© Elisabeth Naumann and Dr. Werner Röder
Breeding Azawakhs in Europe: A Contemporary Assessment
The traditional cattle, camp and hunting dogs of the Tamashek nomads in the West African Sahel region are bred in Europe and America under the name of “Azawakh”, a designation created for the FCI standard. Azawakhs belong to the few working dog breeds still living under natural conditions in their countries of origin. From the cynological and ethological side, the question arises, in which ways those historical populations of canis familiaris can be saved from extinction: in state-subsidized conservation areas in museum-like ancient living conditions, through the creation of zoological centers which provide some of the environmental structures of their historic habitats, or by the popular revival of the former use of working dogs for modern sports and entertainment – for example with sighthounds in the Arab world, or by the propagation of « national breeds » to promote cultural identity within postcolonial or post-Soviet states. Finally there is the possibility of exporting representatives of endangered stocks to foreign countries with a view to transplanting them into established dog breeding systems under the auspices of the FCI and respective Kennel Clubs. In contrast to extremely specialized breeds such as exotic livestock guarding dogs, the multi-talented Azawakh seemed to offer a viable opportunity for migration into the Western hemisphere with the chance to find relatively adequate living conditions with knowledgeable owners and breeders. The experiment started in the 1970s among dog lovers in France, the former colonial patron of the regions of origin.
Our investigation intends to contribute to the question whether the survival of such ”breeds in exile” is feasible from the point of view of population genetics.
The data collected for this study comprise the 24 European Azawakh litters of the year 2011 with their following inbreeding coefficients (IC) and ancestry loss coefficients (ALC), taking account of five generations.
|File No.||Country||Date of birth||IC||ALC|
These litters have generated well over 130 whelps.
FCI-Kennel Clubs would usually deny the breeding qualification of dogs with an IC over 10 and an ALC under 75 points. Most of the indicators listed above are within this « green zone ». A majority of European Azawakh breeders could continue on this level of supposed genetic tolerance in the years immediately ahead, if they accept progressive ALC- and IC-downgrading in their forthcoming litters. At first glance, the recent popularization of the breed in the West and the corresponding increase in the production of offspring might be seen as a considerable success in the conservation of Azawakhs outside their endangered habitats in West Africa.
Is this a realistic hope for the future?
Unfortunately, this does not apply to the long-term prospects for the breeding stock in Europe with its numerically very small founder groups and the resulting population structure on the basis of incest- and inbreeding and hermetic “lines”. According to genetic findings, the hereditary sustainability of a race depends upon a minimum of 200 fertile specimens not related to each other. Their number in Europe and overseas might be assessed in a range of below 50. The results of this study suggest a rapid, self-generating diminution of this limited potential.
Meanwhile, the basics of population genetics have reached parts of the traditional “Dogdom”- organisations: The German Kennel Club (VDH), for instance, has introduced by-laws for the acceptance of Breed Clubs. A provisional membership is granted if the applicant can prove the existence of ten females and four males usable for reproduction. Dogs with the same ancestors in the first and second generation are excluded. Full membership will be granted only after this breeding potential « has been increased significantly » and most of the initial females and males have produced healthy litters. Under contemporary considerations, the unconditional incorporation of the French Azawakh founding club and author of the standard into the FCI system, as finally executed in 1980, appears as a problem of its own.
We have taken a look at the litters of the year 2011 and their IC and ALC indicators in relation to the « founding fathers » of the European Azawakh population. Predominant are the two sires Gefell de Garde Epee (b.1990) and Firhoun Kel Tarbanassen (b.1991). They were used on the grounds of scarce stud-availability and further on, because of their excellent conformation and show successes, as « popular sires ». In 2010 Gefell’s frozen semen served for a further input.
The genetic background of the two males is of additional significance. They are products of a mother / son inbreeding (Timgad and Pegga) with 169 Garde Epee and 121 Kel Tarbanassen offspring during the Nineties.
The following charts show the degrees of genotypical presence of Firhoun / Gefell and their siblings among the Azawakh litters of the year 2011, that is after two decades of further breeding.
The data are differentiated according to the paternal and maternal ancestors of these litters.
91.66 percent of the litters have Firhoun heritage on their paternal side.
On the maternal side, Firhoun and Gefell/Greboun are represented with 75 and 62,5 percent in the pedigrees of the bitches:
The extent of the impending self-generated bottleneck in Azawakh breeding in Europe is shown in the overall picture of parental background:
In the year 2011 there has been no Azawakh litter in Italy, Germany, France, Poland, Russia, England, Norway and Switzerland without the genetic representation of Firhoun, Gefell / Greboun or their littermates.
