My piece for NPR.org.
I had noticed her only in passing. On any given day there can be as many as 10 stray dogs moving up and down a 40-meter stretch of my street but I usually just pay attention to the two trouble makers that try to intimidate my Rhodesian Ridgeback when I take him out for a walk. The others either sit and watch or completely ignore our temporary presence.
Recently, a local crowd caught my attention, hovering over a dog lying and whimpering in an open sewage ditch, unable to move. A car had hit her, I was told, and she was incapable of walking or standing up.
Living in Kathmandu, an interaction with a stray dog is inevitable. There are, after all, more than 20,000 of them in the Valley’s tri-city area. When I first moved here a year ago, I lumped them all together into one large category: destitute, miserably hungry, unloved, unhappy and most critically, unvaccinated and un-neutered. Rabies is present throughout Nepal and Lucas, my nine-year-old son, knows never to reach out and pet a stray dog. Nepalis in general coexist with the strays, feeding them scraps, letting them hang out on their stoops, but the dogs are not family pets and the Nepalis do not care for them. On the dark side, I’ve seen dogs kicked and abused. I’ve seen little kids garrot a puppy and drag him around for fun. Some dogs, starving or maimed, grovel for leftovers from the stronger strays.
My Nepali neighbors hovered over the dog and attempted to feed and give her water, but she was in pain and intensely afraid. In Kathmandu, injured stray dogs are left to their fate, even if it means days of suffering. But I couldn’t walk away. At the same time, I was hesitant to interfere. In the back of my head I was replaying a line that my producer at NBC News would tell me regularly: “Dony, you can’t play God.”
Perhaps, I reasoned, I could make her death more peaceful if in fact she was badly injured. I couldn’t move her so I called the local mobile vet. Though Kathmandu is Nepal’s largest city, it is home to all types of farm animals, and vets also treat cows, buffalo, goats, sheep and elephants. After some time, two young men arrived on a motorcycle, pulled out a syringe and anesthetized the dog. They packed her in a cardboard crate, placed her between them on the bike and drove off to their roadside two-room clinic to X-ray the injury. I followed in my car.
The dog had only tissue damage, but she needed a week of daily steroid, antibiotic and pain killer shots. This meant keeping her virtually immobile in the vet’s small cage, recovering for a week. If she was then immediately released back on the street, her chances of survival were slim. By then, it had become clear to me that I had inherited a stray and its hospital bill. She had also at some point been blinded by a stick or rod in her left eye, so before I changed my mind, I added in drops for the infected eye as well as rabies, distemper and paro-virus shots. Lucas named her Rexi. The Nepalis, having some difficulty in pronouncing Rexi, renamed her Raksi – after the local moonshine.
For the past year, in my morning runs and commutes to school, I have studied the multi-layered social interactions and relationships between Kathmandu canines and the world of humans. The Nepalis who have dogs as pets (often white, furiously yapping, furry Spitzes) keep them indoors or on their rooftops. Some people tie their guard dogs on such short chains outside their houses they can barely lie down.
The vast majority of strays, like Raksi, are community dogs that live their lives outside in a self-delineated territory of a couple of city blocks. They drink from the open drainage ditches that often double as sewers, and beg–always patient, unobtrusive and even elegant–from store fronts and especially from the ubiquitous one-room butcher shacks. They are mostly thin and dirty though some are strikingly handsome. Raksi had a thick black and brown coat and impressively healthy white teeth. Some are social and wag hello, others are terrified when I walk by and on rare occasions there will be one that snarls or barks. In this city of massive and aggressive traffic, a week never goes by without seeing at least a couple of dogs lying on a road, killed by a vehicle. Sometimes the animal lies there for days before being removed.
