The Basenji Club of America African Stock Project

Project Library

History of the Breed Presented to the AKC Board:

For Consideration in Reopening the Basenji Stud Book

History of the Breed

The Basenji, one of the oldest of the spitz-like domesticated dogs, was known as long ago as the dynastic period of Egypt; small, prick-eared, curly-tailed dogs are depicted on tombs and funeral stele along with larger drop-eared hunting dogs of saluki apearance. One writer has speculated that the Basenji was bred to be a house dog in Egypt, basing his claim largely on those qualities of the breed which have caused a steady increas in popularity since its introduction to the United States in the late thirties and early fourties; intelligence, short coat, small size, clean habits, and quietness (Hart 222). However, the Basenjis observed by nineteenth century travelers to Africa played a significant rolse in assisting their masters in hunting, a role they still fulfill today as is evidenced by the testimony of modern-day explorers. Further, the success of Basenjis in lure coursing and other field activities is well documented, especially in the last ten years, beginning with 1979 when the Basenji was accepted as a sighthound in ASFA trials.

Basenjis in England and the US

The breed made its debut in the western world in 1895 in London when a brace of the dogs was exhibited at the Cruft's show as African Bush dogs or Congo Terriers. Unfortunately they contracted distemper shortly afterward and died. At about the same time, a pair of the African dogs was exhibited in Paris. In the early part of the 1900s, the Berlin Zoo had a native bitch and her daughter (Tudor-Williams 11). No further activity in the breed is known until 1928, when a Englishwoman, Lady Helen Nutting, brought six Basenjis, or Zande dogs as the British called them then, to England. They had been acquired from Central Africa between the rivers Ibba and Sueh; however, the dogs were given distemper inoculations, became ill, and died from the after-effects. Mrs. Olivia Burn, another Englishwoman traveling in the Belgian Congo in 1929, found the dogs and fell in love with them. Her account of the trip into the Belgian Congo and description of the breed is found in the June, 1937 number of The American Kennel Gazette. Pictures accompanying the article show the dogs she managed to bring into England and reveal a typiness present in the breed today. Initially she brought five back to England and began proceedings to have them recognized as a breed by the Kennel Club. Again, after vaccination, the dogs developed distemper, and only a bitch survived. In 1933, a dog, Kiluba, was imported and came through quarantine successfully. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Burn returned to the Congo and acquired a dog and two bitches. In England, then, the breed traces back to these imports: Bongo of Blean, Bokoto of Blean (imported in whelp to Bongo), Bashele of Blean, Bereke of Blean, Bungwa of Blean, and Bakuma of Blean. The dogs were passed as pure breed by Kennel Club and zoological experts and were registered under the name 'Basenji' and placed in the hound group. Bongo and Bokoto were exhibited at the 1937 Cruft's show (note: three of these Basenjis are pictured in the October, 1937 The National Geographic, Vol. LXXII, No. 4, p. 457). Bakuma was later exported to the United States. Another pioneer of the breed in England, Veronica Tudor-Williams, began her importing efforts in 1938, when she brought in a black and white bitch from the Sudan. However, this bitch died from rabies soon after her arrival. The next year, Tudor-Williams imported a black, tan and white dog and a red and white bitch from the Sudan-Uganda border; the dog, Simolo of the Congo, did not make a great impact on the breed; the bitch was not typical and was never bred. In 1941, Tudor-Williams acquired Amatangazig, a native bitch brought to England from the Sudan by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Byron. She became a foundation bitch for Tudor-Williams' kennel, 'of the Congo'. Another dog imported in 1952 from the southern Sudan was Wau of the Congo. He was acquired near a town, Tembura, on the border of the Sudan and French Equitorial Africa, about 200 miles from Meridi, where Lady Nutting's basenjis were found in 1923 (Tudor-Williams 2nd, 19). The last native import into England was Fula of the Congo, discovered during Tudor-Williams' last visit to the Zande country in 1959.