Now, the question will be in order whether this finding is to be considered as threatening for the further development of the European breed. Is it not true that during one and a half centuries of dog breeding the evidence of as many champions as possible in a pedigree has been the royal road to a successful career as a breeder or exhibitor? And in any case, most of the IC parameters – as indicated above for the contemporary Azawakh population – are still within a more or less acceptable range…
Our Anglo-European breeds derived from a large reservoir of historical land races and working dogs during their creation in the 19th and early 20th centuries and they have been produced by numerous breeders in different areas of the continent. Therefore, they started out on a relatively broad genetic basis and it has taken quite a time for most of these breeds to be reduced to more or less homozygotic populations as a result of rigid “standards », show competition and commercial production, responsible for the manifestation of more than 500 diagnosed hereditary defects and diseases, plus the modeling of hypertype conformations up to so-called torture breeds. The situation of imported exotic breeds with minimal founding groups and few breeders is even more precarious.
European Azawakhs born in and around 2011 and to be used for breeding in a few years will hardly have an opportunity of being mated to partners which are free from their own Firhoun / Gefell – background and the consequence of further losses of ancestry among their offspring. So, the downfall of the breed from the point of view of population genetics might be much faster than among the native races of European dogdom.
Azawakh breeding outside the African countries of origin is moving again towards the « genetic bottleneck » as demonstrated by Elisabeth Naumann for the years 1975 to 2000 (See: “Genetic impoverishment of the Azawakh?”, in www.arbeitskreis-azawakh.com and in various cynological periodicals).
The following chart shows the development of a genetic bottleneck from 1977 to 1999 within a representative German Azawakh kennel using offspring from the first European foundation group:
The following example for the prevention of a genetic breakdown originates from a German Azawakh kennel, demonstrating the results of anti-ALC breeding policies and the inclusion of imported COO – females.
The Nineties seemed to offer a chance for the sustainability of the European Azawakh population as the result of intensive cynological field research among nomadic tribes in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, related to the aims of PADS, and annual imports of aboriginal Azawakhs, soon exceeding the number of the first European founding groups. Breeding sites in Europe, the United States and Latin America were established or genetically reorganized by fanciers of natural dog breeds. The impact on the following Azawakh generations has been quite noticeable, especially in respect to vitality, social behavior and performance (see Elisabeth Naumann, Wie sähe das Deutsche Windhundzuchtbuch Band XLII aus, wenn es keine Azawakh-Importe gäbe? In: www.arbeitskreis-azawakh.com, 2010). The temporary rehabilitation of genetic diversity could be also observed among Azawakhs participating in dog shows (see Werner Röder, Wie steht’s um die Rasse Azawakh? Beobachtungen und Überlegungen anlässlich der Jahresausstellung 2010. In: Azawakh Jahresjournal 2010, hrsg. von Gudrun Büxe jun. und Dennis Pomrehn, 2011).
This development was mainly owing to the activities of the Association Burkinabe Idi du Sahel (ABIS), incorporated in Ouagadougou in 1992/1993 as an official NGO (see, for example: www.azawakhs.eu /Out of Africa) and in operation over a period of 15 years. The new crisis of European Azawakh breeding as described above indicates that the long-time establishment of an exotic race still below the minimum of genetic diversity in its host countries does require a continued input of this kind from the regions of origin.
At present, the respective chances are not the best: the last Azawakh imports from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso arrived in 2007. A bureaucratic over-regulation by the European Union is factually strangulating pet imports from Third World countries. So, the legal entry of these Azawakh pups had to be accomplished by a “detour” via the United States, where the majority of the 21 imports took residence. The last COO-bred bitches in Europe will have passed their breeding age in a couple of years.
The decisive operative barrier for further “blood transfusions” from native stocks is the present inaccessibility of the African homelands for visitors from outside. An Azawakh expedition planned for 2009 had to be cancelled at short notice because of a new wave of kidnapping and murder by the Al-Qaida forces in the Sahara and the Sahel region. The outcome of the newest Tuareg rebellion for the secession of a Democratic Republic of Assouad – with eventual perspectives for its “national dog” – seems as open as ever.
These are external factors. The integration of exotic breeds into Western systems depends, as well, upon a certain co-operation on the side of kennel club administrations and some cynological interest among the dogdom community in general. In both respects, experiences with COO-bred Azawakhs are less than encouraging. “Standard” fundamentalists and the establishment of early breeders have practiced various ways and means to obstruct the influence of a renewed genetic variability upon the appearance and behavior of the “European Azawakh”. On the other hand, this conspicuous breed has stirred the ambitions of a growing number of show enthusiasts without intent and abilities to recognize its intrinsic qualities and needs. Meanwhile, certain breeders are responding to this market by overproduction under commercial aspects.
Marya Morales from the Azawakh Club of America and herself an explorer of the African homelands has brought it to the point: « Why the Azawakh is Not for Everyone – up until now, the Azawakh has remained safely and securely tucked away as a rare breed … With AKC recognition on the horizon and growing interest from pet owners, it is those of us with a true passion and dedication to the breed that will have to help set out a path for the future of the Azawakh …” (www.azcablog.blogspot.com., 2011).
Whether this path could include the permanent conservation of these Sahelian hounds away from their historical habitats is an open question.
Abridged edition of an article in >HundeWelt. BREEDER SPECIAL< No.2/2012, Minerva-Verlag Mönchengladbach, Germany.