Longtime Ubud resident Cat Wheeler takes stock of the dwindling, umm, stock of the surprisingly important Bali dog. Once the only canines around, the Bali dog is down to less than a quarter of the canine population of the island:
Across the ravine, a dog sends its voice into the dense black night. Beside my bed Tika’s ears prick and she raises her muzzle to reply. For a few moments the timeless call and answer of the canine race echoes through the jungle. The barks vary in length and cadence; a conversation is taking place. I know that Tika has a different vocalisation for these social communications, for strangers at the gate, and for a monitor lizard in the chicken yard. Very interesting, canine language, but at four in the morning it’s just a bloody nuisance and I ask her to be quiet.
The connection between the dogs reflects at least 2500 years during which this highly social breed has been communicating across Bali’s rice fields and deep ravines. Tika wears a collar and sleeps on the carpet by my bed, but she is a pure Bali heritage dog — an ancient breed whose genetics preserve the history of canine evolution.
Last week Udyana University hosted an international conference on the Bali Dog supported by the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA). Dr Ben Sacks of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California (UC) Davis presented a fascinating account of the evolution of the Bali dog and its importance to science and the community. He strongly advocated its protection.
Neither mutt nor mongrel – pristine Bali dogs, top photo and above left, the Kintamani pure bred above right. Top (lead) photo original ©Alex Cairns, above photos ©Bawa
The often-scorned Bali dog is actually very special. These are neither mutts nor mongrels, but pristine dogs. “All dogs are descended from the grey wolf, Dr Sacks explains”. “About 7000 years ago the dog of today was born in Southeast Asia. It spread rapidly to replace earlier proto-dogs and become the unique indigenous dog of Bali, Australia (dingo), and other regions, and eventually giving rise to the Kintamani, saluki, chow chow, Akita and basenji and other indigenous breeds.”
Between 2000 and 2003 the DNA of 3,000 indigenous dogs from all over Bali was tested in the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at UC Davis. The research revealed that Bali’s indigenous dogs held one of the richest pools of genetic diversity of all the dogs in the world. “The Bali dog is one of the few remaining indigenous dog populations,” says Dr Sacks. “Its genome is valuable to science.”
Bali is home to two unique indigenous dogs — the Bali heritage dog and the Highland Kintamani. The Bali heritage dog has lived on the island in its pure form for at least 2500 years, possibly much longer, and the Kintamani probably evolved as a sub-type . Because of its very rich DNA, the Bali heritage dog presents a wide range of colours and markings.
The Balinese have been keeping these dogs for millenia; canine and human skeletons have been found buried together in sarcophagi in West Bali. The dogs are very territorial and protect the temples, shops, livestock and fields of their human families as well as killing rats and repelling snakes. Bali dogs are intelligent and easy to train, and possess great character and charm. By nature they hate to be confined and like to roam in groups; this gives the impression that they’re feral. In fact over 90% of Bali dogs are owned, although many Balinese don’t care for their dogs as a Westerner would; they are seldom sterilised or treated for medical problems.
The Bali heritage dog hates to be confined and roams the streets giving the impression that it is feral, but it is not. photo©Rio Helmi
But they have a strong place in Bali’s culture and religion. “Bali dogs are very faithful, clean, healthy and smart pets,” says I Gusti Ngurah Bagus of BAWA. “Until recently they lived in every Balinese compound. Their genetic variation makes them resistant to the diseases and genetic conditions common in breed dogs; they are easier to feed and care for.
“Their genetic purity is now under threat which is very sad for the Balinese; we are losing a part of our heritage that was here before we were. We need to work together to preserve the Bali dog.”
Those of us who live in Bali or visit often may have noticed that there are many fewer dogs on the street these days, and they look different. It’s not our imagination. The population of pure Bali dogs has dropped by a shocking 80% over the past decade.
There are several threats to the survival of the Bali heritage dog. The most serious has been the mass culling mandated by the government in an ineffective attempt to control the current rabies epidemic. This has removed at least 400,000 dogs from the gene pool. The dog meat trade (warung RW), which is very strong in South Bali, accounts for at least 60,000 dogs a year. But the most insidious threat has been the hybridisation with ‘breed’ dogs in Bali.
The ironically named purebred (breed) dogs were developed over the past 200 years to select for specific traits. Breeding ‘purebred’ dogs is a multi-million dollar international industry. Puppy mills are common in parts of Indonesia, including Bali, where dogs are forced to breed frequently in poor conditions.
“Before 2004 breed dogs were banned from Bali and the DNA of the Bali heritage dog was largely undisturbed,” says BAWA founder Janice Girardi. “But now breed dogs have become status symbols for the Balinese. They’re often allowed to roam and aren’t sterilised because of the higher economic value of the puppies. The resulting inbreeding with the Bali heritage dog is a serious threat to its genetic integrity. Only an estimated 20% of the dogs in Bali today could be considered pure Bali dogs.” Other threats to the Bali dog include acts of cruelty, disease, poisoning, street accidents and neglect.
Above: Breed dogs like this are status symbols for some Balinese. photo©Rio Helmi / Below: crossbreeding has also threatened the Bali dogs genetic integrity. photo©Catriona Mitchell
The rapid disappearance of the Bali heritage dog is worrying to geneticists. “There are too few remaining lineages of unique indigenous dogs in some regions and Bali is in danger of losing this dog with its very valuable ancient genetic signature,” says Dr Sacks. “ Bali dogs contribute unique information about the past. Diluting the genetics with crossbreeding means information is being lost before we even know all the questions.”
BAWA is very active in all dimensions of the complex issues of animal welfare. It maintains Bali’s only free 24/7 animal ambulance; if you see an animal in trouble, call the BAWA hotline at 0811389004. Its rehab/adoption program places up to 60 rescued dogs a month in permanent homes. A free sterilisation program for Balinese-owned dogs is available for banjars that request it. BAWA’s education program brings trainers into elementary schools to teach children about responsible dog ownership. And it advocates tirelessly for animal rights. Obtaining funding for its excellent programs is a constant battle. Please consider supporting BAWA’s work with a monthly donation , however modest, through www.bawabali.com.
Some communities are beginning to focus on the cultural importance of the Bali heritage dog. Sekehe Asu Bali Utama (SABU) is a grassroots club in Kemenuh, Sukawati with a mission to build a healthy dog population while combating rabies. Almost 50 members and supporters promote education about canine health, welfare and population control in the banjar. The community has become more dog-friendly and people now find, rescue and adopt puppies. There are now four Sekehe asu in Gianyar. Perhaps a banjar might undertake the project of breeding pure Bali heritage dogs to keep the DNA secure.
Tika lies at my feet as I write, her alert eyes scanning the garden. Suddenly she bounds to her feet and barks at a sound behind the wall. Those of us who share our homes with Bali heritage dogs mourn the almost certain disappearance of this unique canine. What a loss it will be to science, to Balinese culture and to the world if the voice of this ancient lineage falls silent forever.
Cat Wheeler is a long term resident of Bali and author of Bali Daze – Freefall off the Tourist Trail. (www.balidazethebook.com)
BAWA – Bali Animal Welfare Association