Dogs in Africa, Part 2

December 2nd, 2008

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Dogs Life.

Today in Africa, hunting of wildlife is heavily restricted. Many of the gazelles, oryx and other deer-like creatures of the desert have had their numbers greatly reduced by shooting parties. A thriving bushmeat trade continues illegally, and hunting tusked animals for ivory still continues. Tribes who once hunted for subsistence only, now hunt to make more money, to feed more people to buy more material objects. These are some of the distortions of what was once a proud hunting culture. And the dog, always a mirror of our needs, no matter how distorted our desires, is once again, our unwitting companion. By Lorraine Chittock


While traveling in the north of Kenya with my dog, a man who worked for the government asked, Do you let your dog inside the house?

Yes, I replied.

Really? It is amazing, he said. I have seen this once before. One time I visited a Maasai man at his manyatta. On one side of the fireplace sat his dog, and on the other side a cat. It was the first time Id ever seen a dog inside a house.

Allowing dogs inside homes is a new fad in the West, dating back just 100 years, and an even more modern concept for Africas middle class. But in cultures where a solid wall doesn’t separate you from the outdoors, many animals, including dogs, goats and other livestock, meander in and out with complete freedom.

So it is with Maasai huts, two-room abodes formed from branches, the outside coated with fresh cow dung, which bakes hard in the sun. Probably the most photographed tribe in all of Africa, Maasai women adorn themselves with vibrantly coloured hoops which hang from their necks, wrists and huge holes in their earlobes, while the men wear colourful robes.

Their dogs begin each day by herding cattle and goats from a circular boma, a thick fence formed by sharp thorn bushes, which protects the livestock from raids by other tribes and wild animals at night. Traditionally known as semi-nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai guide their livestock over the savannah known as Maasai land a vast territory stretching across the central African plains of both Kenya and Tanzania. A day spent in the bush is a long and often solitary one. The dog is not only a protector, alert to possible danger from nearby predators, but also a companion.

Due to limited access to land and water, Maasai livestock numbers have diminished in recent years, while their human population has increased. So have their dogs at a rate of five to 10 per cent every year. With almost no veterinarians living in the bush, Maasai dogs don’t receive medical care and are carriers of rabies. Dr Sarah Cleaveland from the Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland estimates as many as 25,000 deaths occur in Africa every year due to rabies, compared to the 100 to 200 officially recorded.

Dog-health projects

In 1997, the Afya Serengeti project, meaning Health for the Serengeti, was launched. Cleaveland and her team held discussions with tribal elders, school teachers and children, and encouraged owners to bring their dogs to a makeshift clinic for rabies vaccinations.


Dogs were registered, given a plastic collar to wear to signify innoculation, and a certificate. At the end of their second campaign, there was a 97 per cent decrease in those entering hospital to receive post-exposure vaccinations from the bites of rabid dogs. The campaign continues today with the financial support of animal health company, Intervet.

Though veterinarian care is crucial in the Africa of today, lack of medical care has created a dog across this continent which is far healthier and resilient to disease than its Western cousins. From the dogs presumed origin in Southwest Asia or the Middle East, it spread into the heart of Africa with its human companions. Those ancient civilisations lived in extreme environments, ranging from dense tropical jungle to dry open desert. Its possible a few of these dogs still exist in very remote and isolated areas, but for the most part, their genes, like those of the Australian dingo, have been mixed with dogs brought from Europe and through Arab trading routes.

Africa has abundant evidence of the importance previously placed on the dog: a Khoisan child buried with a dog at what is now Cape St. Francis in South Africa; and in examples of rock art, where a group of women is portrayed during a foraging expedition while a dog runs behind them. In hunting scenes, dogs appear depicted by San bushmen, as well as paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs. Alexander the Great received 90 Hounds as a gift from Queen Candace of Ethiopia, to hunt down fugitives, with a letter mentioning the animals being indigenous to her land.