The first Basenjis to reach the United States, other than a stuffed specimen acquired in the Belgian Congo by Lang and Chapin in 1912 for the American Museum of Natural History, were brought in by Mr. and Mrs. Byron Rogers, who had seen Mrs. Burn's dogs exhibited in the 1937 Cruft's show and purchased three dogs, a bitch by Bongo ex Bokoto of Blean, another bitch by Bongo ex Bereke of Blean, and a native-bred dog which had not completed his quarantine in England, Bakuma of Blean; the dogs landed in America in September, 1937. Both bitches died about a year after their arrival in the country, and the dog dissapeared after going to a pet home (Tudor-Williams, 21). However, Mr. Alexander Phemister subsequently acquired a native dog said to have been owned at one time by the Byron Rogers. Although the dog's papers were lost, it is almost certain he was Bakuma of Blean. He was re-registered with the American Kennel Club as Phemister's Bois. Mr. Phemister had become interested in the breed after acquiring a small basenji stowaway who had traveled in the hold of a ship from West Africa. The Phemister's nursed her back to health and named her Congo. Two other dogs, Kindu and Kasenyi, also came to Ameria in unusual circumstances. Henry Trefflich, a wild animal importer living in New York, had obtained gorillas for American zoos from Phil Carroll of Brazzaville, French Congo. When eight gorillas were shipped to the States, several Basenjis accompanied them in the cages, Carroll believing the attractive little dogs would have an appeal in the US. These dogs reportedly came from the deep interior of the French Congo beyone Makoua Station, gorilla country, about 170 miles northwest of the junction of the Ubango and Congo rivers and 300 miles north of Leopoldville, or since independence, Kinshasa. The area where they were found is now in the Republic of the Congo, or Cameroon. The surviving pair were registered in 1940 and offered for sale; they were acquired by a California breeder, Mrs. John Taffe, who exhibited the male, Kindu, at Westminster in 1945. Kindu and Kasenyi are found behind the pedigrees of many American and British basenjis. Their son, Ch. Kingolo, along with his sister Kasenyo, was the foundation stock of Forest Hall's Basenji kennel. Later, Kingolo was exported to the Syngefield Kennels in Ireland (Pure Bred Dogs March, 1959). Also in 1940, Dr. A.R.B. Richmond of Toronto imported two males and two bitches from the "of the Congo" Kennels and exhibited them the following year at the Morris and Essex show (Tudor-Williams 21-4).

In summary, then, most Basenjis in the western world are descended from the original 'Blean' and 'of the Congo' dogs as well as the four native-bred dogs found in America, Phemister's Congo, Phemister's Bois, Kindu and Kasenyi. Particulars of the American native-bred dogs were listed by George Gilkey, one of the earliest American fanciers, as follows:

Phemister's Bois. Born in Africa ca. 1936 and imported into England by Olivia Burns in 1937 and named by her Bakuma of Blean; sold out of quarantine to Mrs. Byron Rogers and exported to America in December, 1937. Named Wallop by Mrs. Rogers. Undoubtedly the dog acquired by the Phemister's in April, 1941 and Registered as Phemister's Bois.

Phemister's Congo. Arrived in Boston as a stowaway on the West Leshway in April, 1941. All particulars unknown.

Kindu and Kasenyi. Imported by Henry Trefflich in August, 1941. With these two there was a litter born on board ship and a young, unrelated male. All of the young dogs died.

Failed Efforts to Import

Wayfarer of the Congo was sired by Wau of the Congo, a Sudanese import into England in 1952. He and his littermate, Widgeon of the Congo, were exported to North America. Widgeon went to Canada and was registered and shown. She was bred several times, and some of her offspring were sold in the US and registered by the AKC. Several became influential in the breed. Wayfarer was bought by George Gilkey. The AKC refused to register Wayfarer because his sire did not have a three-generation pedigree, although it had registered his sister's offspring. He and several of his get obtained AKC championships under ILP numbers, but his genetic potential was lost to the breed.

