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Abandoned and Dangerous

The Tibetan mastiff was once a luxury item. But after prices cratered, abandoned packs of dogs have become a threat in the Qinghai plateau, leaving locals struggling to find a solution

By Wang Yan Updated Feb.25

Zhang Lizhi loves dogs. But her encounter with two of them in Yushu, in the northwestern province of Qinghai, which borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region, last August, remains a nightmarish memory for the 36-year-old Shanghai office worker. “Both my legs are still covered in scars,” Zhang told NewsChina this January.  

Zhang was on a tourist trip to the Buddhist Jiegu Monastery on the outskirts of Yushu in the late afternoon when suddenly a stray dog barked at her. “I was terrified, and a second dog soon arrived – the two of them attacked me together,” Zhang recalled, “It took over a dozen stitches to close the wounds.”  

In the vast hilly pastures in China’s western regions, local Tibetans live close to their dogs. The Tibetan mastiff, a long-standing breed of sheepdog native to the highlands, has long been kept by nomadic households as a loyal guardian of family and livestock against potential threats. The massive dogs, some weighing as much as 70 kilos, are fierce companions.  

According to Tibetan folklore, the very first seed of highland barley, the staple food in Tibetan regions, was carried to the region by a mastiff. Even today, during the celebration of Losar, or Tibetan New Year, nomadic Tibetans still feed their family dogs with a bowl of zanba, roasted barley flour, to show their gratitude.  

“Traditionally, dogs are treated as important family members by us, and we never sell our dogs to others for money, indeed, selling dogs is a taboo in our traditional culture,” Tashi Gongbo, a local Tibetan in Yushu told our reporter, “But when the fad for Tibetan mastiffs swept China in the late 1990s, the situation changed completely.”  

Tashi Gongbo was referring to the craze for Tibetan mastiffs throughout China, which prompted a frenzy of breeding and selling the dogs in Tibetan regions, particularly the area around Yushu. That enthusiasm lasted till the mid-2010s. Driven by the demand from Chinese nouveau riche including coal tycoons, Tibetan mastiffs were sold for millions of yuan, with some premium purebreds being sold at over $200,000 during the height of the craze. Many people, both inside and outside the Tibetan plateau regions, bred dogs for purely commercial purposes.  

This reporter visited Yushu in 2010, and saw caged Tibetan mastiffs in various parts of downtown Yushu. According to local sources at that time, the average market price for a mastiff dog was over 200,000 yuan (US$29,000) According to a report in June 2016 by Sanlian Lifeweek Magazine, in around 2005, some breeders in Yushu began tube feeding dogs with cheese fluid or feeding them steroids to make them bigger and stronger. Some breeders even pumped their dogs with silicone or water to make them look more powerful – greatly damaging the dog’s health in the long run.  

But like other speculative markets, the Tibetan mastiff trade was badly hit by the combination of economic slowdown and the nationwide anti-corruption campaign from 2012 onward. The bubble burst around 2013, when prices plummeted. In early 2015, New York Times reported that around 20 mastiffs were stuffed into a truck for a slaughterhouse in northeast China where, “at roughly $5 a head, they would have been rendered into hot pot ingredients, imitation leather and the lining for winter gloves.”  

As the booming market collapsed, and as more nomadic families settled down into city life, demand for Tibetan mastiffs fell accordingly.   

“Before 2010, almost every household was investing a lot of money into feeding and breeding mastiffs. A limited number of people succeeded, but most just got poorer,” Tashi Gongbo explained. “And after breeders foolishly mated pure Tibetan mastiffs with other breeds, it devalued the breed and turned off would-be customers.” 

Tashi Gongbo said that some crossbred dogs lost the loyalty bred into the mastiffs, and even turned on their own masters. This had a critical impact upon the breed’s image, causing a surge in abandonment by callous owners and breeders that resulted in a large number of strays.  

With the buyers gone, the breeders soon disappeared. Zhou Yi, the chairman of the Qinghai Tibetan Mastiff Association, told the Xinhua News Agency in early 2015, that about a third of breeders across the Tibetan plateau have closed their business, and the annual trade in Tibetan mastiffs in Qinghai had dropped from over 200 million yuan (US$ 29 million) to less than 50 million (US$7.2 million).  

With no measures taken by the local government at first, the number of abandoned dogs increased fast, resulting in numerous attacks on people.

Buddhist Resistance 
According to an inside source, some local governments in different parts of Yushu have made secret attempts to solve the problem by mass cullings of local dogs. But local Tibetans are strong believers in Buddhism, which preaches compassion toward all living things, and the killings were met with public resistance.  

Some local villages resorted to setting up shelters for stray dogs in order to avoid the slaughter. In Maozhuang, a village in Nangqian County, an animal shelter covering over 13 acres was set up with joint investment from a local monastery and the village council.  

During a visit to Maozhuang in late August, 2016, this reporter saw the open-air shelter that accommodated over 1,000 stray dogs along the road leading to the village.   

