Africans fight to preserve one of man's oldest friends

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The Independent Online

For 7,000 years the African dog has roamed the continent, the pet of people from Cairo to Cape Town. Sleek and strong, wily and well adapted, it is a medium-sized hound free of the diseases of overbred European pedigrees.

For 7,000 years the African dog has roamed the continent, the pet of people from Cairo to Cape Town. Sleek and strong, wily and well adapted, it is a medium-sized hound free of the diseases of overbred European pedigrees.

Now that it is under threat, the African dog is finally gaining the status it deserves.

After six years of research, canis africanis - "Dog of Africa" - is being conserved in its natural form and prepared by the Africanis Society of Southern Africa for full registration with the internationally recognised Kennel Union of South Africa (Kusa).

The society's president, Johan Gallant, a Belgian-born retired physiotherapist in Pietermaritzburg, Kwazulu-Natal, started the preservation project seven years ago. He and Dr Udo Küsel, former director of the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria, formed the society in 1998. "What fascinated me is that we are dealing with one of the last pure dog races in the world," said Mr Gallant.

The society feared that, because of interbreeding with "exotic" pets, the African dog would disappear into a mongrel melée. So they scoured deep rural areas of South Africa to find true specimens.

One member is Carol Brammage, a librarian who has two young Africanis dogs - Meg and Ben - coexisting happily with another dog and eight cats. "They are beautiful, athletic and very alert," she says. "They seem to cope with life in suburbia, but thrive on exercise. They are not at all neurotic, have sunny personalities and love children: they make a beeline for anybody under three feet tall."

From an original 25 dogs collected during trips, there are now 10 litters and about 70 pure dogs. One of the originals is Mr Gallant's dog Tamboti, a creature of no mean beauty and talent.

"Before today's breeds there were other dogs," says Mr Gallant. "The African dog is original and we want to keep it that way - conserving the race, not modifying it."

The Africanis developed naturally, although through a degree of selection by man it did evolve into different "eco-types" with sub-varieties. It was never bred for external homogeneity, such as colour or size: rather, its human custodians stressed physical and mental alertness.

Indeed, African culture places the dog near the bottom of the domestic animal chain (in rural South Africa a dog can be bought for about 10 rands, a chicken for R35). Dogs are expected to survive on their own, and only the truly fit do.

The Africanis Society wants to conserve the dogs as a heterogeneous "acclimatised" gene pool forged primarily through natural selection which, it believes, is the best recipe for creating environmentally adapted dogs that are disease-resistant and virtually free of hereditary disabilities.

The Africanis goes back 7,000 years to when dogs were domesticated in the Arabian peninsula. They were introduced into the Nile Delta, where archaeologists have established their presence from 4700 BC. The dogs migrated south, arriving in southern Africa in the sixth century AD.

Dr Küsel says: "This is one of the most exciting things we've ever done. But we realise that as soon as one takes the dog out of its natural system, it will change. We will resist breeding the Africanis for any criteria other than health, and try to hang on to the gene pool that makes it so special."

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