I'm back in the Himalayas for the second time with the HMP team – Debby, Ajay and Mukhiya. The purpose of my last visit to the Himalaya was to sterilise dogs, and support Debby's canine distemper study. This time, our focus was slightly different - to vaccinate dogs against rabies and to share the results from our canine distemper study with communities, and conservation organisations. I also carried out health checks on dogs, vaccinated them, and provided answers to animal health questions during community meetings. Below: Dr. Tharm (center) vaccinates a dog against rabies.
The canine distemper study aimed to find the prevalence of distemper (a virus) in the dog population in Manang, a region of the world-famous Annapurna Circuit. With the results came imperatives that we hoped to communicate to Himalayan communities. Our team found that distemper was highly prevalent in the dogs and could spill over into the wildlife. If villagers took greater responsibility in vaccinating; neutering and not abandoning their dogs, the spread of distemper and other diseases could be stemmed. We were not sure how villagers would receive the information and an ambiguity hung over us as the journey began.
As with travelling in the Himalaya, there was always an element of surprise. We were greeted by a landslide 100m across near Chamje. With my heart in my throat, I gingerly made my way across the rocky pile, surpassed by locals in their flip-flops carrying stacks of boxes on their backs. At times, it felt like I was only a bad footing away from the ground 200m below.
Vehicles that carried people and supplies had to come to a stop before the landslide. People had to get out to walk across it and take a different vehicle on the other side to continue onwards toward their destination.
Ajay and Debby check out the landslide. The path measuring about 100m across is marked by the blue line. The blue arrow was the apartment-sized precarious rock that we had to scramble across.
Manang – The Politician
This was a pivotal place for two reasons. It was the biggest village in our route which meant more dogs to vaccinate. More importantly, we had arrived at a time when a regional meeting was to take place and that gave us an opportunity to communicate the message to a higher level where change could be institutionalised.
Above: Ajay at the presentation in Manang
The day came. Mayors of several villages, Manang's Parliamentary representative, and senior leaders from surrounding villages convened in Manang's town hall. Ajay made a great presentation to the roomful of people in Nepalese. Then came the Q&A.
I was asked by the MP some simple questions like how long I had been working on the project in Nepal. Then it took a sombre turn. He was actually leading the room to think how little I knew about the actual situation in his home ground. It appeared to him that the figures derived from the study did not agree with what he thought he knew. He declared to the room that our data was inaccurate and made clear his intentions to quash it. Perhaps he felt it had put his hometown in a poor light in terms of disease prevalence and low numbers of dogs sterilized, relative to other villages. This was a reminder of how inconvenient truths are often discarded or eviscerated because of our biases or beliefs. Sometimes all it takes is a closed mind with its preconceived ideas to halt progress. This was a close shave that could have seen years of hard work being discredited. Above: Dr. Tharm speaks with Manang's parliamentary representative.
As we had put up at the same guest house as Manang's MP, I bumped into him the following morning while he was washing his face. Over here, there was no such thing as personal morning space, not even for a politician. We greeted each other with a smile. I took it to mean that we were above the unpleasantries. Only time will tell if the project will flourish under his belt. Above: Dr. Tharm (left) with members of the Manang community.
Above: Manang's MP and his staff freshen up in the morning at a water point
5 Towns Later
About 150 dogs received the vaccinations over the course of the week as we moved from town to town (Manang – Ngawal – Pisang – Braka – Chame – Timang). It was gratifying to see how owners took care of their dogs, especially when they asked for help to neuter and vaccinate them. From a medical perspective, I had gathered a rough profile of the dog population, at least those which had a home. The most common parasite was the flea and those which were heavily infested received medications. Dogs that were tested positive for the distemper virus were asymptomatic and keeping strong. In spite of what we can see, I am sure many more perished in the wilderness from various reasons. We followed up on some dogs we saw a year ago and a small number were missing or had died from landslides, road accidents etc. Such was the life in the high mountains.
The presentations in the towns received a healthy response from the villagers in the form of constructive questions. Most of them really wanted to know the signs of disease to look for and how to protect people in the event of a rabies attack. Some asked what they could do for their dogs when disease strikes. Academic answers did not cut it here, only pragmatism in the guise of chicken soup and fireplace. It was heartening to know that they were willing to invest their energy to protect their dogs and wildlife. Above: Dr. Tharm vaccinates a puppy.
Discover more about our canine distemper study in Nepal's Himalaya
Animals of the Himalayas
At the military camp vaccinating dogs
Ajay attempting to coax a nervous dog off a roof
Human telescope - Mukhiya, Ajay, Debby
Princess, a dog from the village of Pisang which I spayed in 2018.
Preparing for a presentation in Bhraka.
Puppy at the potato fields with Mummy.
Stray in the village of Chame that was stitched up at eyelid.
While strolling in Ngawal waiting for an action-packed day, I stumbled upon a rare event - that of the death of a working mule. The story goes that it had returned from a work trip that morning and upon reaching its stable, collapsed and never woke. I first saw a group of men gathered at a stable door with the head of a mule poking out. My instinct was to confirm it had died. It had a belly full of air and its rectum had prolapsed. Poor mule must have suffered a bloat. The locals believed that this could have been cause by plastics that might have accidentally been ingested while the animal was grazing. I found out later from a horse vet that other causes of bloat include dehydration; stress; eating feed that was high in starch as well as obstruction caused by foreign objects (plastic).
Mukhiya (red jackat) inspects the mule in its stable
The men had tied ropes around the neck and body of the now dead animal, and attempt to haul it out of the stable to an open area where the carcass could be removed by wild scavengers like jackals, and vultures. At such altitudes, cremation will deplete precious firewood and so was not commonly practised.
Mukhiya assists locals in Ngarwal with the removal of the carcass from its stable.
The carcass is hauled across to the village to the edge of the mountain.
The final push into the fields below.
I think it is wonderful to be able to return to nature this way, no fuss yet benefiting lots of others.
Back at Kathmandu
We returned from the mountains ahead of schedule and I had three days before my return flight. With time on my hands, Debby made contact with Hari Joshi from Animal Nepal, an animal protection organisation in Kathmandu. I was glad to be offered an opportunity to visit the dog shelter at Chovar. It was a modest place with about 20 kennels that housed dogs that were either surrendered to them by owners or strays left outside their gates. With two resident vets and a handful of technicians, I saw that they made the best of what they had to keep the dogs well.
Inside the shelter
Further exchanges with the vet, Dr. Romi, told me that a mother dog and her litter were brought there by a caregiver for not being well and died. Brain necropsy showed they had died from rabies. In Singapore, this would have made the headlines but in Nepal, this was life. Rabies is so feared because of its ability to infect every species and unless you had the means to be treated very early, the end result is invariably death. Humans and animals alike have a lot to be thankful for in environments that protect them from the elements and diseases. Be kind and mindful the next time you encounter them on your travels!
Bidding me a farewell.