“Where,” my colleague Daniel Salau asked when in Bujumbura, the capital of the central African nation of Burundi, “are all the stray dogs?” “The Chinese workers ate them,” came the reply. Apparently, Bujumbura wasn’t the only place where this had happened. Daniel told me this over coffee at the Java House on Nairobi’s Ngong Road. I’d just attended the Africa Animal Welfare Action conference, where I’d met many people – mainly women, as it happens – working on stray dog issues (spay/neuter, laws or policies to protect them from rabies and population “control” efforts featuring poison, or worse) in Morocco, Mozambique, Mauritius and elsewhere on the continent. Many large African cities, like many cities in other parts of the world, have large populations of stray dogs; a couple million, perhaps, in Maputo alone. But no one mentioned the dogs being eaten by Chinese workers or anyone else.
I tried to find out more. When I traveled to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, in the south of Kenya, I heard that Chinese workers building roads nearby had asked for dogs and puppies in some of the Maasai villages. My guide Moses explained that there are always a lot of dogs and puppies around, , because in rural areas there aren’t any small animal vets so none of the dogs are spayed or neutered. Maasai children often take dogs with them as they heard cattle for protection from wild animals. But the giving of dogs to the Chinese had now stopped, Moses said. Why? The villagers had found the idea of eating dogs distasteful. Was this really a phenomenon I wondered, perhaps taking place throughout African countries where Chinese workers are more numerous as the Chinese government ratchets up investment and development cooperation with African governments?
I searched for more news, but could find very little, apart from a report on two Chinese workers being arrested in Zimbabwe for killing two dogs and then eating them. The workers were released and not charged, since Zimbabwe, like most African countries, doesn’t have any laws regarding the killing, or eating, of dogs. How many countries do? There’s a curious paradox here: China’s currently considering its first-ever national animal welfare law that would, if passed, ban the killing and eating of dogs and cats. But then the Chinese workers who “go out” to African countries will be able to eat dogs: potentially many, given the large stray populations, the lack of national spay/neuter efforts, and the absence (a topic of the Nairobi conference) of strong, enforced laws on animal welfare.
Interestingly, the African wild dog is one of the continent’s most endangered mammals. You’re extremely lucky if you see one; the population, decades ago about half a million is now around 5,000 or less. Harming a wild dog is a punishable offense, and many conservation efforts are underway to increase wild dog pack numbers. And then there’s another paradox. The Chinese in China are, apparently, warming to dogs as companions. In Beijing, dog parks, social networks organized around dogs, and shops selling dog food and treats — and dogs themselves — are increasingly common (and it’s only recently that the city government relented and allowed residents to have dogs legally). There’s even a word for the new Chinese dog lovers: gouyou or “dog friends.” According to the New York Times, dog meat on Beijing menus is getting rarer as gouyou sensibilities take hold. Perhaps gouyou will get to Africa, too. Or the African gouyou — and there are many — will ensure that African laws match or surpass the animal welfare legislation that’s likely to become law in China…not a dog day too soon.
Photo courtesy Africananimals.org