Other efforts over the years seemed to give some credence to Mrs. Burn's complaint, after losing many of her dogs to distemper and other accidents, that "the Gods of Africa were angry, and did not intend that their native breed should ever flourish on foreign soil" (Tudor-Williams, 14). In 1956, James Chapin, Associate Curator Ermitus of the American Museum of Natural History, acquired a male, Tiki-Tiki, for Bettina Belmont Ward, and active breeder. However, efforts to register the dog were unsuccessful, and Tiki-Tiki went to live with Dr. Chapin's nephew in Staten Island. Dr. Chapin first saw native Basenjis when he served as assistant to Herbert Lang on the Museum's Congo expedition lasting from 1909 to 1915. Dr. Chapin, interviewed by Walter Philo, Basenji columnist for the Gazette in the 1950s, was an important eyewitness for the breed. He especially emphasized the great variations in size and in coat color among the native dogs which he had seen.

Dr. Chapin is quoted by Mr. Philo in the August 1958 Gazette concerning size and type:

...The best Basenjis I have seen were those of the Ituri Forest and the savannahs north of it, right up to the Sudan frontier. The Azande in Equatoria have dogs of the same blood as they do in the Uele District of the Congo...The physical characteristics change as one travels southward toward the Kasai, the dogs becoming rangier, longer-legged, with much less curl in their tails.

In 1964, Mrs. Shirley Chambers acquired a black and white bitch sired by an AKC registered Basenji out of a Liberian black and white bitch. This bitch, Black Diamond of Cryon, was bred to Khajah's Black Fula Challenge and produced a litter of six. Two of the black puppies were sent to Jayne Stringer of Horsley Kennels in England. The breeding program eventually produced a black and white male with a three-generation pedigree of English breeding; this dog, Ch. Sir Datar of Horsley, was sent to Mrs. Chambers in early 1970.

Geographic Range

The historic range of the Basenji is that part of Africa where tropical forest or woodland savanna exists. This would be roughly the rain forest of the western coast and eastward through what was French Equatorial Africa into the southernmost part of the Sudan and south to include the Ituri forest westward to the west coast. All but the Kivu and eastern mountains of Zaire would be included in this range. The founding native-bred dogs have come from fairly widespread territories in the Belgian Congo, now Zaire, Sudan, and Uganda. From near the Angolan border on the southwest to the center of the Congo up to the Ugandan and Sudanese borders, the dogs made their way to Europe and the North American continent. The Blean dogs are said to have come from the general area of Stanleyville, which lies about 700-800 miles northeast of Leopoldville, whereas Kindu and Kasenyi were not from the Belgian Congo at all, but the French Congo, Carroll maintaining his animals in Brazzaville, French Congo. Mrs. Burn reported in a Gazette article that the dogs were indigenous to Central Africa, mainly in the interior; she also mentions a replica of a Basenji in the Giza Museum Cairo, another from the 12th Egyptian dynast, and other Basenji likenesses on articles excavated in Egypt. It is apparent that the Sahara has been steadily pushing southward during the last several thousand years, and thus the tropical forest may have at one time extended well into what is now Egypt, explaining the appearance of Basenjis among artifacts from that area.

Problems and Present-Day Efforts

From the fifties, as the popularity of the breed began to grow, until today, when the Basenji ranks fifty-eighth in registrations, concern has been voiced about the alarmingly small size of the gene pool and the burgeoning health threats among Basenjis, both here and abroad. Health problems which have been particularly prevalent in the breed include hemolytic anemia, persistent pupillary membrane and colobomas, a malabsorption syndrome, IPSID, and Fanconi Syndrome, a kidney disease. Very early on, people began to express fears because of the exceptionally small base on which the Basenji breed was founded in the west. In the BCOA column of September, 1958 issue of the Gazette, Walter Philo addressed this significant question:

Can a breed maintain itself on a base of only 12 African Basenjis (7 dogs, 5 bitches), several of which have had no influence whatever on the lineage of most present-day Basenjis? Eight were imported into England; only four came directly from Africa to the US. It is believed that probably 6 of them were already closely related. There is no other breed enjoying the Basenji's present popularity and numerical importance that has had such a tenuous, almost implausible beginning. How many more decades can the Basenji, without a revitalizing infusion of African blood, remain a Basenji?

