Thursday, November 21, 2013

Will This dog Have it's Day?

Where do you reckon I might have last caught sight of a magnificent but rare animal teetering on the brink of extinction? Would it have been the deserts of the Thar or the rain soaked cloud forests in the east? Am I more likely to have spotted this elusive beast on a lonely windswept crag in the Himalayas or in the dense forests along the Western Ghats?

Ah well, the answer to that question is a sad indictment of the rather staid travel itineraries that have governed my life and work so far, but I count my blessings wherever I find them, and on this occasion, I happened to run in to them at the taxi stand outside the Pune airport..

In the warm rays of a winter afternoon, I had seen the pair, gazing imperiously at the passing cars and the jostling crowds, unmindful of the smoke and dust, these two aristocrats looked past and through the hurrying haze that whirled around them, like they knew they were higher beings, living in this world but not of it.

The coat shimmering in the sun, that deep, deep chest harbouring the power to span the breadth of the Deccan in a leap and a bound and that faraway look in those big hazel eyes…. Ah! They were a sight to behold. The fact that these regal beasts were standing at the end of ornate leashes didn’t seem to matter. With their bearing, they still seemed to own the place.

At the other end of the same leash stood a man, professorial in demeanour, who looked like he would be more comfortable with a book or sketch-pad in his hand, and yet the incongruity of the trio, with respect to each other as well as their environment seemed to hint at a bond far deeper than was apparent.

Forgetting all about the conference I was to go to, and drawn like the proverbial moth to a flame, I walked towards their eminence with a question in my head…’what are they?’

Those of you who have had the misfortune of bumping into more than one of my earnest endeavours in this corner of the magazine might know that I’m rather unreasonably obsessive about a few subjects, dogs being one of them. I can usually separate a setter, English or Irish from Gordon, even if I be on the east bank of the Ganges while they be gamboling on the west (and that has nothing to do with what dams have done to our rivers), and same should hold true, if the dogs be terriers, mastiffs, hounds or curs. Then why couldn’t I put my finger on these sight-hounds (yeah I’d gotten the group but I couldn’t place the breed)?

“Excuse me” I ventured, “…er, what kind of dogs are these?”

The professor floated out of his thoughts and blinked back to the present as he looked at me and then at his dogs, like he’d seen them for the first time, as if wondering how they came to be here with him. His gaze took in the contours of the hounds and a wave of pride swept across his face… “Caravan Hounds!”, he said. “They are an ancient Indian breed, bred for the chase. Though more numerous than some other indigenous breeds, they are still very rare and nowhere near as popular as most of the Western breeds”

Ah! An Indian breed. No wonder I hadn’t seen any pictures of the breed in books or magazines. I have been collecting breed-books and reading about dogs ever since I can remember. I share my life with four dogs and two of them are rare breeds from different parts of the world. I can tell the difference between a Karabash, an Akbash and a Kangal – all rare and similar livestock guarding breeds from Turkey and yet I had never heard of nor seen a dog as magnificent as the Caravan Hound before. My point is not to toot on about what I know about obscure breeds. I’m just trying to impress upon the reader that even one as involved with canine trivia as I had failed to come across literature or physical evidence of one of the most striking native specimens of our canine culture.

And the Caravan Hound, though rare and endangered, is far more numerous than some of the other highly endangered breeds. The Kumaoni Mastiff and the Chippiparai are found in little pockets in their geographical enclaves. The Rampur Hound and the Rajapalyam are relatively better known but the Kinnauri Gaddi, the Combai, the Poligar and the Alangu are all extremely rare and extinction is a very real threat.

Most Indian breeds are either livestock guardians, (which means they don’t herd sheep like a German Shepherd or a Collie but protect the flocks from predators) or sight hounds (greyhound-type hunting dogs that chase and bring down prey). But why are these breeds languishing on the brink?

More dog enthusiasts in India would know more about rare  South American breeds like the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro or the South African Boerboel than they would about any of these Indian breeds.

Ironically enough, the very people you’d like to thank for keeping these breeds alive are the ones you should hold responsible for their decline. Not only have breeders of these indigenous dogs not done enough to spread information about these dogs but have done precious little to develop them. Many of these breeds have stagnated and become living relics of a long-gone past. The problem with most of these breeds is that they are hard-wired for the tasks they had traditionally been bred for. The hounds are snappy, often unpredictable hunters which are impossible to manage within the confines of an urban home while the livestock guardians need lots of space, bark through the night and are aggressive with strangers. Though these breeds are hardy and healthy, almost all of them are very difficult to train and little has been done by breeders to make these dogs easier to live with.

There has been an on and off ban on importing breeds from other countries because activists and law-makers want to preserve and protect the Indian breeds but as long as a Labrador or a Boxer is easier to live with and is more reliable and trustworthy with friends and furniture, the Rajapalyams and Gaddis will remain on the rural fringes of the Indian dog enthusiast’s horizon.

It would be a proud day for all of us indeed when Caravan hound registrations outstrip Golden retriever registrations in India and they even begin to find homes in other countries. But such a day will remain a dream until breeders work on making these hunters and protectors into reliable companions as well. Every shred of life has to stay relevant in the context of the present. All life that fails that test, no matter how magnificent, be it the Diplodocus, the Sabre-toothed Tiger, or heaven forbid, the Chippiparai, will eventually cease to be.

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