The Basenji Club of America African Stock Project

Project Library

    LIBERIA PAPER - 1964

    by Dr. Leon Standifer

 This is not intended to be an authoritative discourse on the basenji in Africa. It is merely a group of observa-
tions and thoughts collected over a two year period in Liberia during which time I bred and studied Basenjis. In
1959 I went to Liberia on a 2-year contract with the Firestone Plantations Company to conduct research on rubber
trees. Upon arrival, I found that a group on the plantation had been engaged in selective breeding of the native
Basenjis for approximately 10 years. There were about ten persons on the plantation working on the "Basenjis
Project" and about that many more scattered in various parts of the country. Liberia is a rather small country –
about the size of the the state of Ohio. It is entirely in a tropical rain forest, but the topography ranges from coast-
al swamp to rather low mountains. Within Liberia, we found three general strains of Basenjis, or "Country Dogs"
as they are called. Quite a number of the persons working with the dogs are missionaries, who have contact with
missionaries throughout Africa. Through these friends, they have attempted to locate the areas in Africa where
the Basenji exists as a recognizable breed. It appears from the incomplete survey that the Basenji (with certain va-
riations), is roughly limited to the rain forest regions of Africa. (Later, I will attempt to comment on the possible re-
asons behind this).
A Rain Forest is an ecological subdivision based mainly on temperature and rainfall. Typically, this is simply
a jungle, but it actually ranges from swamp to open plains which are called savannas. These savannas were at one
time jungle, but the vegetation was changed from some reason. (In some coastal areas it has been shown that the
savannas are the result of the slave trade. Such large areas were used as camps that the jungle vegetation was en-
tirely killed and grass and low bushes took over). Rainfall in a rain forest is usually not heavy torrential rain, but is
a slow steady drizzle. Also, the temperature is not often extremely hot – in Liberia it seldom got above 90º or below
70º. Within Liberia the rainfall will range from around 90 to over 200 inches of rain per year. This amount of rain is
so much that most of the soil fertility is washed out, especially the nitrogen. The lush growth which you see in the
jungle is very deceptive. There is very little extra fertilizer in the soil to replace that growth if it is cut away. The
plants growing there are very low in nitrogen and therefore in protein also. Most foods made from plants are high
in carbohydrates (starches and sugar), but low in protein. This means that the food value, for humans, animals or
even insects, is very low. In contrast to the picture presented in the "Tarzan" movies, the rain forest is usually a
very quiet, near-lifeless place and the people living in it are hungry. Of course, this is a generalization and as you
move away from the high rainfall areas, you will find areas which are still rain forest but are more fertile and sup-
port more life. However, my point is that in the typical Basenji areas, there is usually a scarcity of good food, whe-
ther plant or animal. Expecially in these areas, the Basenji must earn his keep. There is an old tribal saying in
Liberia that Kiki (dog) will fill the pot – somehow. This means very simply that if he doesn't hunt well enough to
fill the pot they will eat him. This brings up the old question of what and how the Basenji hunts. In Liberia, he
hunts what is to be hunted in his area. In many areas he hunts the "deer" (a nocturnal antelope) almost exclus-
ively. There are sections which still have a number of the forest buffalo. This is one of the most dangerous game
animals alive, but the little Basenji will track him down and worry him to near-exhaustion until natives come in for
the kill. Long ago they used spears, but the spear is seldom used now. Every village has at least one shot-gun or
rifle. This would support the idea that the Basenji hunts as a hound. However, along the southern coastal section
of Liberia, the Grebo tribe hunts what is called groundhog (a very large rodent) with Basenjis. In this case the
dogs either drive them into large nets or wear them down until the natives arrives to club the rodent with a stick.
American personnel at Firestone have long used the dogs to hunt the Guinea fowl, which is somewhat like a phea-
sant. Adding further to the confusion, the Kru tribe, who are mostly fisherman, keep Basenjis entirely as pets.
