Recently recognized by the Kennel Union of South Africa (KUSA) as an emerging breed, the Africanis is the native dog of Africa. Believed to have descended from the hounds and pariah dogs of ancient africa, this breed is still found today in tribal areas where people have maintained their traditional lifestyle. In Swahili the name for the breed is 'umbwa wa ki-shenzi' meaning common or mongrel or "traditional dog". The term 'Africanis' is also an umbrella name for all the aboriginal dogs in southern Africa.
The Africanis is the original dog of Africa, a unique type shaped through the process of natural selection, not by human intervention or standardized breeding practices. The strong survived to pass on their genetic traits, while the weak perished.
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection. - Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
It was through the efforts of Johan Gallant, President of the Africanis Society of Southern Africa and his colleague Joseph Sithole that the Africanis was rescued from the stigma of not being recognized as a breed; simply considered to be a feral or common mongrel of mixed origin.
Gallant and Sithole spent years studying and photographing these remarkable animals near homesteads while roaming the KwaZulu-Natal. It was their conclusion that these dogs were not a hodgepodge of various breeds thrown together over time, but that they were a unique breed of dog, with their own distinctive behavior and appearance. It was Gallant that came up with the name for the breed by combining "canis" (dog) and its origin "Africa" to create “Africanis”.
The modern Africanis is said to have descended from the dogs of early Egypt, such as the Saluki and not as a result of uncontrolled breeding by colonial dogs brought by settlers. The evidence supports this theory as it is clear that in Africa no canine domestication took place and that the Africanis is a descendent of dogs that were domesticated in the East that came to Africa through the migration of humans during the time.
Modern science supports this theory through comparative blood typing from samples collected from Desert Bred Salukis and Africanis from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. In 2004, DNA research conducted by Greyling, L. and Grobler, P., Van der Bank, and Titled: 'Genetic characterization of a domestic dog Canis familiaris breed endemic to South African rural areas’ states:
"An assignment test, fixation index values, gene flow and genetic distance values indicated a closer genetic association between the AfriCanis and the Saluki breeds than with dogs of Western origin. This finding supports archaeological evidence that the endemic AfriCanis breed was introduced from the Middle East into Africa thousands of years ago, and not through later western influences"
The above research leads us to Egypt around 4500 BC. Where the earliest record of domestic dogs on the African continent comes in the form of fossils found in the Nile estuary. These fossilized canines are the direct descendents of the wild wolves of Arabia and India, probably having arrived from the East during the Stone Age with traders exchanging goods with the people of the Nile valley.
From this point dogs spread rapidly into Sudan and beyond through trade, migrations, and the seasonal movement of people with their livestock, which took them into the Sahara and Sahel. By 300 AD the Bantu peoples with domesticated dogs had migrated from the Great Lakes regions and reached modern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa where they were later acquired by indigenous San hunter-gatherers and Khoi pastoralists.
Remains found near the Botswana border dating to 570 AD, are the earliest evidence found thus far of dogs in South Africa. In 650 AD we find dogs in the lower Tugela valley, and around 800 AD in the Khoisan settlement of modern day Cape St Francis, which indicates that there was contact and trade between the Bantu and Khoisan people.
In the following centuries valued by South Africa's indigenous populations for their hardiness, intelligence, loyalty and hunting ability the Africanis evolved through the process of natural selection into the endemic hunting dog of southern Africa.
"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." "For centuries, the fittest and cleverest dogs survived to give us one of the rare remaining natural dog races in the world."
Although the purity of the breed is sometimes contested by individuals purporting a theory that dogs brought by the Arab trade, Eastern seafarers, and Portuguese explorers might have "contaminated" the traditional African dog over the years. However there is not enough evidence to support this and any exotic canine influences more than likely came after the colonization of Transkei and Zululand by foreign settlers during the 19th century.
