Jesus is looking down on me. And he has a big machete in his right hand and a rifle slung over his shoulder. Yes, really, he is. And he’s grinning. I’m stuck. Halfway up a steep and very muddy hill, originally on all fours, but now with my knees loosing grip on the muck and my hands clinging to a few branches, I am closer to a faceplant than getting anywhere. Sometimes I find myself in these kinds of situations… This particular one is taking place in the middle of Nicaraguas’ Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, part of the largest Neotropical Rainforest in Central America. And Jesus is real. It is the name of a man I just met and am now following through the jungle. And it’s a very, very noisy jungle. I have an image in my head of a film of people on LSD, where people’s heads almost explode with the intensity of their surroundings. Only I haven’t taken LSD . The humming in my head is from the insects sitting in the trees surrounding me. By rubbing their wings together in their thousands, they are producing a constant drone in the background. Other than that, all I can hear is the faint noise of dog barking.
How I’ve ended up in this situation is typical of the type of things I do. I am a passionate animal photographer and especially interested in dog breeds and their origins. It is not very easy to find people who still live together with their dogs the way that they would have done hundreds of years ago. Back home in Germany most people have dogs as pets. The dogs live a life in the lap of luxury and are usually valued members of a household. Their main use is as companion and valued family member of their humans. Here in the jungle things are slightly different. Which is why I am here today. People here live very similar lives to hundreds of years ago. Most of them are subsistence farmers and hunters, meaning that they mainly grow crops or raise livestock for their own use. There is some trade with neighbouring villages but most of the things that are eaten here are grown or bred or hunted here and few things are bought. The dogs are a useful part of the community.
I came here with Associate Professor Jeremy Koster, an anthropologist, tall , dark and handsome, as my mother would say. Although that is not the reason why I am here. Jeremy has a lot of jungle experience and, amongst other things, studies the relationship between socio-ecological variation and economic decision making. This basically means that he analyses the costs and benefits of keeping dogs to help with hunting. He does this to test the hypothesis that this would be the reason that prehistoric people domesticated wolves to help as hunting companions by detecting and corralling, driving or flushing prey. His interest in the dogs is based on the usefulness of the dogs as a resource to find wildlife. After reading about his research with the Miskito Mayangna people of Nicaragua I spontaneously contacted him about the possibility of coming here. Amazingly he invited me along on his next trip and now, less than two months, an extremely long jeep journey and two days in a dug out canoe on a caiman infested river later, here I am, to see what he is studying first hand. The man I am struggling to follow through the jungle is a local villager. His dog is medium sized, brown and fairly skinny. Her name is Chocolate, which I see as a good sign, since my dogs back home are Snickers and Cookie. And surely the name Jesus means I’ll get through the jungle safely. However, so far I haven’t seen much. At least not much of the dog. The process of hunting here works as follows: Chocolate runs off ahead and we try and follow her barking. Every now and then Jesus will call out to her and she may or may not respond with barking, which then usually tells us which way to go. As my Spanish is not amazing and Jesus native language is Mayangnacommunication between us is not very fluent but with a combination of tingki – thanks, Mawang – Let’s go and Sulu – dog, I feel we’re getting somewhere. I asked Jeremy some things before we left, so that I would have a better idea of what is going on. Jeremy is doing research back in the village, so it’s only Jesus, Chocolate and me out in the jungle today. And the wild creatures of course. Basically the dogs here are not formally trained to hunt, it is part instinct and partly taught by taking them out hunting with more experienced, successful dogs. There is no specific species of animals which we are lucking for, most animals can be eaten and those that can’t, like the Jaguar, are ones that we probably won’t be seeing anyway, as they tend to stay away from loud people using machetes to hack their way through the forest. That’s fine by me, because although I think Jaguars are beautiful and impressive and interest me as a Biologist, I don’t really want to meet one right now. And I don’t think the dogs want to either as Jaguars are one of the reasons that not many dogs here reach old age. The same counts for snakes, very large spiders or the caimans that we saw in the river. Although I am assured that the caimans don’t really eat anything bigger than a dog because they are small themselves. Not sure I trust that information though, after I saw one which, at least in my head, was about three metres long. And did I mention that there are no bathrooms here, so the river is where you wash? And one of the canoes was really really small and I was thiiiis scared of it tipping over? Anyway, not only Chocolate but the animals I would like to see are hard to spot too. The jungle is so dense, that you don’t really see much further than the next tree, so that it’s mainly flowers and the occasional bird that you get to appreciate. It is a great adventure though, feeling so exposed to nature. The people here and their dogs live in a true partnership. Their dogs depend on them and they depend on their dogs, or at least they are very useful. In Arang Dak, the community in which we are staying, most of the inhabitants’ days are spent tending to their crops and animals, cooking or hunting. There is little technology in these parts. One person in the village proudly showed me his mobile phone, there is just little use for it, as the villages only solar battery produces little electricity, there are few people he could phone and there is very little phone reception anywhere anyway. My phone hasn’t had any signal in 10 days. It’s a simple life but coming from Nicaraguas’ bustling capital of Managua it feels like a step back in time. The missionaries came here a long time ago, so although the people I am staying with are from the Miskitos, a tribe native to this part of Nicaragua, not far from the border with Honduras, there