HOUNDED TO EXTINCTION?
There are now more than a million pet dogs in Beijing and the rapid development of the pet business has resulted in larger and more powerful breeds becoming especially popular.
Among these dogs, the Tibetan mastiff is considered the most sought-after breed. Some such dogs with an authentic pedigree were recently sold for 600,000 yuan (US$73,982).
Not surprisingly then, most Tibetan mastiff breeders are celebrities or wealthy personalities.
"There are 100 Tibetan mastiff breeding centres in Beijing alone," said Wang Lianhua, former secretary of China Tibetan Association. Wang himself is also the owner of 12 Tibetan mastiffs.
"Among these Tibetan mastiff fans, Ma Junren, the former coach of China track and field team, would probably be the most famous Tibetan mastiff dealer," Wang said. "He has 128 Tibetan mastiffs in kennels now. And thanks to his fame within China, most pet fans would like to buy a dog from Ma."
"I recall that in just two months, Ma made more than two million yuan (US$246,609) from sale of mastiffs," Wang said. "But most other Tibetan breeders can't compete with Ma."
The Tibetan mastiff is an ancient breed that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. This is due to its remote origins in Tibet, where isolation meant it remained uninfluenced by other breeds.
Cave drawings in the upper Himalayas have confirmed the primitive nature of these large guard dogs. The Tibetan mastiff was used to guard Tibetan monasteries and was allowed to roam free in the village after dark to protect it from intruders and thieves.
The dogs' deep bark could be heard throughout the night, providing reassurance that everything was safe and all would be well in the morning. In Tibet, the Tibetan mastiff is known as the Do-Kyi, which means "tied dog" or "gate dog", because they were often tethered at the entrance of the home they were guarding. Tibetan mastiffs were believed to have accompanied the armies of the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans and also later travelled with Genghis Khan into Eastern Europe.
The Tibetan mastiff's reputation stems not only from mystical Tibetan culture, but also from the legend of its cruel traditional breeding programme, according to Wang Lianhua.
The legend says that once a Tibetan mastiff was born, it would be put into a deep round pit amid a snowfield. Snow wolves would visit the pit every day and howl at the mastiff. However, they could not reach the young mastiff in the depth of the pit.
At first, the young mastiff would be frightened by these wolves. But later it lost its fear. After several months, the owner of the young mastiff would remove it from the pit and put it among other young growing mastiffs.
The owner would give these mastiffs just one piece of meat every day. Therefore, the pack of mastiffs had to fight each other to get enough meat to live.
After a year of this, the surviving mastiffs would again be put into a big pit. For several days, no food was provided to feed them. If they wanted to live, they had to kill other mastiffs and eat them. In this way, the only winner was the last surviving mastiff.
According to Tibetan local legend, a good trained mastiff can defeat three wolves in a fight.
The Tibetan mastiff is also territorial and highly protective of home and family. It is strong-willed and courageous, while maintaining a calm manner. It is also intelligent and adaptive, with an exceptional memory. Once introduced to someone, it will rarely forget that person.
The breed still retains many of its primitive aspects, making it a unique choice of pet that is not for everyone.
"The Tibetan mastiff is a large-sized dog weighing more than 70 kilograms," Wang said. "It is forbidden to raise such size dogs inside the fifth ring road in Beijing."
Most of the dogs have been bought by wealthy people who have suburban villas or by companies located outside of urban area, according to Wang.
However, few of these Tibetan mastiffs were of genuine Tibetan mastiff pedigree, Wang said.
Most Tibetan mastiffs in Beijing were crossbreeds, according to Wang.
"A female mastiff can only have one birth with two puppies a year," Wang said. "But breeders want to get more mastiffs to earn money, and they do this by crossing them with other large size dog breeds."
Wang is worried about the future of Tibetan mastiffs. The high returns that can be made from raising mastiffs have encouraged many people to go to Tibet to seek genuine pedigree dogs from local herdsmen. If this continues, the genuine Tibetan mastiff may become hard to find in Tibet, he believes.
Some experts have suggested sending Tibetan mastiffs back to Tibet from specialist breeding areas in Beijing or Sichuan Province.
But Wang said these kinds of expert lack basic knowledge of the Tibetan mastiff.
"It takes a long time to transfer a local Tibetan mastiff to the eastern lowland plains because of the altitude difference," Wang said.
Usually, the local Tibetan mastiffs are first sent to relatively low altitude areas like Lanzhou and Tianshui in Gansu Province, or Xining in Qinghai Province. In this way, the mastiff has the opportunity to adjust to the conditions of lower altitude, according to Wang.
The rich oxygen environment would kill the dogs if they were taken immediately to eastern lowland plain area without acclimatisation, Wang said.
On the other hand, local Tibetan people do not like the refined mastiffs that have been reared in eastern lowland areas with good welfare conditions.
With the development of the Tibetan mastiff business in some cities like Beijing, the dogs will likely cost next to nothing in the near future, according to Wang.
"The Pekinese breeds were also priced at more than 20,000 yuan (US$2,466) per head in the 1980s in Beijing. But now you can get one for just 30 yuan (US$3.6) in the dog market," Wang said. "The increasing numbers of Pekinese cut down their cost and crossbreeding made them unpopular among fans. I really don't want to see the Tibetan mastiff share the same future as the Pekinese."
(China Daily 08/04/2005 page4)
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