It is the native migrant laborers who lived outside of the cities but worked inside of them that are primarily responsible for the post 19th century breed contamination of the Africanis. As new western breeds were brought in by foreigners during colonization, migrant workers would take them out of the cities where they were allowed to breed with the indigenous Africanis. The most popular crossing of the time was to use a Greyhound, as this would improve the speed of the Africanis making them even more ideal hunting dogs. It was probably during the popular dog races of the time that the migrants first encountered the Greyhound. In the present day, these crosses between Africanis and Greyhound are called Ibhanzi and not considered to be a traditional dog
Today the true Africanis can still be found in tribal areas where people maintain their traditional lifestyle. It is the ever changing culture and landscape of South Africa and its impact on rural societies, disdain for the traditional dog and the status that the ownership of an exotic breed provides, that poses an ever increasing threat to the survival of the native Africanis. Ironically the Africanis, a breed that has been around for centuries is recognized today by the the Kennel Union of Southern Africa (KUSA) as an emerging breed.
What makes the Africanis unique is that every aspect of it was shaped by natural, not human, selection. Unlike most dog breeds, whose appearance and disposition were intentionally modified by man, and are currently bred to fit within the sometimes absurd breed standards of the Kennel Clubs, the Africanis naturally evolved to survive in the often harsh conditions of Africa all on its own.
Gallant describes the Africanis in the following way:
"The Africanis is the result of natural selection and physical and mental adaptation to environmental conditions, it has not been 'selected' or 'bred' for appearance.” and "The beauty of this dog is embodied in the simplicity and functionality of its build."
There is no set physical standard to which one can apply to the Africanis, as it has evolved naturally through time of its own accord. The appearance of the breed tends to differ from region to region, with some dogs being taller, some shorter, some thicker, some leaner etc. Dogs in one region may have slightly longer ears, while those of another may not, while all the dogs of a single region will tend to be more or less similar in appearance. This again goes back to its evolution, in that a prominent physical characteristic that serves it well in one region may be of less use in another. Thus any physical description when used in reference to a breed standard is a general characterization at best.
For the most part the Africanis is a medium sized; muscularly build slender dog with a short coat, which comes in a variety of colors to include brown, black, brindle, white and most everything in between. The dog may be of a single color, or may be of multiple colors in any pattern, with or without spotting. For most the head is wedge-shaped with an expressive face. Sometimes wrongly attributed to starvation; the naturally slender build of an animal and slightly visible ribs are a normal condition of dogs in good health. Most tend to appear more long than tall; a possible adaptation for speed, these dogs tend be active and may or may not have a taller ridge of hair down the center of the back.
The most accurate description would probably be an ambiguous one in that; the Africanis in appearance looks like a dog that is ideally suited to the climate and terrain of Africa.
The Africanis is an intelligent dog with a friendly temperament. Their hunting instincts and loyalty to their master and his property make them natural guard dogs without being overly aggressive. This is a dog that through the centuries has roamed freely close to humans in and around rural settlements. This has created a need for the Africanis to have both for space itself and humans for companionship. The Africanis is naturally independent by nature but tends to respond well to training; usually making good pets that are safe to have around the house.
“It is my experience that the Africanis is a marvellous pet and house dog. Guided by its instinct of subservience it will steal your heart before you realise it,” Gallant says. "Africanis is well disposed without being obtrusive: a friendly dog, showing watchful territorial behavior. The dog displays unspoiled social canine behavior 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. “
The Africanis is ideally suited to survive in the harsh conditions of Africa, without the aid of pampering and grooming.
Due to its survival of the fittest evolution, the Africanis is one of the healthiest breeds of dog known. It needs no pampering or special food, the Africanis is perfectly suited to survive and thrive in harsh conditions, with minimal sustenance. Hundreds of years of evolution and genetic diversity have helped develop a breed that is free from the congenital defects found in today’s purebred dogs; it’s immune system has even developed so far as to help resist internal and external parasites.