeding areas, where the bustards’ ecological needs are factored in with low-intensity livelihood concerns
- Enlist support of local communities and all the relevant departments
- Conserve grasslands. Curtail detrimental infrastructure and other projects in GIB priority areas.
- Policy changes regarding land use and prioritisation of ‘Bustard-friendly grazing’ and cropping policies
- Controlling feral dog populations in and around critical GIB areas
Sometime in September, a farmer in Karamba village of Solapur, Maharashtra, India, was grazing his cattle when he noticed a large, severely injured bird on the ground, its wings singed. Hovering by, waiting for death to strike, were a few feral dogs. As he edged closer, he saw a black mobile-like device on the prone creature. He knew the bird, a frequent visitor to his fields from the adjacent Nanaj sanctuary, and immediately informed the forest department.
Within minutes, a rescue team reached the spot, gathered the inert bird and rushed it to the veterinary hospital in Solapur. But it was too late. ‘Alpha’ was dead.
Who was Alpha, and why such a hullabaloo about a bird?
Alpha was the rarest of the rare—a Great Indian Bustard, that unfortunate bird usurped of the National Bird status by the glamorous peacock as babus fretted that ‘bustard’ would be likely misspelt, causing considerable embarrassment. The GIB, as it is commonly referred to, is listed as ‘critically endangered’ with a global population of just about 150, almost exclusively in India.
Once found in the dry bush and grassland sweeping across the Indian subcontinent from Pakistan in the west up to West Bengal in the east, and Tamil Nadu in the south, it has now been wiped out from 97 percent of its range—even in sanctuaries created for its protection, like Gaga-Bhatiya in Gujarat, Ranebennur in Karnataka, Sorsan in Rajasthan, Son Chiriya (Karera) and Ghatigaon in Madhya Pradesh. Its two most viable populations are in and around the Desert National Park in Rajasthan, which has about 100 birds, while Naliya in Kutch counts about 30. The rest are sparsely scattered in a few other pockets in erstwhile Andhra, Maharashtra and Karnataka.
Alpha was special. As his name suggests, he was a dominant male, ‘productive’ and had successfully mated this April. In fact, so enthusiastic was he that the devoted forest staff nicknamed him ‘Vicky Donor’. Alpha was one among the three male GIBs in Maharashtra, besides the odd transient ones. The other male was younger, and imaginatively called ‘Chotu’. Both had been tagged by wildlife researchers, to understand the mystery that surrounds the birds, like where they migrate to during the non-breeding seasons.
Interestingly, Chotu, who was fitted with a GPS transmitter in April 2015, revealed the great distances these birds fly, and the large areas they use. As the monsoon commenced and the breeding season set in, Alpha drove Chotu out of Nanaj, propelling his journey across the landscape. Chotu was to fly over 1,200 km, across districts, and to the Karnataka border, in the three months he was monitored.
Now, Alpha is dead, electrocuted by naked power cables. The same morning Alpha got tangled, he was seen displaying, strutting his feathers, in a bid to impress the ladies. He then took wing, flying for about 15 km around Nanaj before he hit a power transmission line. The post-mortem indicated charring due to electric line collusion.
GIBs are tall, standing up to four feet, and being amongst the heaviest of flying birds, fly at low heights. Coupled with their relatively small binocular field, they are more prone to such collisions. In the past decade, six GIBs have died as a consequence of collision or electrocution by electric lines. Alpha is the seventh.
With so few remaining, the loss of every bird is catastrophic, pushing the species closer to the brink. It’s imperative that transmission lines in and around at least 10 km of bustard areas be removed and replaced with underground cables. Transmission lines, though, are just one among a motley bunch of threats.
Historically, widespread hunting for sport and food accelerated by vehicular access to hitherto remote areas, precipitated the bustard’s decline.
The rampant hunting is indicated by records in The Oriental Sports Magazine—one Robert Mansfield bagged no less than 961 GIBs in Ahmednagar district, where none exist now. Poaching appears to be a serious threat in Pakistan’s Cholistan desert—birds fly across the two countries, irrespective of hostile borders, and Pakistan has a small resident or transient population. According to a report, 49 of the 63 GIBs sighted in four years between 2001-04, were hunted.
