Dogs are one of the most popular pets. But despite being loyal companions, dogs can have detrimental impacts on wildlife populations. Domestic dogs are dependent on their owners for food and shelter. Free-ranging dogs are those that are not under supervision, whether owned (e.g. herding dogs) or unowned (feral dogs). In natural areas, free-ranging dogs can harm wildlife species in various ways, but most frequently by predation. Because of their close connection with humans, there is often resistance to management of free-ranging dogs, particularly to management with lethal methods. When making decisions on sensitive matters it is important for researchers to be able to justify their recommendations with careful consideration of both science and ethics.

Free-ranging dogs chasing goitered gazelle Gazella subgutturosa in central Iran. Photo: Q. Afshari

One summer, when I was an undergraduate, I discovered Matthew Gompper’s book on free-ranging dogs and wildlife conservation and read it from cover to cover. I realized that except for a case study on gazelles, no study had ever addressed the issue of free-ranging dog in the Middle East, despite its growing significance. I contacted Matt, who encouraged me to do a preliminary study of the impact of free-ranging dogs on native mammals in Iran.

I soon found that on social media there is a wealth of sporadic data and evidence of attacks by free-ranging dogs on mammals in Iran. Therefore, as a team, we collected data using common and popular social media platforms (Telegram and Instagram) as well as scientific articles. We used specific keywords related to the predation of mammals by free-ranging dogs. We collected additional information for each case, including location, the target species’ category on the IUCN Red List, sex, age class, status of the wildlife after the attack (injured or killed), and whether the attack occurred in a protected area or not.

Left: Herding dog roams freely near a no-hunting area in central Iran. Photo: Danial Nayeri. Right: Dogs roaming freely in east Iran. Photo: Arash Moody

In this preliminary study we created a map of attacks to determine which species were being attacked by dogs and the characteristics of the attacks, such as how many dogs were involved and whether the attacked wildlife survived or not. Although more detailed studies on this subject are needed, including field surveys, our study provides valuable initial insights on this subject in Iran. Among 160 reported attacks, we found evidence of attacks by free-ranging dogs on at least 17 wildlife species. Most attacks occurred in or around protected areas, a matter of conservation concern. It was particularly worrying that 19 records were of attacks on the Critically Endangered Asiatic cheetah Acinonyx jubatus venaticus.

Left: Free-ranging dogs in a national park in the vicinity of Tehran. Right: Free-ranging dog in the forests of northern Iran. Photos: Mohammad Amin Ghaffari

It is vital to gain a better understanding of the impact of free-ranging dogs on all native fauna and to raise awareness of this matter amongst people in both urban and rural environments. Given the urgent plight of some wild mammals, active removal of dogs in protected areas is necessary and inevitable. A collaborative approach is needed to safeguard our threatened wildlife species and their habitats from the emerging threat posed by free-ranging dogs. Further research is required, especially on the extent of this issue, which species are more prone to attacks by free-ranging dogs and how to best manage these dogs. Culling may in some cases be inevitable, although social implications of such measures need to be considered.

Deciding what to do with free-ranging dogs and how to manage them ethically is a thorny and multi-faceted issue that requires interdisciplinary approaches to be tackled effectively. It is also highly dependent on the local context; there is no one-size-fits-all method in this case. But one thing is for sure, we should not let the most abundant carnivore hunt the rarest felid to extinction.

Free-ranging dogs in central Iran. Photo: Mohammad Amin Ghaffari

The article Free-ranging dogs as a potential threat to Iranian mammals is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Danial Nayeri is an Iranian conservation scientist and an MSc student at Humboldt State University. As an interdisciplinary researcher, he is interested in spatial ecology and human dimensions of wildlife, and in particular free-ranging dogs and how they can be managed through both social and ecological approaches.