is nothing typically “tribal“ about them. They wear western clothes, have a church and I have not seen any songs or dances like one might imagine from a people living deep in the jungle. But other than that the basics of their lives have remained unchanged. They farm and they hunt. And their dogs’ lives haven’t changed either. They either spend their days hunting with their owners, roaming around the village or lying on the decks of the houses. If they are successful hunters, there will be more for everyone to eat, if they are not successful, there will be less. Although Jeremy has found that the so called “house dogs” which don’t go out hunting, they don’t seem to get fed any differently to the successful hunting dogs. Unfortunately for Jesus and Chocolate, today they are not lucky. Although there were several times we heard very excited barking from Chocolate and Jesus started running towards her, it never led to any success. As I’m a vegetarian I don’t feel completely unhappy about this. I do however feel the failure may be partially my fault because, although I finally did manage to make it up the muddy hill I was stuck on, I’m pretty sure that the two of them alone would have been much quicker and probably more successful without me. It takes a bit of getting used to hiking through the jungle wearing wellie boots. And although I especially chose to go in the dry season, this year it seems to have been swapped for the rainy season and it’s raining practically all day. After about 3 hours Chocolates’ energy seems to be deteriorating and she is walking next to us instead of bounding ahead, so Jesus decides to call it a day and we head back towards home along a muddy path between the trees.
The next morning we wake up in our hammocks at sunrise and Jeremy and I get a canoe lift up the river (yes, the one with the caimans)to the house of Emiliano. He lives outside of the village with his family in order to be closer to his fields. Emiliano has three dogs and, according to Jeremy, is quite a successful hunter, so it will be more likely for him to catch something. In fact he is so successful, that a study showed Emiliano’s dogs, who spend 25% of the day outside with Emiliano, to be responsible for almost a third of animals hunted in the whole community of 35 households. When we get there Emiliano is already out collecting some crops and while we wait I get to meet his family and dogs, who are all hanging out on the porch. The houses here are raised on stilts, . his is great because I’m staying in on too and outside our wooden walls there is a lot of water (remember, rainy dry season?) and I have also now seen a couple of snakes, which are not welcome near my hammock. The furnishings are very basic and the same in almost every house. Out on the porch is a cooking area, consisting of a stove with an open fire and an area for food preparation. Inside the house is usually one room with a bed made of planks on wooden blocks. There isn’t really much else. People have the necessities but no luxuries. Some clothes, cooking essentials and that’s it. I didn’t see any books or toys or many bought objects at all really, other than those that were needed. The village population is a mix of indigenous Miskitoand Mayangna and people from other parts of Nicaragua or even Honduras. Some of them have come here after fighting in theSandinista/Contra war, some have moved in from the city and , at least to me, the community seems to work well. In a way it seems a little like paradise. There are few luxuries but life generally seems simple but peaceful. This morning we all sit around, listening to Emilianos wife Perla cluttering in the kitchen, the mooing of the cows nearby and the clucking of the chickens going about their business, while the dogs wait for their breakfast of rice and beans after some brief excitement when we appeared up the embankment. When Emiliano returns with a Maparis yamni – good morning -and the dogs notice him taking his rifle and getting ready for a days hunting, they spring into action. Three of them are coming along today, a white female named Tinible, a small male called Ticho and Kalum, a tricolour male. Like all the dogs here, they are not a distinct breed, but more of a type – *jungle dogs“. They seem to have evolved in a way that is best suited to their environment. Of medium size, usually weighing 11-12 kilos and athletically build, with short fur in varying colours. Big enough that they get around easilysmall enough that they remain athletic and agile. During his research Jeremy has found that the larger males are slightlymore successful than the females and smaller dogs. The dogs are generalist hunters and, although some apparently exhibit a greater talent for certain types of hunting, there does not seem to be any selective breeding towards those goals. Some of the dogs appear to have little talent for or interest in hunting and spend their days as “house dogs’, staying near the house. Not Kalum, Tinible and Ticho though. The same as Chocolate yesterday, they are always running off ahead when we get going but rarely seem very far away and at least one can usually be heard barking or moving through the thick undergrowth. As there is no path where we are going, the trail is made by machete as we go. Emiliano seems to have a general direction in mind and soon we come across a fallen tree, which the dogs are running up and down and sniffing at. Emiliano makes his way to the tree and checks a hole inside it, where I’m told that they found an agouti previously and which he had blocked again in the hope of getting lucky a second time. The tree is large and hollow on the inside, so it takes the dogs a while to check out the length of it, jumping on and off and sniffing at it from all sides. There is some excitement when Kalum seems convinced that there is an animal inside but the moment passes and we decide to carry on walking. Generally Emiliano’s method of hunting seems very similar to Jesus’ on the day before. Basically we hike through the jungle, more or less following the dogs. Emiliano calls out, the dogs bark, sometimes there is whistling and sometimes we pause, while Emiliano seems to be working out whether it is worth pursuing a chase or wether his dogs might be barking at something not worthwhile or chasing something that is too fast. Jeremy has found, that the species of animals hunted by people with dogs varies considerably to those hunted without dogs, as dogs are particularly useful for finding certain animals. Basically there are five ways in which a hunt can end successfully when dogs and humans work together to hunt an animal that they would have trouble catching alone.
