THEY are known popularly as ''township'' dogs - skinny beasts that roam the rubbish dumps in the poorest of black areas, far from the show grounds of their well-groomed pedigreed cousins. But a group of local canine enthusiasts say these pooches are actually from noble stock that hunted antelopes and leopards for centuries and should be treated with respect. The experts have identified more than half a dozen breeds they say are special to South Africa - and argue that now that white racist rule is buried, the dogs should be elevated to the official pedigree status allotted to poodles, Afghans, and other canine elites. ''These dogs are unique,'' says Sian Hall, an anthropologist devoted to discovering, tracing, and breeding what she terms South African indigenous dogs. ''The time has come to promote them. The emphasis now in the new South Africa generally is to promote the indigenous. They are ideal for the third world, wonderful family pets, and very attractive to look at.'' So far the Rhodesian Ridgeback - a huge dog with a distinct, furry ridge along its back - is the only southern African breed recognized by kennel associations worldwide. The dogs once were used to hunt lions. But Ms. Hall and fellow enthusiasts say other indigenous breeds are concentrated in rural black areas of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal, Venda, and Cape regions where they were used for thousands of years to hunt wildlife and guard cattle. Studying accounts of early European travelers made her realize that the modern-day dogs were not mere mutts but distinct types carefully bred over the centuries. Among the most common of South Africa's indigenous dogs is the Simaku, a medium-sized canine that lives among the Zulu people. With short legs and a long body, it resembles a Welsh corgi and hunts rodents. The I-Twina, bred by the Xhosa ethnic group, has large upright bat ears and a sleek short coat. A good specimen can fetch two head of cattle, or more than $1,000. ''It could knock the socks off pedigree show dogs,'' Hall says. The I-basi is a tall creature with a long muzzle and long legs, which helps its owners hunt antelopes. The I-Baku, also a Xhosa type, resembles a woolly haired greyhound. The I-nqeqe is another Xhosa dog, with short legs. The most common Zulu dog is the Sica, an affectionate canine, which is energetic almost to a fault and makes an excellent watchdog. It is a medium-sized dog with a short coat. Its extreme agility has made it useful in hunting the rodent-like hyrax as well as rabbits. Venda dogs will take on leopards to defend cattle. Some have a hairy ridge on their backs similar to Rhodesian Ridgebacks. The one unifying characteristic of the indigenous dogs is that they are hounds with light bones and long muzzles and tend to be bold and territorial. Many, oddly, are vegetarians. Instead of meat they prefer cornmeal, roots, and sour milk - staples for many impoverished blacks. Johannesburg residents Lynn Ferreira and her husband, Anton, are proud owners of a one-year-old Sica named Shumba (''lion'' in Shona). They said that even before they read about the breed in Farmers' Weekly magazine they had wanted a local breed rather than a more delicate foreign one. ''Even before we heard about the indigenous dogs, we had thought about getting an African dog,'' Mrs Ferreira says. Was it the right decision? ''Yes! She's wonderful. Very intelligent. Wonderful.'' Hall and her associates are drawing up a breed standard to qualify the indigenous dogs for registration with the Kennel Union of South Africa (KUSA), Africa's largest kennel club. Michael Darwin, KUSA's manager of research and statistics, says the group is supporting Hall's investigation but that it might be five to 15 years until the indigenous dogs would be recognized breeds and ready for international dog shows. He says that, to be internationally recognized as an acceptable purebred, there must be eight different bloodlines, at least 700 living specimens, a written breed standard, and a breeding history for three generations. He noted that there were other recent newcomers from Africa - the Zairean Basenji, which was registered in 1938, and the Rhodesian Ridgeback, registered in 1924. Another South African type that was on its way to being recognized was the Boerbull, a mixture of European breeds bred by Afrikaner white farmers in the Transvaal area. ''There are many breeds of dogs which white dog owners have not heard of. Not much is known about them,'' Mr. Darwin says. ''This is an area of research only recently touched upon. It's still early days for South Africa's indigenous dogs. But they could very well be recognized in the future.''