Many foreigners living in Bali are passionate about the environment here. We wax indignant about genetically modified food and compromised genomes. We respond emotionally to vanishing species such as the orangutan, the Java rhino and many other creatures which are rapidly disappearing across the archipelago. Closer to home a sharp watch is kept on the critically endangered Bali Starling.
And yet amid this recognition of the importance of conserving our unique flora and fauna, there remains an invisible exception. This tiny island is the only home of one of the world’s most treasured repositories of DNA, contained within the skin of a humble animal that is so much part of our landscape as to be invisible.
The ubiquitous and maligned Bali dog is actually very special. These are neither mutts nor mongrels, but the purest proto-canines. Researchers at the University of California Davis believe that the Bali Dog may be the oldest dog on earth with a gene pool that is unique and valuable.
Between 2000 and 2003 Dr Niels Pederson from the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at University of California Davis led a team that tested the DNA of 3,500 indigenous dogs from all over Bali in association with a professor from Udayana University. Bali has two unique indigenous dogs, the Bali Dog and the highland Kintamani. These dogs have been living on the island virtually unaltered for at least 5,000 years, whereas ‘ breed’ dogs are only a couple of centuries old. Genetic research further reveals that the ancestry of the Bali Dog can be traced back some 15,000 years to before the last ice age.
According to Dr Pederson, Bali’s dogs are the richest pool of genetic diversity of all the dogs on the world. “The true pure breed is the indigenous Bali Dog,” said Dr Pedersen. “Its lineage goes all the way back to the first proto-dogs that evolved from the wolves. Their genes are highly valuable for further research, as they are a window on the ancestral dog.”
His research targets genetic diversity across all dogs and within individual breeds, and the role of genetic factors in auto-immune disorders. Some allele and genomes in the Bali dog have never been seen before. He feels that gene therapy using the new gene pool of the Bali Dog may help ‘breed’ dogs with auto-immune problems acquired through inbreeding.
A small group of dedicated people are in the process of beinging respect and recognition to the Bali Dog. Thought to be mongrels because of the wide variation of colours and markings, the Bali Dog is in fact a distinct, pure breed and should be recognised as such The Bali Dog is as much part of Bali’s heritage as the Bali starling. The hard science is here : ‘Genetic Variation Analysis of the Bali Street Dog Using Microsatellites.’
The Bali Dog is medium sized and short-haired, usually with a slim, sickle tail and large, upright ears. That being said, because the Bali Dog is so genetically diverse, it presents many different ear and tail types as well as colours. The Bali Dog may be black or white, or white with black or brown spots or patches of various sizes. There’s a wide variety of beautiful brindles including grey and black, solid brown with caramel and black stripes, and the more common sandy brown variety with black stripes. The most unusual colours for a Bali Dog are pure golden and grey. Also rare and highly sought after for ceremonial sacrifice is the un-neutered male pure brown variety with a black muzzle and face. Genetic testing proves that regardless of the wide range of colour and markings, all these dogs shared the same pure DNA pool.
After thousands of years of uncontaminated DNA, the Bali Dog is now under threat from casual inbreeding with imported dogs. The so-called ‘breed dogs’ are a status symbol here, but many are products of uncontrolled puppy mills where extreme inbreeding is the norm. (Local people often believe that ‘breed dogs are immune to rabies, which is certainly not the case.) Unsterilized imported dogs wander and breed with unsterilized local dogs and because no one is yet breeding the Bali Dog for purity, its unique DNA is in danger of being lost. It’s also at risk because Balinese increasingly value all things Western – especially conspicuous consumables including dogs – above their own. I look forward to the day when I’ll see ads in the Bali Advertiser Pet Parade for pure bred Bali Brindle pups. Maybe I’ll start breeding them myself.
The Bali Dogs make wonderful pets and excellent guard dogs. Once the owner has won its trust, it can be highly trained. This is naturally a very clean dog that seems to house train itself from an early age. The breed is extremely adaptable to many situations and climates, even growing a thicker coat when moved to colder parts of the world. Its wide genetic diversity makes it immune to the diseases and genetic disorders typical of selectively bred dogs. If well treated, the breed can live over 16 years. There are stories of Bali Dogs travelling many miles cross country to return to prior homes.
Although they like to pack up and make a big noise, the breed is seldom aggressive and bites are rare if the dog is not provoked. They hate to be confined and can easily clear walls of over three meters high, from which they also like to survey their territory. They’re commonly known as ‘street dogs’ because of their love of running free and socializing with each other, and although may seem feral almost all are in fact owned. They’re commonly seen hanging out in the doorways of their home compounds, alert to intruders. These dogs are smart and funny and often have huge personalities. Their distinctive barks alert their owners to different kinds of intruders (“Snake!” “Stranger!” “Evil Spirits!”).
The Bali Dog has a special place in the local culture and is honoured for accompanying Yudistira to the gates of heaven. Clear standards for the Bali Dog are written in scriptures and used to judge whether the new puppy acquired from the market or a relative will be a ‘professional dog’ or if it will be ‘nakal’ (trouble). The priests know the standards and classify the dog based on a set of measurements, body posturing, colouring and tail alignment, just like the show ring at Crufts.
Before plastic arrived in Bali, the dogs played an important part in the ecosystem by consuming the organic waste. Enthusiastic ratters, they also had a strong role in managing the rodent population on the island. When the dog culling started after the 2008 rabies outbreak, the rice harvest in some areas where the dogs had been eliminated was destroyed by the uncontrolled rat population. They also keep snakes away from the house.
So if you’re in the market for a dog, why not choose the breed with the oldest and strongest genetic heritage, best adapted to the local climate, a terrific guard dog and a smart, funny companion — the Bali Dog. To adopt a Bali Dog or if you see an injured dog on the street, call BAWA at 081 138-9004.
Thanks to the following individuals and organizations for helping preserve these unique genes until now: Sherry Grant, Dr Listriani, Janice Girardi and the BAWA team, BARC, the Bali Street Dog Fund Australia, Francesca Montoneri of I love Bali Dogs, Laurence Blair and Dean Tolhurst for their film Bali, Island of Dogs, images at www.deborahwilliams.com.au and all of you who keep these wonderful dogs as companions.
Ubud Now & Then thanks Cat Wheeler for her permission to publish this piece. Photos are by Catriona Mitchell.