By Matt Styslinger
The genetic diversity of African livestock is increasingly threatened as indigenous breeds are replaced or cross-bred with larger, exotic commercial breeds that produce more meat or milk. These exotic breeds, however, are not usually as well-adapted to African environmental and climate conditions, and farmers often have to spend money on medicines and provide supplemental food and water. But even though the indigenous herds are shrinking, many traditional livestock varieties are still being raised by small-scale farmers.
Pastoralists in drought-prone regions rely on the Ankole cattle to weather the harsh climate. (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)
Ankole cattle, for example, are a hardy indigenous breed of cattle found in East Africa. These animals have a bold, regal appearance because of their striking long, large-diameter horns. The cattle themselves are medium-sized and have a barely visible hump—a result of their relationship to South Asian zebu cattle that were bred with African cattle some 4,000 years ago. Ankole were brought to East Africa by nomadic pastoralists from the north sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries.
The breed is more often utilized for its milk, rather than its meat, and they are sometimes used to plough fields and carry loads. Traditionally, some East African pastoral cultures drink the Ankole blood mixed with milk. The blood can be harvested from the animal once a month without harm. This practice is usually reserved for rituals, but the mixture is sometimes given to the sick for nourishment. The milk itself has a high content of butterfat, making Ankoles ideal for the production of butter—a value added dairy product—for farmers to earn extra income. The meat of the Ankole is very low in fat and has less cholesterol than commercial beef. This makes the meat a healthier source of protein and could make Ankole beef marketable as a specialty meat.
Ankole are highly prized for ceremonial purposes, and they are slaughtered for weddings and other celebrations. They are considered a status symbol in many rural communities in the region. But fewer farmers are raising the breed for commercial purposes. Although there are some 3 million head of Ankole cattle in Uganda alone, their numbers are declining as farmers abandon them for high-yielding exotic breeds.
East Africa has seen unprecedented human population growth in recent years, and pasture and water sources are increasingly in short supply. Ankole do well in poor quality pastures and forage, and can survive long periods of limited food and water. Ankole can also walk for long distances to search for water or pasture land. Their long horns provide defense against predators, but they also circulate blood through them—which keeps the animals cool in the hot East African climate. These traits could become more and more important as drought brought on by climate change increases in frequency in the region.
According to Dr. Jacob Wanyama, coordinator for the African LIFE Network in Kenya and contributing author of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, new exotic cattle breeds cannot tolerate the distance or the heat as well as Ankole. “This is one reason different pastoralist communities sometimes clash,” he says. “When cattle cannot travel far for water, livestock keepers have to find it elsewhere, often at sites traditionally used by different communities.” Wanyama says that conflict affects more than just the ability to raise livestock. “It has also forced schools to close and has displaced more people as they are driven off the land,” he says.
To prevent future disappointments in cross-breeding, the Ankole Watusi International Registry is working to establish Ankole cattle as a distinct breed. The organization spreads public awareness about the rare and ancient breed, promotes appropriate breeding techniques, and registers Ankole breeders. With support from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Uganda’s National Animal Genetic Resources Centre and Data Bank works with farmers to breed, select, and maintain distinctive herds of Ankole cattle. The Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA) is also working with pastoralists to ensure indigenous species like the Ankole remain part of pastoral cultures.
Do you think there is a market for beef from less well-known cattle breeds? Let us know in the comments!
To read more about livestock, see: The Keepers of Genetic Diversity: Meeting with Pastoralist Communities in Kenya, Maintaining Links to Tradition in a Changing World, Bridging the Gap between Pastoralists and Policy Makers, and Innovations for Improving Biodiversity and Livelihoods.
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.