But the key cause of the near-extinction is the steady annihilation of its habitat, grasslands, a vital, vibrant ecosystem harbouring rare and endemic wildlife such as wolves, caracals, blackbucks, rhinos, pygmy hogs and, of course, bustards.
Yet, grasslands and deserts are the most neglected ecosystems, as per a report of the Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts appointed by the Planning Commission. Officially, in what’s quite a travesty, grasslands are designated as wastelands; and therefore degraded, diverted, destroyed for real estate, industry, roads, mining, canals, agriculture. ‘Greening’ deserts by planting exotic trees, and well-intended schemes like the Indira Gandhi Canal in the Thar, change the ecology of the region, rendering them hostile for its xeric biodiversity.
Pesticides and changing crop patterns—a shift to mechanised farming and cash crops—have taken a toll too. Bustards are ground nesting birds, and hence very vulnerable to predators, and any other disturbance. A relatively new threat comes in the form of wind farms, which have taken over swathes of bustard habitat in both the Thar and Kutch, further crunching its nesting areas, besides causing bird mortality. Renewable energy is critical in an era of climate change, but its placement must undergo scrutiny for biodiversity impacts.
It is almost too late for the Great Indian Bustard. Alpha’s death serves as a grim reminder of the extreme vulnerability of the species. Many fear an imminent extinction. Were this tragedy to occur, the GIB would be the first species in the history of India to have been allowed to go extinct. For it could go the way of the baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, a species as old as 25 million years, which became extinct in 2002.
In the seminal work, Witness to Extinction, author Samuel Turvey writes, “All that’s left on stage are the commemorative baiji statues. As for the baiji itself, it looks like it is the only thing not made in China anymore. Poor old Baiji. You deserved better.” Our Great Indian Bustard deserves better too. rip Alpha. Here is hoping that your death is not in vain, and stirs urgent action to save your kin.
Veterinary doctors who should have their licences taken away combined their brains with those of forest officers and decided that the only way to get rid of the “monkey menace” was to sterilize the monkeys as well. Unfortunately, this is the worst possible decision. Dogs are more or less solitary. Monkeys live, like humans, in large extended families. If you trap a single monkey, then two things happen: the family rushes away from their own territory/area. They get angry with humans.
So they enter areas that they are unfamiliar with, because now they are too scared to go back to an area where their relative was trapped. Now they enter people’s homes and fields in search of new larders and in the process hurt humans and themselves and destroy crops. The single monkey that has been captured usually breaks a limb during this hideous capturing process (Himachal Pradesh pays Rs.500 to anyone who captures a monkey) and is sterilized while in terrible pain. He / she usually dies (the mortality of Himachal’s monkeys by the so called vets is unbelievably high). If he/she survives, it is left at the place where it was picked up. But by then the family has disappeared and the troupe replacing them will not accept this poor animal. So, to survive, he enters human homes and becomes predatory. Sterilization in monkeys has resulted in the opposite of what happens in dogs. It has no impact at all on the population of monkeys: that is in any case reducing drastically because of poisoning, shooting and other illegal ways: from 85 lakhs in the 80s they are now a mere 5 lakhs in the whole of India. The difference is that they are sharing space with humans.
Why do we have this problem in Himachal and Uttarakhand? Because the Government of India pays money every year to the state forest departments to set fire to the edges of forests. The logic is that if trenches are dug and the leaves in them set on fire then the forest will not catch fire during the dry season. But the forest ranger sees this as bonus money. He doesn’t dig trenches, he doesn’t map vulnerable forest ranges. He simply cuts a large number of trees illegally and then sets fire to the forest to hide his criminal activity. The fire eats the underbrush, the new trees, berries, vines, soft grasses, new shoots which are the food of wild boar, monkeys, deer, nilgai and other grass eaters every January/February – and so the hungry animals come out. I have urged time and again that if this nonsense is stopped the monkeys will retreat from human habitations almost immediately.
Secondly, we must start planting Indian fruit and berry trees in the middle of forests so that animals remain there. But the forest department refuses to stop the firelines as it will stop the large amount of “pocket money” that the centre gives to each forest ranger.