You’ll see them in the villages and dirt roads of rural South Africa, and on the streets of the country’s townships: seemingly undistinguished medium-sized dogs, sometimes scrawny, with long snouts and short brownish coats.
Some dismiss them as mongrels, strays or even, because of their long association with black South Africans, with the racist epithet of “kaffir dogs”.
But these dogs are a distinct breed, endemic to southern Africa and with a proven lineage going back some 7 000 years. They are the Africanis – the dog of Africa.
While long valued by South Africa’s indigenous populations for their hardiness, intelligence, loyalty and hunting ability, the Africanis has been rescued from the stigma of “mongrel” in the eyes of the rest of the world by the work of two men: dog expert Johan Gallant and his colleague Joseph Sithole.
For years Gallant and Sithole roamed rural KwaZulu-Natal, studying and photographing the dogs they came across in kraals and homesteads. They concluded that these animals were not a mess of mongrels but members of coherent race of dog, with a distinct behaviour and appearance.
Gallant came up with a name for the breed: “canis” (dog) and “Africa” – the Africanis. He later wrote up his and Sithole’s work in The Story of the African Dog, published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
“The Africanis is the real African dog – shaped in Africa, for Africa,” says Gallant. “It is part of the cultural and biological heritage of Africa.”
Young Zulu men hunting with their Africanis dogs in rural KwaZulu-Natal.
The Africanis is descended from the dogs pictured on Egyptian murals, with the earliest record of the domestic dog in Africa being from the Nile delta, dated 4 700 BC. Today, Africanis is found all over southern Africa.
What makes the animal unique is that it was shaped by natural, not human, selection. Unlike Western dog breeds, whose appearance and disposition are determined by the sometimes absurd breed standards of the Kennel Clubs, the Africanis evolved to survive in the often harsh conditions of Africa.
“The Africanis is the result of natural selection and physical and mental adaptation to environmental conditions,” Gallant says. “It has not been ‘selected’ or ‘bred’ for appearance.
“For centuries, the fittest and cleverest dogs survived to give us one of the rare remaining natural dog races in the world.”
Also unlike Western breeds, the Africanis does not have a rigidly uniform appearance, although Gallant and Sithole have identified the common traits that define the breed.
“The beauty of this dog is embodied in the simplicity and functionality of its build,” says Gallant.
The Africanis is of medium size and well muscled. It is agile and supple and can run at great speed. The coat is generally short, in a range of colours and with or without markings. A ridge of hair is sometimes be seen on the back – one of the Africanis’s genetic contributions to the Rhodesian Ridgeback.
The head is wedge-shaped, and the face expressive. Its slender build is sometimes wrongly attributed to starvation; when in good condition, the animal’s ribs are just visible.
Because the Africanis has roamed freely in and around rural settlements for centuries, it has a need both for space and for human companionship.
“Traditionally it is always close to humans, other dogs, livestock and domestic animals,” Gallant says.
“Africanis is well disposed without being obtrusive: a friendly dog, showing watchful territorial behaviour. The dog displays unspoiled social canine behaviour with a high level of facial expressions and body language. Its nervous constitution is steady, but the dog is always cautious in approaching new situations.
“In other words: it displays a high survival instinct.”
How did the Africanis get here?
Genetic evidence has shown that dogs are descended from wolves, with the split occurring some 100 000 years ago. Their evolution was slow and uneven, but generally determined by one thing: their association with people. Over millennia they evolved from wild hunters to scavengers looking for scraps around human settlements until, finally, they became our domesticated best friend.
But there are no wolves in Africa, so how did the Africanis land up on the southern tip of the continent?
It is known that the domestic dog migrated with Mongoloid people to the Americas, arrived in Japan with early Jomo immigrants, later making its way with Eastern seafarers all along the archipelagos in the Pacific and finally reaching Australia, where these dogs became the feral dingo – making the Africanis a distant dingo relation.
Dogs arrived in Africa via a similar route, according to Gallant’s research. The earliest record of domestic dogs – Canis familiaris – on the African continent are fossils found in the Nile estuary and dated to 4 500 BC. The animals, descended from wild wolf packs of Arabia and India, probably arrived from the East with Stone Age traders exchanging goods with the people of the Nile valley.
Even before the time of the Egyptian dynasties, domestic dogs spread quickly along the Nile river. Seasonal migrations and trade also took them into the Sahara and Sahel. Iron-using people brought their domestic dogs along when, from about 200 AD, they left the grasslands of Cameroon in a massive migration which eventually led to their settlement in southern Africa.
Dogs presumably accompanied the Bantu-speaking people in their long migration southwards, where they were acquired by indigenous San hunter-gatherers and Khoi pastoralists.
The earliest evidence of domestic dogs in South Africa is remains found near the Botswana border and dated at 570 AD. By 650 AD the dog is found in the lower Tugela valley, and by 800 AD in a Khoisan settlement at Cape St Francis, indicating that contact between the Bantu and Khoisan had been established.
The evidence that the Africanis is a distinct breed, and not a mongrel of Western types, is increasingly clear. A good thousand years before any possible serious Western influence, the people of southern Africa were hunting with dogs that had become endemic to the region.
The Africanis Society of Southern Africa
Foreign influence on the breed came only with the colonisation of Trankei and Zululand in the 19th century. Later, migrant labourers brought Western dogs back from the cities, where they bred with local dogs.
Particularly favoured was the Greyhound, which migrants would have come across at the dog races popular at the time. Their speed would have made them ideal hunting dogs. In Zululand, crosses between Greyhound and Africanis are called Ibhanzi. They are not considered to be traditional dogs.
Today, the true Africanis is mostly found in rural areas where people maintain a traditional lifestyle. The fast-changing South Africa, the erosion of tradition and a certain disdain for the traditional dog poses an increasing threat to the breed’s survival.
The Africanis Society of Southern Africa was established to conserve this ancient and valuable canine gene pool. The society is strictly a conservation body, launched in 1998 by Gallant and Dr Udo Kusel, director of the National Cultural History Museum.
“The Africanis is part of Africa’s unique heritage and biodiversity, and deserves recognition and protection,” Gallant says.
Unique in the world, the society’s purpose is to conserve a natural dog – not to “develop” the breed, or artificially breed dogs for selective characteristics.
It maintains a code of ethics, guidelines for breeding, regulations and a procedure for registration, and a register of inspected and approved Africanis dogs. Advanced DNA testing is standard.
The society also helps members obtain true Africanis puppies. So if you’re looking for a dog, this hardy and intelligent breed may be for you.
“It is my experience that the Africanis is a marvellous pet and house dog,” Gallant says. “It will steal your heart before you realise it.”
- For more information on the Africanis and the society, visit SA Breeders.
- The Story of the African Dog by Johan Gallant can be ordered from UKZN Press.
Article last updated: September 2007