Most of the popular breeds of dogs were produced by deliberate combinations of older breeds. As these new breeds were being established, outcross blodd was introduced from whatever source was deemed necessary. In the case of the Basenji, this was not done, for it would not be done without destroying the dog inside the skin- the very essence of the Basenji. When interbreeding has been tried, the get has been neither distinctive nor barkless. While our early Basenji breeders perpetuated Basenji-type by careful inbreeding, there have been novice breeders who have not been so knowing or so careful, to wit, the serious faults that might have been eliminated but have compounded to plague us to this day...

The Basenji did not spring from the forehead of the proprietor of a puppy factory nor was it put together by a committee. The African Barkless Dog of equatorial Africa and of our sales literature is a well-defined breed created by Nature in one of her happier epochs. Apparently it has associated with man long before the building of the Pyramids. It is still used as a hunting dog by primitive tribes...It is one of the few natural dogs on the roster of breeds recognized by the AKC. Can Basenji characteristics be preserved without periodic replenishment from the source; if we desire to keep our dog an authentic Basenji- and many of us will settle for no les- its appearance must always signify stamina, speed and agility, combined with an air of inquiry and self-assertiveness. The small, dark, oblique eye, the wrinkled forehead, the pliable skin, and the fine coat, the curled tail, and the precious quality of reticence must be retained. Most important, the Basenji must always convey the impression that it can, if given the opportunity, function as a hunting dog.

Mr. George Gilkey wrote in the October 1958 Gazette following Mr. Philo's remarks that more than 99% of the English, American, and Canadian Basenjis are approximately of 90% Blean blood. The progeny of Amatangazig of the Congo appeared in the US in the mid-1940's, never to exceed 7%; Wau of the Congo was five generations back in the top-winning bitch of the late 1950's, Ch. Dainty Dancer of Glenairiey but is behind few American dogs. Two early kennels, the Many Oaks Kennel of Travis Rump and the Hawaiian Koko Crate dogs carried either 100% or largely Kindu-Kasenyi bloodlines. Mr. Gilkey concluded, then, that "if bloodlines were the consideration, there are relatively few opportunities for an outcross. With several thousand Basenjis in exsistence, outcross bloodlines will be pretty well diluted by the time they have made the rounds. This is, of course, one good argument for bringing in new blood from Africa."

Concern over health problems and the possible solutions to breeding these out has been expressed not only in the breed columns of the Gazette, but also in the BCOA Bulletin and The Basenji magazine. Damara Bolte, in a Gazette breed column, summed up the problems as most breeders perceive them in the late 1980's:

Besides the chewing and the hard-headedness, there seemd little to cloud [the Basenji's] bright future. They are a convenient size, short-haired, virtually odorless, barkless, intelligent, full of humor, and good health. Probably because they were so close ot their African ancestry we reasoned that our natural breed escaped the slings and arrows of selective breeding. And so it seemed. Gradually, however, some anomalies recurred and were identified by conscientious individuals. The first bug-a-boo that rocked the Basenji world was a condition called hemolytic anemia. In the homozygous state the condition was (is) lethal. Happily, through research, testing, honesty, intelligence, and cooperation, this disease has been virtually eliminated.

Of course, the more individuals one eliminates from the pool for whatever the reason, the smaller that pool becomes. In this case the selection was to eliminate carriers so that all breeding animals would be clear of H.A. When selection is utilized to concentrate on any hereditary characteristic be it H.A., coat color, shoulder layback or tail curl, who knows what is being compounded or excluded with it.

The next problem that was identified in about the mid sixties was an eye problem labeled persistent pupillary membrane...Perhaps you are beginning to see the direction in which we are heading. From a very small gene pool, droplets have been excluded for various reasons, threatening if not to dry it up to make it very concentrated.

Many of the articles written along the same lines as Bolte's columns have focused on specific health problems. However, an article on genetic varia bility in American Basenjis by Susan Shott, PhD, has more general significance for understanding the remifications of the small gene pool:

American Basenjis (and Basenjis in other developed countries) have an unusually high frequency of serious genetic disorders, with Fanconi Syndrome (a fatal kidney disease) and IPSID (a fatal malabsorption syndrome) of greatest concern at present. These health problems result from a well-known evolutionary phenomenon called the founder effect. The founder effect occurs when a few individuals (the founders) split off from the rest of the population, resulting in a great loss of genetic variability. Rare recessive traits that may be harmful are often much more common in the founders and their progeny. Because American Basenjis were founded by a very small number of dogs, they suffer from the founder effect.