Kathmandu dogs are nocturnal, and their baying, howling, snarling, yelping and ululating barks punctuate my night. Silence only descends briefly between 4am and dawn. In the winter, the cold takes the weak. In the dry, hot months, thirst kills. Puppies have a particularly high death rate. Wounds from nighttime fights fester. I never cease to be amazed by the dogs daytime ability to sleep — absolutely anywhere — though they love to spread out in the middle of roads, oblivious of honking trucks or speeding motorcycles. During my weekly runs, I’ve taken to greeting the strays on my route. Occasionally one or two will join me for a stretch of road.
After her stay at the vet, we took Raksi to our house to recover. Once in our home, she stayed in a makeshift corrugated iron shack with cardboard and a towel as a bed. My dog, Biko, immediately disapproved of Raksi’s presence and not only ignored her but me as well. After a day, she began to limp around cautiously, and then soon was wandering around the garden, sleeping in our garage and trying to find ways to enter our house. Gentle and courteous, she wagged up a fury whenever she saw anybody, circling her head high so as to catch us with her good eye. I began to worry that she would never leave. I knew with each passing day, I was falling for her too.
At the end of the first week, as Lucas and I walked one morning onto the main road, Raksi followed. She went to sit facing us on a mound of half-burned blue and pink plastic garbage bags. Lucas tried to woo her back through our gate with her favorite dog bones and a bowl of milk, but she sat there sphinx-like and dignified and finally just turned, crossed the road and disappeared down a narrow alley.
Lucas went to school in tears that day. He thought that he had lost a friend. But Raksi didn’t really move away; she moved back to where she always had been—on the streets in our immediate neighborhood. Since then we have seen her every day, sometimes in front of our gate or on the concrete landing in front of the local tailor shop next door, even as far away as across the main road by the green grocers. I see her sleeping, surrounded by her many companions. She’ll get up and limp over to sniff a newcomer, warning him off with a bark. Her favorite spot is the sand pyramid on the construction site opposite our place. She has always greeted us with utter delight and wagging tail, dog-tracking towards us with a huge grin, one black ear perked, the other flopping.
I like to think that this is her way of telling me that she is okay. The dog rescue organizations in Kathmandu had warned me that there was virtually no chance of finding her a home and that if a foreigner adopted her (the most likely possibility) he or she would probably leave Raksi behind when leaving Nepal. If she was healthy, the street was the best place for her.
I still grapple with all I have learned from Raksi. When I saw street life as misery, why did I automatically believe she thought the same? Why did I assume my joy was her joy? I thought she was like my Ridgeback, an obsessively loyal animal whose idea of home was lying by my side. Biko won’t even smell the street garbage that is Raksi’s food. But it’s obvious to me that Raksi, like so many other dogs here, is only at home in her pack. She and several other dogs move, eat, sleep together. She has the freedom to roam. She perks up with the chaos of trucks and honking horns and it also lulls her to sleep, lying inches away from the paved road. She likes to lie with her nose on the edge of the open sewer. And though she greets me effusively, when I see her, one thing is clear: This is her world.
Naibor was a gentle fellow, the largest and oldest white rhino living on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary (OWS) overlooking Kenya’s Lake Naivasha. His horn was three feet long, and he was a favorite of rangers and visitors. But earlier this month, in broad daylight, armed men got through the electric fence and shot Naibor dead with an AK-47 within earshot of a ranger’s post. Both his horns were hacked off before the poachers fled.
OWS mounted a massive tracking operation with police, rangers, tracker dogs and a helicopter, but the poachers escaped into dense bush. The dogs found the small horn stuffed down a hole, along with shoes and a shirt, and they later identified five soldiers from a nearby army barrack. The soldiers were arrested and then released due to lack of evidence, police said.
In the same week, five other rhinos were killed 150 miles north on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, one of the best-managed private conservancies in Kenya. The poachers used automatic weapons and escaped through rough terrain. The dogs lost their tracks in Isiolo, a hub for the illegal wildlife cartels, for weapons and explosives smuggling, al Shabaab networking and human trafficking.
These brazen attacks show that the battle against rhino poaching is neither straightforward nor a guaranteed win. When I asked a well-known Kenyan conservationist what he thought needed to be done to save the rhino, he hesitated. “How does it get stopped?” he asked rhetorically.“I stay awake at night asking myself that question.”