To summarize these thoughts, within Liberia there is a considerable variation in the amount and kind of game
found and as consequence, there is a variation in the use to which the Basenji is put. Along with this, there is a
similar variation in the capability of the dog to hunt these animals. A Kru dog is usually not a good hunter, but a
Kpelle dog is almost always a fine hunter – simply because the Kpelle people are too hungry to afford to keep a
poor hunter. Natives do not engage in breeding programs as we know them. They never know the sire of a part-
icular litter, and don't care. They are always amused at the white man who wants to know who the "daddy" is.
There is probably a great deal of inbreeding and within a village, dogs tend to look much the same. I want to make
it clear at this point that many native dogs in Liberia (probably throughout Africa) are very poor appearing spec-
imens. Native standards are simply not the same as ours. For example, very few of them care at all about the curl
of the tail. Some tribes routinely dock the dogs tails because the curl gets caught in briars and vines and often
becomes infected, make horrible looking sores. Of course, hardly any of them care about the quality of the coat.
Some tribes are very much opposed to the black and white dogs, and just will not have them around. They are
very easily eliminated, since the black is dominant. Most of the natives look on the lack of a bark as a disadvan-
tage, but for generations they didn't know that dogs could bark. They made the picturesque wooden or iron bells
and hung them around the loins, simply because their dogs did not bark well enough. Unfortunately, "civiliza-
tion" has moved in and now instead of making a wooden bell, they take a salmon can, put a few stones in it, bend
it shut, and have a "bell". I searched Liberia for 2 years and did not even get to see a wooden bell. Every tribe
in Liberia used that at one time. Civilization is also hurting the breed itself. For many generations this was a pure
breed simply because there were no other breeds. Now it is a pure breed only in very isolated villages. Generally
speaking, if a road of any sort goes to a village, there no longer any pure Basenjis there. The native is sold on the
civilized idea of bigger and better. They don't want a pure "American" dog, because it will probably die of dis-
ease, but they want "some American dog to make him big and some country dog to make him strong". One of the
natives working in my laboratory had a rather nice Basenji bitch which he had named "Research", and he usually
bred her to a good stud, but finally, he broke down and mated her with a Doberman, which was owned by one of
the staff members. (I say he "broke down", he felt he had finally come up and was delighted at the prospects of
the fine dogs he would have.) Just before I left, the bitch whelped three Doberman-Basenji pups, apparently with-
out a great deal of trouble. In Liberia, at least, the Basenji is rapidly disappearing as a pure breed except among
foreign personnel who are interested in preserving them.
It is very difficult to make a good comparison of the Basenji in Africa as a hunting dog. In his terrian, the
Basenji is good, but he is all there is. How would a American hound compare wearing down an antelope in
swamp-like jungle? In some areas he would have difficulty moving through the undergrowth, but in other areas
he would probably be superior to the Basenji. However, he would also probably die very soon. One of my dogs,
Goa Gba, hunted Guinea fowl as a brace with a Labrador Retriever and held her own very well in the brushy areas.
The Labrador later died of a paralytice tropical disease. An imported dog which is kept simply as a pet fares fairly
well in Liberia, but they usually do not have the resistance to stand the stress of hunting in that country. I realize
that this does not answer any questions as to what Basenjis hunt in Africa and how good they are. There is no
simple answer. If there were, it would have been clarified long ago. I also realize that these comments leave me
open to arguments. It is impossible to generalize about Africa even if you limit yourself to one ecological area
such as the rain forest. However, it is also impossible to say much about Africa without generalizing.

Dr. Standifer is a Plant Physiologist by profession,
with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin.
He imported Kiki of Cryon to the U.S. when he left Liberia.

Previously in
The Official Bulletin of the Basenji Club of America
March-April 1964 pp. 14-16
Reprinted in
The Basenji
Volume XXII Number 2 February 1986 pp. 8 & 10
Copyright © 1986 The Basenji, All Rights Reserved.
Used with permission.