Tsering Yonzin, 63, a local villager told the reporter that before the shelter was set up, stray dogs were everywhere on the streets, and elderly people and children were afraid of going out alone. Dog feces and urine were all over the streets, damaging living conditions in villages and threatening health. Locals lived in fear of attacks by strays. “A large number of dogs were left by their previous owners with the local Sumang Monastery in Maozhuang, expecting the monks to take care of them,” continued Tsering, “the monastery then decided to find a permanent resolution to the pressing issue.”  

Sumang Monastery raised a total of 400,000 yuan (US$58,000) with half of the funds provided by the government, to set up the stray dog shelter in early 2016. Community members from each household inside Maozhuang were called up to assist the monastery in catching the dogs and moving them into the shelter.  

“We built fences and three doghouses and some infrastructure construction including a water diversion pipeline from the hill down to the shelter region,” Tashi, the monastery keeper, told NewsChina: “The shelter project was supported by communities in the region. According to Tashi, a 47-year-old local monk who was born in Maozhuang (not the same person as Tashi Gongbo), the monastery gave villagers in Maozhuang and nearby Niangla and Xiaosumang villages three days to fetch their stray dogs and bring them to the shelter. “After that three-day time slot, we forbade additional new dogs to avoid group attacks on the newcomers.”  

Then the monastery paid a local vet to sterilize the female dogs and now employs two villagers to feed the hounds. Barley mixture is the staple feed, mixed with a small fraction of leftover food from nearby villagers. There are just 600 households in Maozhuang, but villagers try their best to give barley, noodles, and yogurt to the monastery as feed for the dogs. The total daily cost of maintaining the shelter and tending to the dogs is significant, costing at least 1,000 yuan (US$145), according to keeper Tashi.  

There has been no follow-up financial support from the government on the maintenance of the shelter and the feeding of the dogs, save for a recent donation of 10,000 kg of flour from Yushu government (which will feed the dogs for just 50 days). According to Tashi, the Gangri Neichog Research and Conservation Center, a Qinghaibased environmental NGO, provided the monastery with 10,000 yuan (US$1,446) through crowdfunding in 2016. Apart from this, “the major economic burden of caring for these 1,000 or so dogs falls solely on the monastery,” Yong Qiang, a Maozhuang villager, told the reporter.  

Unsustainable Care 
The attempt to shelter the strays in Maozhuang is without precedent in the region. Although the setting up of a government-backed dog shelter in downtown Yushu has been reported, little is known to the outside world. The Yushu government intentionally played down the issue to avoid any negative impact on tourism.  

But the monks and villagers in Maozhuang know the situation can’t last. The first problem is the shortage of food. Then there’s the fighting between the dogs in the shelter, which has resulted in a significant number of deaths. Then there’s the diseases inevitably spreading among so many dogs cooped up together.

According to villager Yong Qiang, over 1,500 dogs were left at the shelter originally – but now there’s fewer than 1,000, thanks to deaths and escapes. The Gangri Neichog Research and Conservation Center succeeded in crowd-funding for 1,200 rabies vaccines in May 2016. “But when we arrived at the shelter, we could see the state the dogs were in. Some were too feeble to be vaccinated, so we had to delay the vaccination plan. ” recounted Yin Hang, the founder of the organization in late September 2016. The project faces a shortage of funds and the potential threat of epidemics.  

“We can’t predict how long the shelter will remain operational. Of course, we will continue to support it. It might be a decade, depending how long the dogs live,” monk Tashi said, adding, “But we desperately need the local community’s tangible support; the efforts of the monastery and outside NGOs are not enough to fix the issue.”  

Yin Hang said that, based on their studies, the best solution would be community involvement, educating locals to shoulder the responsibility for caring for dogs. “It is not the sole responsibility of the monastery. Maozhuang or neighboring communities in larger regions should all be involved and pro-active,” said Yin to our reporter, “The initiation of stray dog management by the local monastery in Maozhuang is definitely a good starting point, however, my suggestion is to set up a solid sound system and have locals adopt dogs.”  

“I love dogs and I often feel pity for strays. But now I’m starting to realize if stray dogs are mixed in human communities, the situation becomes dangerous, since dogs are pack animals and can attack people in groups, threatening humans, particularly young children,” Zhang Lizhi, the bite victim, said: “It is the government’s responsibility to better manage the serious issue of stray dogs in Qinghai.”  

Over the past decade, the central government has already poured billions of yuan into conserving the Sanjiangyuan (Three River Source) region of the Tibetan plateau where Maozhuang is situated. However, academics hotly contest whether the money has been effective in protecting the ecology and improving local people’s lives within the region. If Qinghai Province could use a fraction of the central funds for the ecological protection project into creating permanent homes for those stray dogs with veterinary care, the situation would be improved immediately.  

Now during the winter when temperatures in Maozhuang reach minus 20 degrees, the dogs in the shelter face even harsher living conditions, especially given the limited number of doghouses. “We hope that some dog lovers could come and adopt a number of them, and if they come, we would be grateful for their kindness and help,” said monk Tashi.  

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