Though rhino poaching is not new to Kenya, the market for rhino horn has grown massively, along with its price. In a country where the average person lives on about $2 a day, it’s almost impossible to protect a jewel attached to a lumbering weak-eyed giant wandering placidly through the bush.
In the 1970s, illegal hunting for rhino horn reduced Kenya’s population of black rhinos from 20,000 to about 300. For ten years, as many as five rhinos were killed every day. But even with reduced numbers, rhino poaching continues. South Africa, with about 20,000 rhino, loses two a day. Kenya, which now has fewer than 600 rhinos country-wide, lost more than 20 in 2012.
Rhino horn is worth more than gold. While the gunmen who kill the animal may only receive $10,000-20,000 dollars, by the time the horn gets to its biggest market, Vietnam, where people believe it can cure cancer, a gram of horn powder can cost $65,000.
Lewa, with 62,000 acres of windswept hills, scrub land and savannah, is one of my favorite places. Once a cattle ranch, it became a wildlife conservancy in 1995 and is now a global model for community-based conservation—a tourist destination, home to 350 species of birds and 70 mammal species including lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and cheetah. It is also a leader in rhino preservation—home to 10 percent of Kenya’s black and 14 percent of its white rhino.
Keeping rhino is not for amateurs. The cost of protecting wildlife nearly doubles with black rhino present. Lewa has established a veritable army to protect its animals—and it is expensive. Encircled by an electric fence, Lewa has 150 armed rangers, surveillance teams, radio operators, dog handlers, a fence maintenance team, night guards and aerial surveillance. The conservancy works extensively with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and—critically—with local communities, which provide labor, and informers.
So who poached Lewa’s rhinos? A massive investigation is underway in the conservation community. Several people told me that only locals or former employees—including possibly employees charged with rhino security—would have known their way in and out of the ranch. Lewa officials describe the rhino as a ‘Kenyan national asset’ and warn that attacks could escalate across Kenya.
Another reason rhino are vulnerable is that their horns are so portable. Elephant tusks need to be moved by vehicle, but rhino horn can be hand-carried. “Rhino horn, like drugs, counterfeit currency or illicit diamonds, is a high-value black-market product that, once it leaves the hands of the poacher, is moved through a series of couriers, onto godfathers coordinating these activities,” explained Ian Craig, Lewa’s founder, in a speech to American zoo-keepers. Slipped into a shoulder bag, the horn probably left Isiolo by car and then Kenya by plane within hours of the killings.
While elephant poachers are often caught with tusks, in Kenya only twice have police caught someone with rhino horn. Without the horn, prosecution is nearly impossible. Moreover, anti-poaching laws offer little deterrence, as penalties are grossly outdated. Magistrates know little about wildlife crime. Most poachers get charged with misdemeanors. Fines are paid immediately, in cash. One poacher has been arrested, fined and released five times. High-level corruption may be partly to blame, as there is certainly enough money to go around. And if there is no corruption, there may simply be indifference: the Kenyan Minister for Wildlife has yet to issue a statement about the recent poachings.
Paula Kahumba, executive director of WildlifeDirect, which blogs to support conservationists, argues that no African government has invested the resources needed to stop poaching. “The truth is that the demand for ivory and rhino is so great that you can’t save it on your own,” Paula says, adding that KWS has its heart in the right place but does not have the wealth or manpower to investigate and prosecute. “The wildlife laws are inadequate given the scale of the problem. We are talking to the government trying to convince them to use the Economic and Organized Crime Act in Kenya.”
It is difficult to know how this will end. It is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons.’ We are collectively richer with rhino, but for many of the poor, individually, it is better to kill the rhino and market its horn—even if, in the end, there are no rhino or rhino horn left over. For a desperately poor breadwinner, one horn can make all the difference between feeding and educating children, or consigning them to a life of poverty as well. It is not a fight that conservationists alone can win.