The resilient hunting dog

Natural selection and adaptation to harsh climates werent the only elements creating an extremely hardy dog. In areas of Africa where soil was marginal, tribes existed on a meat-based diet.


An effective hunting dog with a keen sense of smell and hearing was highly prized and rewarded. One of the dogs developed in this way was what we recognise today as the Basenji. [Ed note: See #82 Dogs Life March/April 2007 edition for a breed feature on the Basenji]. South African writer Lawrence Green noted in 1959, …a native in the Belgian Congo will give a dozen good spears for a well-trained Basenji. Some wives cost less than that.

One of the few primitive dogs remaining in the world, its believed the name Basenji means small wild thing from the bush, which sounds in the language of the pygmies like Basenji. The Mbuti pygmies in the rainforests of Central Africa still use hunting dogs today. Nets are laid out and dogs are used to scare game from their hiding places and towards the nets. Once the animals have set foot inside this area, the ends are pulled up and the quarry easily killed by the hunters.

Though natives often describe the Basenji as a talking dog, because of its diverse range of sounds, it doesn’t bark. This is a huge benefit if you don’t want prey to notice your presence. This attribute is commonly believed to be caused by a flat larynx. But because a silent dog is difficult for a hunter to locate, bells made from hollowed-out shells and filled with small bones are fitted around the dogs neck. When not actually working, the dogs are sometimes worn like living stoles around the necks of their owners.

In the days before guns, indigenous groups also used spears, bows and arrows, knobkerries (stout-balled hunting sticks), as well as pit-falls, all with the help of their dogs. The pit-fall is a deep depression dug into the earth, sometimes baited to lure an animal. In the Eastern Cape of South Africa, the Mpondo tribe once made V-shaped fences, which animals were driven towards by packs of dogs. At the bottom were sharpened stakes to impale the unfortunate victims.

A part of the tribe

Within cultures like Bushman hunter-gatherers and Khoi, dogs were at one time regarded as members of the tribe, and even viewed with reverence. During hunting expeditions, the dogs received a fair share of the kill. Goats were sometimes slaughered before the hunt to give the dogs extra strength. On the actual day, the dogs were only given warm milk, as anything heavier was thought to make them sluggish. The Korana, a sub-group of the Khoi who lived along the Orange River, served their dogs milk from hollowed-out large tortoise shells.


Zulu-speaking groups in South Africas KwaZulu Natal have a ridged dog called a Sicha, which means bow and arrow. To improve his hunting abilities, the dog is sometimes given a concoction of magical medicinal herds. According to Sian Hall in Dogs of Africa, the Sicha, along with many other indigenous dogs, are becoming rare because of breeding with Greyhounds. Hall writes: Such offspring are called Ibansi, and are remarkable hunters on the African savannah and primarily used on larger antelopes such as reed buck and the cunning jackal… It is against such a deadly association that conservationists are fighting to protect the wildlife in reserves.

In West Africa, a tribe called the Nemadi, whose name means master of dogs, is said to be so devoted to its animals that when food is scarce, the owner will go without so their canine wont go hungry. Though the Nemadi are forbidden to hunt by the Mauritanian government, their songs still sing praise to those bygone days. Author Bruce Chatwin, upon meeting a tribe on the outskirts of Walata, Mauritania, recounted in The Songlines, The chief hunter…was whittling a saddle-tree from a black of wood while his favourite dog, a sleek piebald terrier not unlike a Jack Russell, nuzzled up against his knee.

Chatwin continues, The hunter, having tracked a herd of antelopes to its grazing ground, will lie with his dogs on the downward scarp of a dune, and instruct them which animal to go for. At a signal, the king then hurtles down the slope, fastens its teeth around the antelopes muzzle, and the others go for each of the legs. A single knife thrust, a rapid prayer to ask the antelope for its forgiveness and the hunt is over.

