NGS stock photo of donkeys by Ira S. Lerner

I just came across this article at National Geographic. I must admit I have quite a fondness for African donkeys. They just keep keepin’on in the most difficult circumstances. Their bray is other-worldly. It sounds pretty much like the Tusken Raider that tries to kill Luke just before he meets Ben Kenobi in the original Star Wars.

Genetic analysis proves that the African wild ass, which may be down to the last few hundred individuals, is the ancestor of modern donkeys. The same study by an international group of researchers suggests that a subspecies, the Nubian wild ass, thought to have vanished, might have survived after all.

It turns out that the Wild Ass of East Africa is the living ancestor of all modern donkey lineages. These asses were domesticated by pastoral nomads around about 5,000 years ago. That’s potentially in the same ballpark as the domestication of the Azawakh dogs by those same nomads.

I believe we have managed to negotiate a lease for a house in Accra. The real estate market here is INSANE. Monthly rents are at the same level or higher than in DC and are paid one or two years IN ADVANCE!

For that money you get a stripped house with no appliances or hot water heaters or air conditioners. You further may not have working plumbing or electricity. You need to also get a generator because the power is quite unreliable and finally you need a giant water tank because city water service goes out for weeks at a time. Furthermore, leases are very favorable to the landlord. Standard terms are that the tenant is responsible for making repairs to the property.

It is really quite amazing. Of course, this real estate boom may be related somewhat to the relatively recent discovery of oil offshore.

Anyway, we have found a place that we can make nice. It has one very, very awesome feature. It has is on a 1.5 acre plot within a 10 foot wall. There is a tropical garden and some very old trees that are perhaps 5 stories tall.

Our house in Accra (probably, we hope)

And there are frogs.

House frog

Amazing Radio Show

October 22, 2009

I love the show Radio Lab from WNYC. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore science topics with a cool attitude and an edgy sound mix. Last week they ran a show called “New Normal”. It’s a must-listen for any Robert Sapolsky fan.

If you haven’t heard of Robert Sapolsky and have any interest in Evolutionay Biology, Human Origins, Animal Behavior, life in the African bush or the effect of stress on people and animals run out and get a copy of A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.

Actually, you should read the book and then do the radio show because the interview with Robert Sapolsky gives away the wrenching ending to A Primate’s Memoir. Anyone who has read this book – you must listen to this show. There is an incredibly uplifting revelation about how things have worked out for Sapolsky’s baboon troupe.

The 3rd segment is about the Balyaev fox breeding experiments where Dr. Balyaev bred tame foxes in 10 generations and how that changed the animals.

Direct link to download the RadioLab MP3 podcast.

Yahya Jammeh came to be head of state of The Gambia in 1994 through a bloodless and possibly accidental coup. His regime has become increasingly paranoid and repressive. About a year ago, Jammeh issued a decree that any hotel housing a homosexual would be closed and any homosexuals found discovered in The Gambia would be beheaded. Jammeh has always been obsessed with juju (aka black magic or witch craft). He has recently become convinced that his aunt was killed by witchcraft early this year and has launched a broad campaign of retribution among his own people.

Up to 1,000 people have been kidnapped… since early February and taken to detention centres or to [President Yahya Jameh’s] farm in Kanilai, accompanied by the President’s personal protection guards, the police and the army, according to an Amnesty International communiqué released on 18 March.

Amnesty says in its communiqué that witch doctors were invited to Gambia in early 2009 soon after the death of President Jammeh’s aunt; the President reportedly believes witchcraft was used in her death.

Victims [say] they were held for up to five days and forced to drink herbal concoctions that made them hallucinate. Many said they were severely beaten, some at gunpoint, in many cases nearly to death.

“I was among several villagers who were forcefully abducted from home by a group of armed soldiers and some civilians on 9 March,” Kebba Saneh from Makumbaya village in Kombo district told IRIN. “I was forced to drink drugs which made me unconscious. There was no way we could try to escape.”

read the full report at

Our Sophie

February 27, 2009

In 1996 just outside of a small West African village my wife (though at the time we were just dating), Christie, recovered a tiny, wailing puppy in the Bush. The puppy was alone without littermates and with no bitch in sight. We later learned that when a bitch has an undesirable litter of puppies one way of getting rid of the problem was to have boys spread the puppies out into the bush as far apart as possible in hopes that they will die before the bitch finds them. In general this was a practice of people who considered the dogs to be a sort of large rat in the first place and never wanted the bitch hanging around in the first place. Among the Mandinka people with whom we lived in that particular corner of Africa, dogs are absolute pariahs who survive on the food waste and trash that is discarded over the compound wall.

Sophie from infant to adult

Sophie from infant to adult

The puppy was so tiny that her eyes were not yet open. It was much too young to have been weaned. We didn’t have anything like bottles or formula to nurse this dog. Christie bought a can of condensed milk at the little village store and dribbled it into the puppy’s mouth with her finger. I found out about the new little family member by bush letter, which is to say that Christie wrote me a letter and gave it to a passing car headed in my direction and which was eventually delivered to me. At the time I was working a couple of hundred miles away. When I read the letter I as completely stunned. I couldn’t imagine how we could possibly take care of a tiny puppy, but we did and I managed to overfeed her so that she was fat. When it was time for us to return to the USA we brought her with us.

A friend asked me what was wrong with her tail because it looks like it is chopped off in the top photo and the other two photos don’t show it. The answer is nothing was wrong with it. She had a normal tail. The top picture is just framed awkwardly and the tail is hidden rather abruptly by a tree stump that is barely visible at the edge of the picture.

