GUJI VILLAGE, YUNNAN PROVINCE, China — Wong How Man is rounding up the toughest puppies he can find. For the past two years, he has spent weeks at a time scouring the Tibetan plateau for mastiff puppies with bushy tails, big heads and very bad dispositions.
One of the world’s oldest breeds, the dogs have long guarded their Tibetan owners from wolves and bandits. But true Tibetan mastiffs are under siege from another adversary: smaller dogs. New roads and towns have brought mixed-breed canines to the plateau, and they’re diluting the mastiff gene pool.
“It’s a totally out-of-control situation,” says Mr. Wong, 56 years old, an explorer and conservationist.
The Hong Kong native has been a guardian of China’s nature and culture for two decades, as founder of the nonprofit conservation group China Exploration and Research Society. Last year, he led an expedition that found a new source of the Yangtze River. He’s also documented the vanishing Ewenki nomadic hunting tribe, the only ethnic group in China to raise reindeer.
Mr. Wong’s current obsession is preserving the massive mastiff in its native Tibetan habitat. About six years ago, he noticed that the dogs were getting smaller, their barks higher-pitched — indications that they were mixing with mutts and other breeds like German shepherds. He also had the worrying realization that they no longer pursued his car.
Another issue: their rising popularity as status symbols. “They want Hummers; they want Tibetan mastiffs,” says Mr. Wong of China’s wealthy urban dog owners. Often, the best dogs fall into the hands of commercial breeders. They’ve even become the target of thieves.
No one keeps data on the number of Tibetan mastiffs in China, although it is widely agreed that purebred ranks are in decline. Rather than see the best dogs leave their native habitat, Mr. Wong is dedicated to finding pups, breeding them and then placing their offspring in the care of Tibetan villagers. The dogs are “an integral part of the plateau,” he says.
Tibetan mastiffs have awed animal lovers through the ages. Thirteenth-century explorer Marco Polo, traveling through China’s Sichuan province, described them as “so fierce and bold that two of them together will attack a lion.” The iconic dogs were later used as diplomatic gifts. In 1847, the British governor of India sent Queen Victoria a male named Brut. President Dwight D. Eisenhower received two from the Foreign Ministry of Nepal in 1958.
Mastiffs still play a key role in Tibetan society. Nomads who live off their cows and yaks rely on the dogs to guard the herds. The best specimens, they believe, should have a bark low and loud enough to terrify intruders. Called “dohkyi,” which means “gate dog,” in Tibetan, they can reach 150 pounds and stand 2 feet tall.
Mr. Wong remembers his first mastiff sighting, in 1982, on the plateau of western Sichuan province. The giant black-and-brown dog had a bark “from deep,” he recalls.
In the summer of 2004, Mr. Wong led his first mastiff expedition on the plateau, covering 3,700 miles over almost four weeks. There, he and a team of 16 dog seekers scoured the grasslands for nomads’ black yak-hair tents. “Where there is a tent, there are dogs” tethered outside, explains Zhang Fan, the research society’s China director.
The group roamed at elevations of around 14,000 feet. Many lowland dogs, lacking the Tibetan mastiff’s efficient oxygen intake, have a hard time penetrating such high altitudes. Out of some 200 dogs sighted, the team bought five puppies from nomads that appeared to be purebreds. They paid $400 for the female they dubbed Aiyee, or “Auntie,” because she looked older than her age. Chili, a male, was a bargain at $120. That’s considerable cash for the nomads, who measure their assets in yaks; one yak is worth about $200.
Though the dogs are technically domesticated, tempers flared and leashes frayed on the way back to base camp in Zhongdian. “Aiyee got very upset,” says Mr. Wong, recalling how the then-four-month-old dog chased down a monk, tearing into his red robes before six team members subdued her.
Today, eight adult Tibetan mastiffs and three puppies live at a newly built CERS-funded kennel in Guji Village in Yunnan, about 80 miles from the Tibetan border. Three times a day, the dogs dine on a soupy mix of rice, cabbage and yak bones. The Saturday special is yak-milk cheese. Spring will see the construction of a landscaped playground.
Mr. Wong hopes that this 11,500-foot-high site, with its thin air and icy nights — temperatures can fall to 14 degrees Fahrenheit — will keep his dogs tough.
He plans to start giving puppies away to Tibetan families next year. Villagers from Guji have already asked for them, with the understanding that they must keep a few generations of the offspring rather than sell them.
Mr. Wong, who draws a salary as president of the CERS, raises money from corporate sponsors as well as a circle of private patrons. These include Hong Kong business elites like Marjorie Yang, chairman of textile giant Esquel Group.
Every fall, Mr. Wong hosts informational dinners in a cavernous Hong Kong ballroom, where prime patrons sponsor tables for about $13,000. To raise additional funds, he auctions off yak-hair blankets, photographs (Mr. Wong used to shoot for National Geographic magazine) and trips to exotic destinations. So far, he’s spent about $125,000 for the mastiff effort.
In its quest to find and raise the most authentic mastiffs, Mr. Wong’s team looks for big heads, broad muzzles and thick forelegs, as well as tan spots above the puppies’ eyes. Tibetans consider such marks lucky because they’re viewed as an extra set of watchful eyes.
“The most important thing is character,” says Qiju Qilin, a 54-year-old CERS staff member. “Tibetans don’t like mastiffs if they aren’t aggressive.”
Their hardy, macho nature has won them other fans. Chinese dog lovers prize the mastiff purebreds as symbols of status and patriotism. Breeders have been combing Tibetan communities in recent years, paying thousands of dollars for good mastiff studs and shipping the offspring to big cities such as Beijing.
Appreciation for the dogs is spreading. Though Tibetan mastiffs are a relatively new breed in the U.S., they’re slated to receive full recognition from the American Kennel Club within a year, which means that the breed will be able to compete for titles in shows.
American Tibetan-mastiff owners note the breed’s fierce protective qualities — as well as their limitations as pets. “This is a dog you would get to discern the inner motivations of the people in front of you,” notes Mary Fischer, an Egyptologist who keeps two of the massive dogs in her California home. New York lawyer Martha Feltenstein, owner of six mastiffs, says “I no longer have dinner parties.”
Although he’d rather see the dogs thrive in their natural habitat, Mr. Wong acknowledges that the growing interest in the breed isn’t all bad. If more villages become famous for having purebreds, he figures, they could host Tibetan-mastiff festivals and attract dog lovers from around the world. “If they ever have the Winter Olympics in Tibet,” he adds, “I would like this to be the mascot.”