Five Indigenous Livestock Breeds You Have Never Heard of

By Sheldon Yoder

Approximately 21 percent of indigenous animal breeds around the world are in danger of extinction, according to the FAO. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Indigenous breeds of livestock have fed and clothed humans for thousands of years. Many of them have unique adaptations for survival in harsh environments and for tolerating specific diseases.

Regrettably, while it took millennia to create the rich genetic wealth of indigenous livestock breeds, that diversity is in danger of being lost forever as farmers are encouraged to switch to commercial livestock or cross-breed indigenous livestock with exotic breeds.

The following are five breeds of livestock in Africa whose genetic diversity deserves to be protected.

1. Ankole Cattle: The Ankole is a breed of cattle native to Eastern Africa that is not only beautiful but valuable because of its ability to survive in extremely harsh, dry conditions—a trait that is increasingly useful as sub-Saharan Africa becomes drier and hotter. These animals have striking, long, large-diameter horns, which help circulate blood and keep them cool in hot climes. The animals are renowned for their hardiness, allowing them to forage on poor quality vegetation and live off limited amounts of water.

The Ankole in action: The Ankole Watusi International Registry is working to establish the Ankole as a distinct breed. In partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (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 species like the Ankole remain part of their culture.

2. N’Dama Cattle: N’Dama is a breed of cattle that was domesticated around 8,000 years ago in what is now Guinea and has spread throughout West and Central Africa. The cattle are small and usually red- or brown-colored. N’Dama cows produce two to three liters of milk per day, a small amount relative to other breeds, but their meat is renowned for its flavor and low fat content. They are docile, heat and humidity tolerant, and can survive on poor quality feeds. The N’Dama’s resistance to trypanosomiasis—a widespread African cattle disease spread by the fly—allows it to survive where other animals perish without expensive antibiotics.

N’Dama in action: The International Trypanotolerance Centre (ITC) has launched an N’Dama improvement program in The Gambia. The program uses 400 breeding cows to select for higher milk-producing animals that retain disease-resistant qualities. Jules VAN LANCKER—a consulting firm operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo—in collaboration with ILRI, has used its herd of over 40,000 purebred N’Dama to breed desirable qualities without losing hardiness, such as average weight. According to ILRI, the company has increased average weight by 30 to 50 kilograms per animal.

3. Molo Mushunu Chicken: The Mushunu is a breed of chicken native to the Molo district of Kenya that has traditionally been raised by the Kikuyu people. The breed is prized for its size, its flavor, and brooding characteristics, such as the hen’s ability to lay a large quantity of eggs every month. The Mushunu has a unique appearance—with its large and elongated body and featherless neck and head, it won’t win any beauty competitions. Its meat, however, is tasty and its eggs, small with a bright brown shell and brilliant yellow yolk, are used to make pancakes and porridge. Perhaps most importantly, it packs a lot of meat onto one bird, with each chicken weighing between 6 to 9 pounds. The bird grows slowly and only reaches maturity between six and eight months. The chickens forage for insects and eat kitchen scraps, instead of expensive grains and it is usually cooked to celebrate important festivals or the arrival of guests.

Molo Mushunu in action: The Molo Mushunu Presidium was created in 2009 to support local communities that raise the Mushunu chicken. The presidium is one of Slow Food International’s many Presidia around the world that work with producers of endangered foods, offering technical assistance to improve quality and provide access to new markets. The project has purchased equipment, such as incubators, and organized training on farming and selection methods for the 37 Presidium producers.

4. Red Maasai Sheep: One of the forgotten flocks of Africa, Red Maasai have been raised traditionally by the Maasai people. The sheep are found in northern Tanzania, south central Kenya, and Uganda. They are usually red-brown and, because their coat is formed of hair, not wool, they are raised primarily for meat production. The sheep are one of the only known breeds that are resistant to the US$1 billion problem of intestinal worms, which suck blood from the gut and leave sheep sick and anemic.

Red Maasai in action: Because geneticists believe their resistance to intestinal worms lies in a handful of genes that could be transferred to other breeds, the sheep are an example of African stock that could bolster other animals in the tropics and cooler climates. As a result, researchers at ILRI are helping Maasai livestock herders in East Africa to protect and catalogue the sheep’s genetic strengths, with the help of researchers from BritainAustralia, and other sheep-rearing countries. 

5. Zulu Sheep: Native to southern Africa, the Zulu sheep looks similar to a goat and has meat that is savory, flavorful, and lean. Agile and of medium-small size, the sheep is characterized by its small ears and a multi-colored coat made of hair, not wool. The sheep carries large fat stores in its tail and body, which are essential to its survival in an area that is a hot, drought-prone region. Thanks to its hardiness, this breed can resist many tick-borne diseases, allowing them to survive without the expensive medications that many other sheep breeds need. Unfortunately, the animals are on the verge of extinction due to replacement by imported breeds.

Zulu in action: Richard Haigh at Enaleni Farms of South Africa, in partnership with Slow Food International’s Zulu Sheep Presidium, has managed to source a small breeding flock of sheep with 8 bloodlines.  He has been sending blood samples to the South African National Research Foundation to help them build a DNA “hoof print” of what makes up a Zulu sheep. Ultimately, Haigh and the Presidium hope to safeguard the breed’s genetic diversity and resilience, establish a viable market for its uniquely flavored meat, and unify the remaining herders with the shared goal of preserving the Zulu sheep.

To read more about indigenous breeds of livestock covered previously by Nourishing the Planet, see Ankole: Regal, Hardy, and Declining Cattle BreedInnovation of the Week: Using Livestock to Rebuild and Preserve CommunitiesN’Dama: Ancient West African Cattle, and Bridging the Gap between Pastoralists and Policy Makers.

Sheldon Yoder is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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