This post originally appeared in National Geographic’s Cat Watch blog
The images are enough to make you stop in your tracks. A pack of feral dogs has cornered a frightened young brown bear. Another group of canines has chased away a snow leopard, the big cat’s long tail visible for a second before it disappears.
These photos illustrate what is rapidly becoming a real threat to snow leopards and their ecosystem – but also to the people living in these areas. In many parts of the snow leopard’s range, free-ranging dogs are hunting domestic livestock as well as wild prey species, or chasing native predators away from kills. As their numbers are growing, these problems have become more common. In India’s Spiti Valley, for instance, dogs may now be causing more damage to the local economy through livestock predation than snow leopards and wolves combined.
In order to address this emerging threat, we first need to understand these dogs, their populations, behavior, diet, and interactions with wildlife.
To gain these insights, Liu Mingyu, a young PhD student at Peking University is tracking several free-ranging dogs in China’s Three Rivers area, a key snow leopard habitat zone on the Tibetan Plateau, with GPS collars.
Mingyu’s work is made possible through the support of Partnership Funding by Fondation Segre, managed by Whitley Fund for Nature – a partnership program that is allowing promising young snow leopard researchers in multiple countries to get trained as future conservation leaders and contribute to our understanding of this endangered cat and its habitat, and the threats it is facing.
“I want to understand how free-ranging dogs interact with and influence native carnivores like the snow leopard”, Mingyu says. In the Three Rivers area, feral dogs are often found near Buddhist temples, where they usually find plenty of food. But clearly, as his photos prove, some dogs venture out further from the temples at least occasionally and interact with the area’s wildlife.
To follow their movements, Mingyu decided to put GPS tracking collars on six dogs living near three temples. A few months after starting the experiment, he has analyzed preliminary data from two collared dogs.
While they have very different home ranges in terms of size (6.1 km2 and 1.4 km2 over the span of a month, respectively), both dogs appear to stay away from the area’s prime snow leopard habitat for the most part. “The dogs’ core home range doesn’t seem to overlap with snow leopards very much”, Mingyu says. “But the GPS data support what we’ve seen on photos: every now and then – presumably when they don’t find enough food – the dogs travel further for hunting and scavenging, and step into the home ranges of snow leopards.”
On those trips, the threat the dogs pose to snow leopards becomes most evident. But even when they’re not venturing into snow leopard habitat and clashing with the cats themselves, the free-ranging dogs are affecting the ecosystem, and wildlife in particular.
“Trash is one of their main food sources, but these dogs also hunt. Once, I saw one of them catch a pika myself”, Mingyu says.
To address the threat that dogs pose to local wildlife, their populations need to be kept in check. “We need to start by managing trash better. That will cut off their main food source”, Mingyu explains. “But we might also need to explore sterilization campaigns.”
In Spiti Valley, similar efforts to curb feral dog populations have shown promising first results. Liu Mingyu’s research should provide further insights that can help refine such ongoing initiatives, and inform a solution to the problem in the Three Rivers area.
These efforts are part of a three-way MoU for snow leopard conservation in China between Shan Shui Conservation Center, the Snow Leopard Trust and Panthera. Liu Mingyu is a recipient of support from the Snow Leopard Trust, thanks to Partnership Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by Whitley Fund for Nature.