Stray dogs the added danger in quake zone

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2010, 12:00am

Six days after the deadly earthquake, the small town of Jiegu was still in chaos, with refugees scrambling for food because of supply problems and non-locals battling altitude sickness and the threat from wandering Tibetan mastiffs.

Despite government claims that 850 tonnes of food and water had arrived in the quake zone, with a lot more on its way, survivors were still going hungry. Meanwhile, rescue workers, medical staff and reporters were facing a severe lack of medication to help them cope with altitude sickness and the harsh weather.

Although food and materials have kept coming in, disorderly distribution has meant most relief materials have ended up in the hands of the young and the strong, with the elderly and weak left out in cold.

With no registration required during the distribution process, this is hardly surprising. And to add to the chaos, there was no centralised co-ordination from the authorities, with the government, non-governmental organisations and local monasteries all starting to distribute relief materials to the refugees, but nobody in charge to tell quake survivors where and when to get aid.

The standard of equipment and medication in temporary medical stations also varies, and without information on where to get the medicine they need, rescue workers and reporters suffering from altitude sickness have to either leave or put on a brave face.

Aside from high altitude and extreme weather - from snow to sand storms - the latest peril in Yushu are roaming, stray dogs, the ferocious Tibetan mastiff, or zang ao, that have lost their masters and homes.

Reporters, refugees and even People's Liberation Army soldiers have been bitten by the hungry dogs. Victims had to be sent to the provincial capital, Xining , 800 kilometres away, for treatment because there is no rabies vaccine in Yushu, a woman in charge of health care at the Yushu quake relief headquarters said.

'All the cold storage facilities at the disease control centre in Yushu are damaged; we can't keep any vaccines,' she said.

The chaotic scenes witnessed in Yushu are a big contrast with the co-ordinated effort pledged by officials in Beijing.

Miao Wei, deputy Minister of Industry and Information Technology, said adequate medication for prevention of epidemics had been prepared.

'We have already considered the supply of sanitising products such as bleaching powder and peroxyacetic acid and have been fully prepared. The present production and storage can meet the demand,' he said in Beijing yesterday.

At least one reporter for an overseas news agency has had to leave Yushu because of dog bites. South China Morning Post photographer Felix Wong was also attacked by a massive stray dog. Only thick clothing saved him from bite wounds.

Tibetan households traditionally keep mastiffs and other dogs as their guards and helpers. Known for their power and loyalty, the mastiffs have become one of the mainland's most treasured guard dogs.

Yushu is known throughout Tibetan-populated regions as the place that breeds the best Tibetan mastiffs. Shops selling mastiffs were scattered all over Jiegu town - the seat of government of Yushu prefecture.

Lei Youcai, a local veterinarian, estimated there were at least 3,000 mastiffs in Jiegu. Keeping a mastiff has become popular among the new rich. A pure-bred Tibetan mastiff can fetch up 3.6 million yuan (HK$4.1 million) and many people in Yushu bred mastiffs for sale.

After the devastating earthquake in Sichuan two years ago, the government sent armed police to kill stray dogs to prevent them from spreading diseases or biting people. But no such order has been made in Yushu, given the close ties between the mastiffs and local people.