Red Maasai: hardy and disease resistant

By Graham Salinger

In the developing world up to 1 billion people rely on livestock for food and income. Livestock production is the fastest growing sector in agriculture worldwide and remains an important way to improve diets and increase incomes in the developing world. With the demand for animal foods projected to double in developing countries over the next twenty years, less well-known livestock breeds contain valuable resources that could be vital to food security.  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 animal breeds are shrinking, indigenous livestock breeds will play a critical role in future food security.

Indigenous to northern Tanzania, south central Kenya, and Uganda, the Red Maasai East African sheep could have a big impact on food security. (Photo Credit: ILRI)

The Red Maasai East African sheep, also called Tanganyika Short-tailed, is a hardy breed of sheep indigenous to northern Tanzania, south central Kenya, and Uganda. The Red Maasai, which are distinct for having red hair instead of wool, are used primarily for their meat.

While other sheep, known as Dorpers, were imported to East Africa from South Africa, Red Maasai have become a proven resource for farmers in recent years because of their resistance to worms and adaptation to semi-arid climates. Red Maasai  are known to be resistant to a number of parasites, making them popular among the local population.  Scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have begun cross breeding the Red Maasai with Dorpers in efforts to pass the worm resistance on to other breed. Leyden Baker of ILRI  predicts that farmers could see sales from wool and meat drop by as much as 40 percent as the worms grow resistant to drugs and sheep start to die prematurely.

Red Maasai have also been shown to adapt better to climate change and in Kenya farmers are working to protect the Red Maasai which they believe are more resilient to droughts than other breeds. Working with Jacob Wanyama, coordinator for the African LIFE Network in Kenya and contributing author of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, 60 pastoralists from the Samburu region of Kenya have formed a conservation group with the hopes of integrating the Red Maasai into the livestock system. Each member has reared between 200 and 500 animals. And the Red Maasai has another important feature that makes it attractive to locals who are concerned about the price of food and the sustainability of their agricultural system—its small size relative to other breeds means that it requires less animal feed.

With their pest- and drought-resistant qualities, Red Maasai is an important indigenous breed that is helping to improve food security in East Africa.

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

To read more about other 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 FavoriteSpider Plant: A Hardy Nutritious African Native, and Celosia: Nature’s Prettiest Vegetable.

Graham Salinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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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