Version 1 – the dogs kill something – this is most likely to be a small animal. This rarely seems to happen.
Version 2 – the dogs find something and trap it, by surrounding it and barking at it until the hunter comes in for the kill, for example pigs
Version 3 – the dogs drive an animal up a tree or into the river or one of the many creeks that we come across and the animal is caught there, for example deer
Version 4 – the dogs find birds, that are then “flushed“ out and shot when they fly up
Version 5 – the dogs find a burrow with an animal in it and the animal is trapped.
Our hunt today results in Version 5 – the dogs come across an Armadillo burrow and start excitedly sniffing and scratching. Once we reach the burrow, the teamwork between Emiliano and his dogs becomes visible. While the dogs start digging from one side, he starts digging from the other and together they keep digging further and further towards each other until Emiliano reaches and kills the Armadillo with one stab of his Machete. As someone who loves all animals and doesn’t eat meat this is the part that I am really not so keen to watch but I have to accept that this is a different way of life and I feel fortunate to have been allowed to come here and witness the lives of these villagers and their dogs. If dogs had not initially been used for hunting, and domesticated, they would not have evolved to be the varied and lovable pets sitting at home on our couches right now. After the Armadillo has been killed, Emiliano puts it in a burlap sack that he has brought along and then covers this with leaves to prevent his t-shirt from getting dirty. Then we slowly head home, where we are greeted by Emiliano’s wife and kids who start to prepare the beans for dinner. In the meantime Emiliano checks his dogs for any bites or scratches and makes sure there are no insects between their toes. Then the dogs get some cuddles from the kids, and finally curl up and fall asleep under the hammock, no doubt dreaming of their adventures in the jungle. Although the dogs here lead quite different lives than our pets at home, they seem to lead very good lives. In all my time here I have only once seen one dog on a lead and no one seems sure why that was. All the other dogs are free to roam around and do whatever they want, although they usually choose to relax near their owners or roam around the village investigating. Interestingly, although the dogs can, in theory, roam freely, they are rarely observed to leave the boundaries of the village. This has been put down to provisions by their owners as well as a seeming lack of success at hunting without the assistance of humans, so not only do the humans need dogs for greater hunting success, the dogs need them too. Although, for me as a visitor, it is not always clear which household a dog belongs to, there are no stray dogs, every dog here is owned. Jeremy’s research has shown that puppies typically cost the equivalent of 5 kgs of meat and adult dogs known to be good hunters are considerably more expensive, up to the equivalent of 45 kgs of meat.
Similar to Germany, some of their owners pay their dogs a lot of attention and cuddle them and feed them extra, while others live more alongside each other. And the same as at home, all the kids seem to really love playing with the puppies, although the puppies don’t seem convinced 100% of the time. Dogs that are successful hunters will accompany their owners for varying excursions such as work on the fields, as an opportunity to hunt may always arise. I never saw anyone mistreat a dog, although they find some of the ways we interact with our dogs very strange. Jeremy told me a story about a visiting researcher who had taught one of the dogs to give her his paw. When she proudly showed this to the villagers they apparently had no understanding of the use of such things and thought her a little strange. I can’t imagine what they’d say if they saw videos of Agility and dogdance.
With a kau pak de rang – see you later – Jeremy and I return back to our own hut and usual dinner of rice and beans, after which Jeremy discusses his research projects with his local assistant Orlando. Orlando spends his days wondering through the village, questioning locals to contribute to the research that Jeremy has been doing for 14 years. I spent a morning following him around and met several more dog owners and their dogs and took their photos, although communication was still limited to the lack of improvement in my Mayungnya skills.
Jeremy has been studying this community since 200 and is not only interested in the dogs but in the general long term evolution of the area and the villagers as they are becoming more closely connected to the outside world. After Jeremy lived in the community of Arung Dak for a whole year at the beginning of his studies, he now lives back in the US and visits twice a year to update his research and see how things are going and instigate new research projects, so I am very interested to see what else he finds out in the coming years.