Walk to any longhouse throughout Borneo and chances are you will be met first by a dog. Or a whole lot of dogs! Those of us afraid of dogs will cringe, and wait for someone to chase them away. Those of us who love dogs will say hello to them, smile and cautiously continue walking. And that’s the end of that. We go about our business having greeted, then ignored these dogs.
It will surprise you to learn that you might have just met one of Borneo’s most enigmatic mysteries – an animal found only on Borneo, and until today, not definitely identified by scientists. Yes, we are talking about possibly one of the world’s unique species, the Bornean Basenji, or Bornean hunting dog.
The word Basenji comes from the language of the pygmies of Africa, meaning “small wild thing from the jungle”. Half a world away on Borneo, this name describes our doggie well – it’s small, it’s definitely wild and it lives in our jungles. But it is also smart. People have built longhouses all over the place, why not go live there! And so they do, and they get fed too.
The Bornean dog is not a domesticated dog. There are two types of home-living pet dogs. The first are those that are completely domesticated. They can be taught things like tricks, trained to be guard dogs or drug-sniffer dogs, or guide-dogs for the blind. We call these obedient dogs. The other type is called Schensi dogs, or independent dogs. They can live happy lives with humans, but are very difficult to train without cruelly punishing them. They simply choose to live with us whilst remaining completely “independent”. Our Bornean dog is a Schensi dog.
If you look up the official listing of intelligent dog breeds, Schensi dogs are right at the bottom! This is of course a mistake. They are not stupid at all, they just do not feel the need to please their human masters, will not be trained to sit, extend a paw or roll over when asked to. They do their own thing. One might say, these are the most intelligent dogs of them all!
The Basenji does not bark. They whine, whistle or howl. This is characteristic of all Basenjis. The Bornean dog can bark, and therefore cannot strictly be categorised as a Basenji. However, in appearance, shape and behaviour, it is closest to the Basenji. It’s like a Basenji, but different. It’s the Bornean Basenji!
Our lovable Bornean hunting dog is a square dog, meaning its legs are as long as its body. Most pet dog breeds have bodies longer than their legs. The purest form of the Bornean dog is usually red in colour, a bright orangey red all over, with some white on the underside of their tail, which is always curled in a circle over their back.
They have a pointed snout, brown eyes and often have wrinkles above their eye brows, giving them a smiling appearance. They are extremely energetic, excellent swimmers, and can move through the forest better than any Kenyah or Penan. Needless to say, they are loved, treasured and respected by all Bornean tribes. It’s a fact that without these dogs, hunting would be a really difficult task. With hunting dogs, your chances of coming home with a wild boar or a deer greatly increase.
They are resilient, tireless and agile hunters in the Bornean forests. They can slice through impossibly dense vegetation, climb steep hills at incredible speeds, cross small and large rivers with ease and, most importantly for hunters, they can always lead you home. Unlike humans, dogs never seem to get lost, they always know exactly where they are!
Basenjis are considered one of the oldest breeds of dogs in the world. Although first described from tropical Africa, DNA studies suggest that they originated from eastern Asia, possibly southeast Asia. The dogs on ancient Egyptian inscriptions, some 8,000 years old, resemble the Bornean dogs. The earliest archaeological records of dogs living with humans come from the middle east and south Asia, and their bones resemble Asian dogs still living today. In southeast Asian forests (although not on Borneo) we have the Red Dhole, or the Whistling Dog, and in Papua New Guinea, we have the Singing Dog. Both these are wild species of dogs. Could a wild dog also be living on Borneo?
We really must start studying our Bornean dog properly. University researchers should start studies on the evolution and biology of these dogs. They have been ignored for too long, and should be given the status they rightfully deserve – an endemic and ancient breed of dog that has evolved on Borneo, lives with its people, provides for them, and even give its life for them.
We on Borneo want to know if there really is a wild dog living on Borneo, hiding from the wildlife experts and scientific researchers, hiding in plain sight…. because they choose to live with Borneo’s people! Now, is that a smart dog or not?