In Nepal it is thought that caring for dogs will ease your path to heaven.

In the capital city, Kathmandu, nearly half of all households place food on their doorstep for local dogs, and each year on Kukur Tihar (the festival of dogs), people garland dogs with flowers and cook them special food, to honour the human-dog friendship.

With 16 dogs for every kilometer of street, Kathmandu has one of the world’s highest densities of roaming dogs.

For comparison, Constanta in Romania, has six dogs per kilometre, Panama City has three and Bogatic Municipality in Serbia has fewer than one dog per kilometre. The streets of Kathmandu are lined with dogs of all shapes, sizes and breeds, their abundance and diversity reflecting a vibrant culture in which animals and people coexist in a way that has changed little over time.

For millennia, dogs have been hanging around humans in return for food and security.

In return, dogs warn us of danger, help us hunt, dispose of our waste, keep us warm, and guard and play with our children. The species itself – the domestic dog – came into existence because of this symbiotic relationship, which many believe has also helped shape human evolution. As we dispersed into all corners of the planet, dogs came with us. We selectively bred them to fill different roles in our society, from hunting, guarding and companions, to modern roles such as detecting landmines, detecting cancer, and assisting people with disabilities. As a result, dogs have the most morphological variation of any species, ranging from the chihuahua to the great dane.

Humans are undeniably responsible for this species, and dogs are almost completely reliant on humans – without human care, dogs rarely survive, thrive or reproduce.

In the more developed world, people have deemed it undesirable, and unsafe, to have dogs roaming freely. Roaming dog populations have been largely eliminated through mass culling and/or strict enforcement of dog control laws and responsible dog ownership education. In Kathmandu and much of south Asia, where roaming dogs are abundant, our ancient symbiotic relationship is more evident. In 2016, when Kathmandu’s residents were asked how they felt about the number of dogs on their street, 43% of survey respondents felt it was ‘about right’ or even ‘too few’. The same survey estimated there are over 80,000 owned dogs in Kathmandu, and more than half these are allowed to roam freely on the street – indicating that most of the city’s roaming dogs have an owner. The overall health of Kathmandu’s roaming dogs is relatively good; less than 2% have visible skin disease or emaciation (compared, for instance, to communities in Bali where this figure was 24%).

Despite this, intensive efforts in recent decades have aimed to eliminate or reduce Kathmandu’s roaming dog population. For 50 years the municipal ‘dog squad’ would lay poisoned meat on the streets. Many thousands of dogs suffered a long and agonising death, and their bodies piled up on the banks of the Bagmati river, Nepal’s holy river. When questioned, a municipality worker asked:

A major driver behind the dog culling was rabies – roaming dogs are the primary reservoir for the rabies virus, a fatal disease which kills more than 30,000 people in south Asia every year. Yet the world’s public and veterinary health authorities agree that only mass dog vaccination, not culling, will eliminate rabies.

Municipal dog poisoning ceased in 2004, when non-governmental organisations (NGOs) took over the responsibility for dog population management in Kathmandu, conducting mass neutering and providing a rescue service.

More than 25,000 dogs have since been caught, surgically neutered, and returned to the streets.

Scientific surveys of Kathmandu’s street dog population have been conducted regularly since 2006. Teams follow pre-designated survey tracks, using a GPS-enabled tracker app on their smart phones to record the sex, age, health and reproductive status of every dog. According to the latest survey in 2018, there are over 22,000 roaming dogs within the city – a 22% increase from 18,000 dogs in 2010.

Traditionally, dog population management interventions target dogs. Dogs are caught, relocated, rescued, re-homed, sheltered, killed, vaccinated or neutered, while the community looks on, growing accustomed to an external agency dealing with the dogs. Local people are disempowered, made to feel like they have no responsibility for roaming dogs, when in fact they are the reason dogs are on the streets, and it is their attitude that determines whether roaming dogs present a problem. Within each community there will be great variation in how dogs are perceived; there will be unique conflict issues and hotspots, and unique resources to develop a solution.

Sustainable roaming dog management gives autonomy to the local community to define and address the problem, recognising that roaming dogs are an integral part of society.

COMMON EARTH, Season 2 , Episode 1
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Can habitats & environments be returned to their wild, natural state while taking into consideration the requirements of human communities? Join us for this Interview with Manoj Gautam, community-based conservation activist, former executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute of Nepal, and 2014 recipient of the Future for Nature prize.

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