N’Dama: Ancient West African Cattle

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By Matt Styslinger

As the African continent is faced with the challenge of meeting a growing demand for milk and meat, the genetic diversity of livestock breeds is being lost at an alarming rate. Governments and agribusiness continue to promote exotic commercial breeds of livestock that are bred to gain more weight and produce more milk than traditional breeds. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that around 1,710 breeds of livestock—21 percent—are at risk of extinction worldwide as farmers abandon their traditional breeds. For millennia, pastoralists have bred livestock that are well-adapted to local conditions. Understanding and preserving these breeds could be useful in helping communities adapt as their climates and environments change in the coming decades.

N'Dama is a hardy, disease-resistant breed of cattle indigenous to West Africa (Photo: ILRI)

N’Dama is a hardy breed of cattle indigenous to the Fouta-Djallon highlands in the West African country of Guinea. N’Dama cows were domesticated around 8,000 years ago in the region and they have evolved to be resistant to local diseases and parasites. The breed is common throughout West and Central Africa, especially in areas infested by the tsetse fly—an insect known to transmit disease to both humans and livestock. According to the FAO, there are approximately 7 million head of N’Dama cattle.

N’Dama cows produce two to three liters of milk per day and their meat is renowned for its flavor. The breed is the most popular among West Africa’s small-scale, low-input livestock keepers. This is largely because they are heat tolerant, are docile and do well in harsh environments, and can survive on poor quality feeds.

But the most important quality of N’Dama is its resistance to trypanosomiasis, a widespread African cattle disease spread by the tsetse fly. In the areas of Africa with the greatest potential to increase domestic livestock production, trypanosomiasis is a major constraint. Because of its natural resistance to the disease, N’Dama cows do not require expensive antibiotics to be healthy. For this reason, N’Dama is seen as the breed of choice to help West and Central Africa meet the increasing demand for meat and milk products.

The International Trypanotolerance Centre (ITC) has launched an N’Dama improvement program in The Gambia. The program uses 400 breeding cows to try and select larger, higher milk-producing animals that retain disease-resistant qualities. A company in the Democratic Republic of Congo called Jules VAN LANCKER, in collaboration with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), has used its herd of over 40,000 purebred N’Dama to breed desirable qualities without losing hardiness. According to ILRI, the company has increased the average weight of its N’Dama cattle by 30 to 50 kilograms per animal through selective breeding.

Economically, livestock production is the fastest growing sector in agriculture worldwide. Livestock-keeping can be an important way to improve diets and raise incomes in the developing world. Less well-known livestock breeds contain valuable resources that could be vital for food security and help farmers deal with the challenges of climate change, animal disease, and dwindling water supplies.

What are some less well-known livestock breeds that you know about? Let us know in the comments!

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To read more about indigenous agricultural genetic resources, see: Five Vegetables You’ve Never Heard of That are Helping to End Hunger, Guar: Food, Fodder, Fertilizer & More, The Dogon Shallot: An Underground Favorite, Spider Plant: A Hardy Nutritious African Native, and Celosia: Nature’s Prettiest Vegetable.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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