The dogs fighting wild boars in illegal pits in Indonesia, and the activist trying to put a stop to it
Villagers in West Java defend pitting dogs against boars in crude arenas as training for hunts and part of community tradition. Our correspondent witnesses disturbing scenes and talks to dog breeders who’ve quit the sport
It takes weeks of messaging and meetings before someone agrees to take us to a dugong pit. Short for adu bagong – or wild boar fighting – dugong is popular in rural parts of Indonesia’s West Java province, where dog owners pay for the chance to let their animals attack a wild boar inside an arena.
For some, the sport is training for their hunting dogs. Others take part purely for entertainment.
Animal rights activists launched a campaign to stop the practice last year, persuading provincial governor Ahmad Heryawan to issue a letter reminding local officials that cruelty to animals is forbidden under Indonesian law, but leaving enforcement to mayors and regents.
Typically in Indonesia, instructions from on high do not necessarily trickle down to rural backwaters. Some arenas close to Bandung, the provincial capital, have shut down. Further afield, others continue to host weekly fights but keep a low profile, trying to avoid the media glare.
Toto agrees to meet at a service station in Sumedang town on a recent Sunday morning. In his late thirties, with a cartoon pit bull tattoo on his calf and wearing a red baseball cap backwards, Toto says he has been involved with dugong since childhood. He jumps into the back seat of the car and directs us to a village arena about an hour out of town.
Toto’s role at the events is to make sure the dog releases the boar after an attack, and to ready the hog to face its next opponent.
On arrival at the arena, dozens of dogs are already chained to a tree or sit in cages, barking ferociously. More arrive by the minute.
The arena’s middle-aged owner walks around calmly with a notebook, collecting money from those who want their dog in on the action. One bite of the boar costs 50,000 rupiah (US$3.65).
He will have paid roughly 900,000 rupiah for the boar and for transporting it to the arena, Toto says. Once the owner has enough names in the notebook to make the event profitable, the fights commence. Today, the list fills up quickly.
The arena – roughly 20 metres (65 feet) long and 10 metres wide – is surrounded by a tall bamboo fence and a rickety gallery for spectators. At one end is a mud pit, where boars like to retreat when given the chance.
The arena seems to be a hang-out for local misfits and tattooed tough guys. Despite the Muslim prohibition on alcohol, drinking is part of their weekend fun. Local motorbike gangs are dugong fans, as are policemen and soldiers on occasion, we are told. Women and children are also among the onlookers, watching on stoically.
Once the first boar is released into the arena, the excitable dogs are let in alone or in pairs, depending on their experience. One-on-one fights typically involve purebreds such as pit bulls. What the breed lacks in hunting skills it makes up for in sheer strength and aggression, and a disturbing scene quickly unfolds.
The boar is initially feisty, lashing its head around defensively in an attempt to prevent the dog from sinking its fangs into its body. One violent attack after another takes its toll on the limping creature, however. The boar shrieks and groans, resilient but also helpless.
When it can, it retreats into the mud pit – where dogs are not able to move as freely.
After each attack, handlers remove the dog – sometimes having to pry its jaws open with a stick to release it from its prey – and then pull the boar out of the pit.
Boars can inflict damage on their opponents with their tusks, and some dogs will leave the arena with wounds that need stitching, but it’s the boars that invariably lose the fight.
Once a boar is too exhausted to continue, it is manoeuvred into a cage, taken out of the arena, and replaced with a fresh one.
After about an hour, the salty stench of dog sweat hangs in the air, and the barking is deafening.
Toto says wild boars are believed to possess magical powers. There have been times when it seemed they would not die, even running around headless while thunder and lightning rolled through the village. Then there’s the legend of Si Keling, a massive boar said to be kept in a cage, possessed by the spirit of an old hunter who died in the woods.
“There’s a lot of black magic,” Toto says.
Throughout the greater district of Sumedang, village chiefs would not dare to enforce the ban on dugong, he adds.
Marison Guciano, the activist who led the campaign to ban dugong, is well known among supporters of the sport. Meeting in a cafe in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, Marison says he is aware fights are still going on. At least now, he argues, villagers can act if they don’t want an arena in their neighbourhood.
“In a village, only a few people agree to it. The majority [of dugong participants] come from the outside. If the local population does not agree, they can call the police,” he says.
One dugong enthusiast, who runs a fans’ account on Instagram but requests anonymity, says Marison and other opponents of dugong from outside West Java fail to understand its roots, and that boars are a threat and need to be hunted.
“It’s more than a tradition for us. It’s about the tightness of the community … because most of us have been in this for generations,” he says.
Some dog owners make decent money out of breeding and training. Hunting dogs from the region have in recent years become popular in Padang, on the island of Sumatra. They are often a mix of bull terrier or pit bull, and local dogs, known as terkams or pitkams.
“In Padang, you’re not considered rich until you have a top hunting dog,” says Bobby Prima, a pit bull owner who was part of the dugong community until a few years ago. “It’s prestige. A Padang man in the morning looks first at his dog, then at his wife and children.”
Dogs shipped to Padang from West Java can sell for 10 million rupiah, depending on how well trained they are. Those with unique qualities, such as unusual colouring, can go for much more.
It may seem odd that villagers in West Java and Padang, both staunchly Muslim regions, have close relationships with dogs, since the animals are widely considered unclean in Islamic belief. However, the Koran endorses dog keeping for the purpose of hunting.
A spokesman for the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, a council of Muslim clerics, has said that Muslim dog owners should avoid dog saliva and always clean themselves after contact.
“Dogs are not a problem in Islam, it’s up to anyone to decide for themselves,” Prima says.
Prima’s pit bull is named Axl, after the singer of rock band Guns N’ Roses, Axl Rose. He has white fur with black spots, like a Dalmatian. Prima raised Axl from a pup and says he was aggressive in the pit. In a fit of rage, Axl once attacked his owner.
Prima rolls up his jeans to show the dark scars of bite marks on his shin. When Axl was a year old, a man from Surabaya offered Prima 30 million rupiah for the dog, but he turned down the offer. Instead, he decided to retire Axl from fighting, and he now lives in the textile factory compound where Prima works.
At 10 years old, he is still a compact, muscular beast. Prima can barely control him on a leash.
“Down, sit – he doesn’t know any of these commands. He can only pull. If I let him off the leash, he’ll run off and not come back.”
Prima dropped out of dugong because it was getting expensive. “A fight could cost you 500,000 rupiah,” he says, testament to just how bitey Axl was.
An old friend of Prima’s is Roy Pan Durdin, who co-founded the Papillon Pit Bull Club in Jakarta with three friends in 2004.
Durdin preferred to show off his dogs’ skills in obedience competitions rather than a fighting pit. As a pit bull breeder, he researched raising and training methods, and passed on his knowledge to other owners. Although he is not part of the dugong scene, he is known in the community.
“When the community meets, it doesn’t matter who is into fighting and hunting and who is not. We don’t separate. We talk about the dogs’ different skills,” Durdin says.
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He stopped breeding dogs, he says, because their value dropped after more breeders got on the bandwagon but didn’t put as much effort into raising them as him. A pit bull pup used to sell for 4 million rupiah. Now it’s closer to 1.5 million rupiah, he says. Today, Durbin has only one pit bull, named Salt.
Since Prima stopped going to dugong fights, he’s developed an interest in songbirds. “There are songbird competitions every week,” he says.
But his new hobby may also soon come under scrutiny. The popularity of keeping songbirds in Indonesia is putting a strain on wild populations, thanks to illegal hunting.
Marison, the animal rights activist, is already planning a campaign to clamp down the practice.
Next week: Thai funerals for beloved pet dogs