West African Working Bush Dog

February 26, 2009

These are photographs of photographs I took in 1997 in The Gambia. The dog is one of three that serve as guardians for a beautiful herd of Fulani cattle. The structural conformation is very much like an Azawakh but many of the “bush dogs” in that area tend to be quite rustic and unrefined. Specimens with one or both ears erect were not uncommon, tails tendto be thick-ish and the hair was usually somewhat longer than is typical of Azawakh. The temperament is the same as typical of Azawakh. I believe these dogs and Azawakh are very closely related.

It was common practice for male working dogs to have cropped ears. I’m not sure if the primary purpose was to proactively prevent torn ears or to identify the dog as owned by someone (and therefore not to be killed).

West African bush dog protecting his cows

West African bush dog protecting his cows

After thieves, the biggest risk to cattle might have been hyenas. The bush dogs that guard herds were expected to keep hyenas at bay.

West African Hyenas, the enemy of the bush dog

West African Hyenas, the enemy of the bush dog

Azawakh in Djerma

January 29, 2009

The word “Azawakh” comes from the Djerma language, but it has nothing to do with dogs.

In Djerma azawa means north. Azawagh or azawad means land of to the north. The word the Djerma use for what we call the Azawakh dog is hansi or hanso (I’ve also seen it spelled hanshee and hanshii).

The really fascinating thing is that there are three gender forms. One for dog and two for bitch. The Djerma have a different conjugation of the word dog for a bitch who has given birth and one who has not.

  • hansi daŋ: dog (male)
  • hansi way: bitch [has not given birth]
  • hansi nya: bitch [has given birth]

A little bit of digging revealed that this is a feature of the Djerma language. For all livestock there are three gender forms: one for male, one for female-that-has-not-produced-offspring and one for female-that-has-produced-offspring.


  • goroŋgari (rooster)
  • goroŋo way (hen)
  • goroŋo nya (hen)


  • yo mali (camel bull)
  • yo way (camel cow)
  • yo nya (camel cow)

This must be a culture with a deep tradition of animal breeding.


Freaky Tropical Parisites

November 6, 2008

The Sahel can be a very harsh place for animals. Living there, I came to really appreciate the power of a little hard frost from time-to-time. In addition to familiar parasites like roundworms, tapeworms and heartworms there are other-worldly parasites that can give you nightmares.

In particular, I’m thinking of “tumbu” worm. This thing is actually not a worm at all but rather a general term for bot fly. These flies lay their eggs on an animal (or clothes) and the maggot burrows into the skin where it takes up residence until it matures into an adult fly which crawls out of the skin. Ugh.

Botfly are common all along the Niger, Gambia and Senegal river basins, particularly after the rains come. Most sheep, goats, cattle, dogs and even people have these maggots crawling in their skins.

It turns out that Ivermectin, which is marketed as Heartguard, is totally effective against botfly. If you are living in an area where botfly is endemic, regular doses of Ivermectin will prevent your dog from being infected.  In part because we were careful where we hung our laundry and also because we gave our dog Ivermectin (labelled for cattle), I never had to extract any maggots from anyone in my household.

I have extracted the damn things from dogs and people, though. It’s enough to give you nightmares.

Think Aliens.

The video below was shot in Costa Rica, but the horror is the same.

Mauritanian Bush Dog

October 27, 2008

Yesterday I ran into an interesting dog among a cluster of returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who served in Mauritania. The dog turned out to have been born along the coast of Mauratania near the capital of Naoukchott. Unlike the majority of Peace Corps Volunteers who either abandon thier dogs and cats at the end of their service or attempt to gift them to a new volunteer, this volunteer brought her dog home with her as we did.

I wish I had a picture, but the dog was a two-year old bitch. She was clear and with white paws and brush on her tail. Her hair was a bit coarse, but she had a very typical head except that her ears were erect. She looked like a small-ish Azawakh with erect ears. Her behavior was pure West Africa. She went through a pretty elaborate greeting with Tawzalt and Azelouan which started out with a suspicious posture and some teeth baring on both sides. The three of them quickly formed a small pack in order to course a slightly startled protugese water dog who eventually called a halt to by retreating to into a deep pool in the creek. I wish I had my camera with me, but alas.

The Mauratanian dog was of the type that some people call “senji” or basically dingo-like West African village dogs whose breeding is really not controlled by people. The senji dogs usually live among people who aren’t very dog-friendly and who consider them to be unclean. Azawakh, in my mind, represent an attenuated refinement of the basic senji type. The differences are superficial. This dog came from the coast, but the interesting thing to me was that the volunteers said that the dogs in the east of Mauritania looked more like Azelouan: taller, “often colored like that” (brindled) and more often havning dropped ears.

Traditiona Azawakh range in grey and my expanded search area in green.

Known Azawakh range in grey; my expanded search area in green.

It shouldn’t be surprising. I would expect to find good specimens of Azawakh in the East of Mauritania. The Fulani are the primary ethnic group of black Africans in Mauritania. Historically, Mauritania was a part of the range of the Kel Tamasheq and in the 1990s many Tamansheq were forced to flee to refugee camps in Mauritania.

I realize this is controversial but as someone who has been around West Africa a bit I strongly suspect that good Azawakh specimens are to be found in a much larger area than ABIS has explored. I expect that we could find excellent specimens in Southern Algeria, Western Mali and also in Chad, northern Nigeria, Guinea and Benin, Central and Eastern Mauritania, Eastern Senegambia and maybe in the North of Cameroon, too. These lines on the map were drawn by colonial powers. I would expect to find the dogs wherever you find the Tamasheq and Fulani. These people are found throughout West Africa and as far east as the Sudan.

I doubt that ABIS could ever fund expeditions all over the Sahel to map the extent of the Azawakh range. I wonder if we could tap Peace Corps Volunteers for this research and, at the same time, encourage them to bring their dogs them when they return home to the States.