The revenge of the Maasai

Even the Maasai, who are revered by many because of their strong bond to a traditional way of life, have altered their concept towards hunting. The Maasai believe God created water, pasture and livestock for their people, and prohibit the taking of wildlife except in times of extreme hardship. This conviction, coupled with their warlike nature, is deemed as one of the major factors that has allowed an abundance of wildlife to remain in East Africa.


But agricultural areas have expanded in tandem with population centres, and since the middle of last century, theyve been forbidden to inhabit land now considered National Park. Pastorialism, their way of life, depends upon unrestricted access to vast expanses of productive land.

A picture I was shown at a FONNAP (Friends of Nairobi National Park in Kenya) meeting was shocking: a lion, dead and mutilated, with specific body parts hacked off by the sharp edges of pangas. The running down of the lion was the work of a pack of 20 dogs; the final thrusts of spears carried out by Maasai.

This was not one of their initiation ceremonies to bring a boy to manhood, thus giving him the status of warrior or moran. This was in retaliation for the killing of cattle. Presently, if livestock is killed by a predator, the tribe is expected to fill out paperwork and a compensation fee from the government is expected to arrive six months later. The Maasai are no different from you or I anyone whos ever lost an animal knows money can’t replace its love.


Fight Against Rabies – Saving lives in Africa

Rabies is not a concern in Australia, but it is widespread throughout Africa, with more than 25,000 people dying from the disease each year. Rabies is a devastating viral disease that attacks the nervous system and is transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. It can affect dogs, cats and wild animals, such as bats and foxes. It is also zoonotic, which means it can spread from animals to people.


Worst affected by rabies are children, not only because they’re more likely than adults to suffer multiple bites to the most susceptible areas for contracting the disease, such as the face and head, but also due to their close contact with the domestic dog, the main carrier of rabies.

Helping to control the incidence of animal and human rabies in north-western Tanzania is a key focus for international animal health company, Intervet, through its ongoing support of the Afya Serengeti (Health of Serengeti) project. This year, the program has happily welcomed Intervet Australia, joining local companies in UK, Canada, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Spain, USA, Netherlands and South Africa.

We are very excited about creating an opportunity for Australian veterinary practices to participate in this excellent program, Griff Dalgleish, Sales & Marketing Manager for Intervet Australia told Dogs Life.

Thousands of rabies vaccines donated

Run by epidemiologist Dr Sarah Cleaveland from the Centre of Tropical Medicine at the University of Edinburgh in the UK, the Afya Serengeti project has received from Intervet a donation of 200,000 doses of its rabies vaccine to help bring widespread canine vaccination to this famous nature reserve.


The canine vaccination program is central to Afya Serengetis activities and a vaccination zone has been set up around the park, with regular clinics taking place to maintain the population of vaccinated dogs with a long-term aim of preventing and controlling rabies in dogs and humans alike. Dog owners are invited to bring their dogs to be registered, vaccinated, marked with a plastic collar and given a certificate of vaccination. So far, it has proved popular, with villagers often walking for miles with their dogs to ensure their pets can be protected. Additional data and blood samples are also collected at the clinics, and household questionnaires are carried out to assess the attitude and awareness of vaccination.

Afya Serengetis vaccination clinics have reaped tremendous rewards, with a staggering drop in households reporting animal cases from 27 per cent in 2003 to only two per cent in 2006. Bite injuries from rabid dogs have also declined dramatically from 10 per cent of households reporting injuries in 2003 to just 0.6 per cent in 2006. The control of dog rabies has, in turn, had a massive impact on wildlife in the Serengeti, with the resurgence of at least three packs of the once-endangered African wild dog a major attraction for wildlife tourists.

The challenge now is to sustain the vaccination coverage and maintain interest once rabies has been brought under control. The long-term aim is to extend vaccination to all the villages within adjacent districts, while passing responsibility to local and regional Government authorities.

Australian veterinary clinics participating in the Intervet scheme will be easily identifiable through signage in their clinics, where they will also carry additional literature and updates on the Afya Serengeti project.

Love dogs? Why not visit our DOGSLife Directory

Got Something To Say: