Sighthound, elegant and nearly wild
by David Moore
Attenuated, dry, elegant, and intense, this African hound of ancient Asiatic origin has been molded by time, a harsh desert environment, and the hand of man into an animal of unique physical, mental, and aesthetic qualities. Historically these qualities have allowed him to serve three distinct and often inextricably interrelated purposes: as a protector of stock, herdsmen, and camp, as a swift and efficient courser, and as a functional and highly ornamental status symbol, though not necessarily in this order.
In his native region, an area approximately the size of France situated in the Sahara and the sub-Saharan Sahel of the postcolonial countries of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, he is raised today principally by the Tuareg* nomads, a Caucasian ethnicity of Berber descent. Selective breeding has been practiced according to strict cytogenetic and aesthetic criteria by the Tuareg for millennia, and in the past it was indeed the nobility, the highest caste in the stratified Tuareg society, who prided themselves on breeding the most perfect specimens, the "oskas", or "idi-idi", exotic hounds of extreme beauty and exquisite type. Though the times of the nobility and their breeding ideals have since passed, and today the esteem of these hounds and the wisdom as to their qualities, breeding, and keep is primarily concentrated in the older generation, this type of "oskas" can still be found as more or less perfect specimens in the present Azawakh population in the Sahel.
His morphology is very close to that of the Middle Eastern and of the North African sighthounds, all swift, highbred coursing hounds, although at first glance obvious physical singularities present themselves. For example, a short, flat back atop long legs accentuates his lofty bearing, and his hips are generally higher than the withers. His natural beauty is austere and architectural, sharply contrasting the arabesque loveliness of the Saluki, or the rather somber dignity of the Sloughi. Almond eyed, lean and graceful, his profile is at once sere but harmonious, his presence aristocratic and aloof. He moves with a distinctly feline plastique, collected, elastic, and articulate, his demeanor guarded and mysterious, his glance feral, untamed. In his land of ancestry he can be found in a variety of colors as well as varying degrees of refinement, though format is basically constant. The colors preferred by the Tuareg vary, depending upon the region. White markings are highly desirable on the four extremities, the chest, and the tip of the tail.
Contrasting the striking, geometric simplicity of his external format, the temperament of this hound is complex and opaque. He exhibits a rare intelligence with primitive, instinctive underpinnings still clearly discernible beneath a stylized if somewhat ambiguous veneer of domestication. He is often decidedly more lupus than familiaris, and within this paradox lies the key to our perception of him; he is a distillation, not a dissolution. The race of canis has from the earliest time developed in a twofold direction, toward man and away from him. The Azawakh exists somewhere between, still stretching toward both.
Both externally and interally he is at once elemental and sublime, an archetype and it's own refined transparency.
Although theoretically and for practical purposes the Azawakh may be categorized as a sighthound, a rigid or strict reliance on this term and its implied behavioral parameters as a means of understanding and predicting Azawakh behavior can lead to confusion and miscommunication. To a greater degree than most sighthounds, the Azawakh is highly territorial. Fiercely loyal, he forms an attachment with his master that is exclusive and with strangers or in unfamiliar situations can be extremely reserved, if not unapproachable. Proper socialization at a young age is crucial but no amount of "training" can completely over-ride the inherent, almost primordial distrust and suspicion of strangers which forms the basis for this hound's reactions to stimuli. In his home he is independent, loving, and playful, but visitors are always under suspicion.
Today the problems of survival facing the Tuareg and their animals are manifold. With fewer than one thousand Azawakh extant, and with well over half of these facing an increasingly precarious future in their west African homeland, conscientious preservationist breeding of these proud and aristocratic hounds can contribute positively towards this future, perhaps ensuring the very survival of the "idi n'illeli", the "hound of the free people". To this end was A.B.I.S. formed.
Out of Africa
The Association Burkinabe Idi du Sahel (A.B.I.S.) is a non-profit organization with a legal seat in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Supported by a growing group of "sighthound friends" in Europe and America, its statutory aims are the preservation and advancement of the purebred sighthounds of the nomads in the Sahel region. As it operates in a country of the so-called Fourth World, naturally it depends upon the commitment and assistance of European and American sponsors.
From the results of field research conducted during expeditions which began in 1992 and continue to this day, A.B.I.S. has concluded that the problems of survival of the fortunately still rather numerous Azawakh population are of a threefold nature:
Owing to the ingravescent impoverishment of the nomads, the keeping of an Azawakh is a heavy economic burden as soon as millet, the main nourishment of men and hounds alike, becomes scarce. At the same time, the possibilities for self-subsistence of the hounds has diminished due to a present lack of prey in the savannahs. Without enough food for their own subsistence, the willingness of the nomads to keep and breed the hounds is understandably reduced and the life expectancy of the existing hound population is correspondingly shortened.
The rearing of litters demands exceptionally high expenses for food. Female whelps are brought up only if new litters are in demand in the coming years. Traditionally only one or two males are selected to survive from among the newborns. Consequently the ratio of females to males is not conducive to optimal reproduction of the population.
Finally, the traditional values of the people are changing under the impact of economic and social modernization trends. In addition, though historically only nominal Moslems, growing Muslim radicalism in the region may ultimately and irrevocably alter the relationship, one of partnership and mutual dependence, between the nomads and their hounds.
A.B.I.S. tries to facilitate the keeping of Azawakh by economic assistance to nomad families, by donations for the rearing of promising litters, by establishing long-term sponsorships for individual dogs and by local vaccination programs. As men and hounds alike depend upon the same basic food, the delivery of millet, for instance, will help the people and their Azawakh. Gifts for practical personal use, medical supplies or small sums of money will serve the same purpose if accompanied by the donor's request to take care of a certain hound.
Most impressive for the nomads and perhaps the decisive factor for further success, however, is the persistent and reliable engagement of sighthound friends from far-away countries.
In the course of six A.B.I.S. expeditions, nearly twenty Azawakh puppies have been chosen for exportation to Europe, Mexico and America. The adoption of these hounds, especially if at a very young age, is always a matter of chance in respect to their further phenotypic development. Notwithstanding this fact, it should be noted that all of these hounds are of pure Azawakh blood, as other breeds do not exist in this region, and are of inestimable value to the genetic pool outside Africa.
I remember well my introduction to A.B.I.S. I had accompanied Monika Kessler, my Swiss host, founder of Azawakh Kel Dahoussahaq and breeder of two Azawakh puppies that I would subsequently import to the states, to Munich to the home of Drs. Maike and Werner Roder, where a meeting of the executive committee of A.B.I.S. was being held. They were conducting business and speaking mostly in German but the atmosphere was relaxed and they included me whenever possible. I was aware that the main topic of discussion was the planning of their upcoming expedition to Africa.
Curious to the point of obsession, but not wanting to intrude, I turned my attention elsewhere. I became deeply engrossed in the process of absorbing the information in several albums containing photographs taken during their previous expeditions. The photographs caught me off-guard (the beauty and mystery of it all!), but the process had begun. Later, after dinner and deep into the night, I listened to stories both wondrous and tragic about their experiences in the vastness of the Sahel and, in a moment both epiphanic and prophetic, I began to comprehend the importance of their work, and the enormity of the challenge they had undertaken.
The discoveries of this evening and the exemplariness of these people had a profound influence on me from which several consequences flowed naturally. In the months that followed my Swiss host became a valued friend whose passion and love for the Azawakh elicited my deepest respect and admiration Of course I became a member of A.B.I.S., though this probably over-simplifies what was in essence a conversion. "Hatshepsut", my country of origin bitch, was my leap of faith.
Monika chose Hatshepsut for me on the most recent A.B.I.S. expedition to Africa, from a litter barely five weeks old out of the brindle "Taikoussou". Monika would later tell me of how she instinctively lifted this tiny one from the others and exclaimed quietly to herself, "Yes, yes, this one is for David".
Darkly beautiful, her purity self-evident, Hatshepsut is a bridge between dimensions: between the red sands of the Sahel and the red clay of Georgia, between the ancient culture of her nomadic masters and the emerging one of America, between philosophies, between us.
Thousands of miles from her family, she is still with her own blood. I take comfort in this thought as we fall asleep each night beneath the same, infinite, indigo sky.
*The name Tuareg, literally "abandoned of God", was given them by their traditional enemies, the Arabs. The Tuareg, however, call themselves, depending upon the dialect, "Imocharg, Imohagh, Imajirhen" - words derived from the same root, the verb "iohargh", which means: it is free, it is pure, it is independent.
by David Moore © Copyright 1997