During the past few years, several Basenji breeders have brought back native African Basenjis in an effort to increase the genetic variability of American Basenjis. Without such an increase in genetic variablity, it is very unlikely that Basenji breeders will be able to eliminate health problems through selective breeding. Further reduction of the Basenji gene pool by such breeding is quite likely to produce new genetic diseases. When Basenji breeders reduced the frequency of hemolytic anemia through selective breeding, Fanconi Syndrome and IPSID cropped up in every line in developed countries. There are reports now of hereditary liver disease and hereditary disk disease in Basenjis. Selective breeding to eliminate Fanconi Syndrome and IPSID will very likely increase the frequency of these diseases.

Although the use of African Basenjis for breeding will increase genetic variability, it is possible that African Basenjis have the same health problems as American Basenjis. It is also possible that African Basenjis have different but equally serious genetic diseases. A high frequency of genetic disorders among African Basenji is unlikely, however. The owners of African Basenjis do not provide veterinary care for their dogs, and they do no interefere with their dogs' breeding. This insures that African Basenjis are subjected to the rigors of natural selection. Dogs with genetic problems that reduce their fitness early will be much less likely to breed than healthy dogs. For this reason, African Basenjis are less likely than American Basenjis to have serious genetic health problems.

In the words of Ernst Mayer, who first described the founder effect, evolution 'takes a dim view of the future prospects of populations with depleted genetic variability' (Mayer, E, Evolution and the Diversity of Life: Selected Essays, Cambridge, Harvard, 1976, p. 204). By using as many carefully screened African Basenjis as possible for breeding, breeders may be able to turn the American Basenji's bleak future into a promising one.


About ten years ago, uncomfortably aware of the growing health problems in the breed, members of the fancy began to consider the possiblity of acquiring native stock from Africa. There was the question of whether the Basenji still existed in pure-bred form; there were also questions of acceptance, not only by the AKC but by Basenji fanciers, of native dogs. Damara Bolte described the two African quests to discover the answer to the first question in the September, 1988 issue of the Gazette. In February 1987, Jon Curby and Mike Work, two dedicated breeders, made the trip to Zaire and returned with seven Basenji puppies. Another trip was planned; on this one, in March 1988, Jon Curby, Stan Carter, a veterinarian and long-time Basenji breeder, and Damara Bolte made the journey to the Haut-Zaire. In her article, Bolte reports that in five days and 800 kilometers of driving, the Americans saw at least 200 dogs, of which only three were not Basenjis. They were of various types and sizes and some were of exceptional quality. Interestingly enough, the tiger-striped brindles were not uncommon; Tudor-Williams wrote enthusiastically of this color in her book, Basenjis, the Barkless Dogs, 1946; however, for some reason the color was excluded in the British standard. Also observed were grizzles with tan masks and red-headed tris. The second safari resulted in the acquisition of five puppies and a red bitch in whelp who produced six healthy puppies on the road back to civilization.

Once back in the States, the breeders' problems had only begun. The long road of test breeding, evaluation, and achieving acceptance of the native- bred dogs lay before them. As the BCOA resolution outines, we request that the Basenji studbook be reopened to include new foundation stock as approved on a case by case basis by the BCOA board of directors. We propose that the same rules regarding breeding and showing apply to these dogs as applied to the original four African imports, Phemister's Congo, Phemister's Bois, Kindu, and Kasenyi.

A three-year window for inclusion of new foundation stock should be approved in case additional native dogs can be imported as a result of other breeders exploring the other areas of central Africa where the Basenji is indigenous.

Shirley J. Jones

BCOA Secretary

August 1989


Hart, Ernest H. Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds TFH Publications, 1968.
Tudor-Williams, Veronica. Basenjis. The Barkless Dogs Watmoughs Ltd, 1946.

Copyright © 1989 BCOA, All Rights Reserved.
Transcribed for Web presentation by Troy J Shadbolt.