Singaporean environmentalist clinches Nat Geo grant to study dog disease in Nepal

LOW YOUJIN Today Online 7 Jan 18;

SINGAPORE — A Singaporean environmentalist and freelance photojournalist has received a US$10,000 (S$13,269) National Geographic Explorer grant, which will allow her to research on a deadly and highly contagious disease affecting dogs in the Himalayas.

Ms Debby Ng, 35, will be heading to Nepal from May to June to study whether domestic dogs in Nepal Himalaya, a large number of which are free-roaming, have been exposed to the Canine Distemper Virus (CDV).

The CDV is a viral disease that affects a wide variety of animal families, including domesticated and wild animals.

Ms Ng was given the grant in late-September last year but she only shared the news on her Facebook page on Monday (Jan 1). “I wanted to make sure it was all real,” she wrote in the Facebook post. Over the past months, she has been busy preparing and assembling a team for her study.

While she will only have two months in spring to complete her research, she said: “Field work is all about working with the time Nature gives you!”

Speaking to TODAY, Ms Ng said a veterinarian will be accompanying her, alongside two or three research assistants to help with interviewing locals and collecting blood samples from dogs.

A recent graduate from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Science (Zoology and Geography), Ms Ng will be using the findings from her study to pursue her Honours.

Ms Ng is no stranger to the mountainous region or the dogs that inhabit the area either. She is also the co-founder of the Himalayan Mutt Project, a non-profit organisation that helps vaccinate and neuter domestic dogs in impoverished villages in Nepal.

Explaining the significance of the study, Ms Ng said that such free-roaming dogs have been recognised by wildlife researchers as a “source of infection for several disease outbreaks affecting wild carnivores, in all continents except Antarctica” since they have a higher tendency to interact with wildlife and pass diseases on.

It is currently unknown what diseases wild animals carry, some of them can spill over into domestic dogs, and then into the livestock that they mingle with, and then people. Photo: Bikash Gürung

In 1994, dogs infected with CDV were responsible for wiping out close to 30 per cent of the lion population in the Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania.

Humans are not spared from the impact of the virus. It can be passed to livestock, which would in turn affect communities dependent on them through loss of income when their livestock die from the virus.

Ms Ng said the grant would cover all the field and laboratory costs for the intended duration of the study. “Utilised wisely and efficiently, it can profoundly improve our understanding of how diseases are transmitted across a landscape,” she said.

When asked why she chose to focus her work in Nepal, she said: “I have a passion for working with communities who want to protect their environment. The communities I work with...are very eager to resolve the problem with dogs.”

She added: “(Nepal) is a global tourist destination, and brings joy and even meaning to life for many people...This is a precious landscape to us all, but most importantly to the people of Nepal.”

Turning her attention to Singapore, she said she welcomed the recent announcement by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore on a nationwide sterilisation effort. “There was a soft sigh (of relief) in my heart. It is a wonderful breakthrough,” she said.

Having carried out sterilisation of dogs in Nepal for more than three years, she noted that over there, “healthy but unwanted dogs are hung, drowned, shot, and poisoned”.

Even if culled humanely with drugs, routine mass euthanasia is a heavy economic burden on society. “The cost of one euthanasia dose can neuter two dogs,” she said. “The alternative to not killing them is turning them to a life on the streets or wilderness areas where they get into fights with other dogs.”

CLARIFICATION: In an earlier version of this story, we reported that Ms Debby Ng is a recent Honours graduate from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Science (Zoology and Geography). Ms Ng has clarified that she is a recent graduate from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Science (Zoology and Geography), and will be using the findings from her study to pursue her Honours.

Singaporean wins US$10,000 grant from National Geographic to study dog disease in Nepal
Jose Hong Straits Times 6 Jan 18;

SINGAPORE - Freelance photojournalist Debby Ng has won a US$10,000 (S$13,300) grant from The National Geographic Society to save wildlife in Nepal, by studying dogs there.

The grant adds to the anti-rabies work she began there in 2014.

Ms Ng, 35, told The Straits Times that the National Geographic Society Early Career Grant will allow her to research canine distemper virus in the Himalayas.

The virus is a deadly and highly contagious disease that threatens dogs and the fragile ecosystems there.

Many dogs in the region are not feral and are taken care of by local villagers. However, they roam freely across the countryside and can introduce diseases to people, other canines, and wild animals.

"Dogs have been identified as a source of canine distemper virus outbreaks that have affected wild carnivores around the world. These include wild foxes, wolves, giant pandas and red pandas. In 1994 canine distemper virus killed 30 per cent of the lions in Serengeti National Park," said Ms Ng.

"Learning how the dogs are moving in the environment and what diseases they are carrying can help us understand the likelihood of disease, and allow us to implement conservation measures to protect wildlife, people, and other domestic animals like sheep."

The grant, which was awarded last September, will pay for a month of field work in Nepal's Upper Manang District, where she and her team will interview villagers about dogs in the area from this May. They will also observe how the canines live and collect blood samples.

"Upper Manang is home to a wide variety of wildlife. Carnivores like Himalayan wolves, Pallas' cat, jackals, red foxes, snow leopards, bears and wolverines are known to occur here, so our study is very relevant in this area," said Ms Ng.

Separately, she will continue the Himalayan Mutt Project, her anti-rabies work that neuters and vaccinates dogs in Nepal. According to her calculations, it has prevented thousands of unwanted puppies from being born and becoming carriers of rabies, which a 2015 study said kills up to 100 Nepalese yearly.

National Geographic's Jill Spear said: "Debby's project will add to our body of knowledge on disease ecology of domestic dogs, and how that affects wildlife in Nepal."

Ms Spear, who is the programme officer for Ms Ng's grant, said: "By filling this knowledge gap, the project can have a positive impact on both the wildlife and people in Nepal."