There are plenty of stories about Alien Big Cats showing up mysteriously in unexpected areas and terrorizing the locals, not to mention pets, farm animals and wildlife, but this may be the first instance of Alien Big Dogs. Conservationists trying to save China’s threatened snow leopards have found another probable cause for their declining numbers -- Tibetan Mastiff dogs abandoned by their owners are encroaching on the territory of the big cats, stealing their food and driving them towards less desirable areas and possible extinction.
According to a report in China Daily, the blame for this unnatural conflict lies squarely on the shoulders of China’s rich upper class. As the economy boomed between 2003 and 2013, the beautiful massive dogs with world record prices (between 50,000 yuan ($7,272) and 2 million yuan ($292,000)) became status symbols for the wealthy who could afford that sticker price and the $60-a-day meat bill.
That changed as the economy waned in 2013. These products of the boom were abandoned by their unscrupulous owners and either left on their own in the wild or sent to pounds or meat-packing plants. Those somewhat luckier dogs fending for themselves called upon their remaining gray wolf genes (Tibetan mastiffs evolved from the gray wolf over 42,000 years ago) and used their huge size to move to the top of the food chain in areas like the Sanjiangyuan region on the Tibetan plain in Qinghai province. There they became alien big dogs, feeding on wildlife, sheep (sadly ironic, since the mastiff was domesticated to herd them) and pets … the natural and unnatural meals of the former food chain king – the snow leopard.
What are a few big dogs going to do to snow leopards? First, it’s not a few big dogs. The monks at the Surmang Monastery in Yushu raised money to capture, neuter and care for abandoned mastiffs. They now have 1,000 dogs. The local government tried to help by building five more pounds, They now have 5,000 dogs and no more room for the many that are still in the wild, pushing the few smaller snow leopards (worldwide population less than 6,000) towards hunger and extinction.
Animal welfare activists in other areas are setting up similar programs. It’s not exactly a good life for the Tibetan Mastiffs being crammed into small areas with a thousand other big dogs, but it probably beats getting hit by cars, shot by farmers or starving in the wild. The snow leopards may someday be able to return to their natural spot at the top of the food chain, where they'll still have to deal with developers, farmers and climate change.
It’s too bad some of that wealth wasn’t used to solve those problems instead of on living status symbols.