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A call to action: conserving livestock diversity

Small Tail sheep, found in China, are one of hundreds of indigenous species under threat
Small Tail sheep, found in China, are one of hundreds of indigenous species under threat

Faced with the reality that many indigenous livestock species in Asia, Africa and Latin America are threatened with extinction, researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have called for the creation of genebanks to store semen and eggs of indigenous animal breeds.

The rapid establishment of genebanks would help conserve the genetic diversity of farm animals and is one of four practical steps outlined by ILRI in a joint report compiled by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Launched at the First International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources held in Interlaken, Switzerland in September 2007, the report "The State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources" highlights the over-reliance on certain breeds of farm animals, including Holstein-Friesian cows, White Leghorn chickens, and Large White pigs, now found in over 120 countries worldwide.

Rapid rate of extinction

Local breeds are estimated to be disappearing at the rate of one a month. "In many cases, we will not even know the true value of an existing breed until it's already gone," stressed ILRI Director-General Carlos Seré, in his keynote address. "This is why we need to act now to conserve what's left."

Surveys conducted in 169 countries have revealed that of the 6800 breeds of domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, poultry and other farm animals, nearly 70 per cent are found in developing countries. However, it is in these regions that global economic and environmental trends are often impacting on livestock keepers, reducing their ability to improve their livelihoods and manage their natural resources. While the climate becomes more unpredictable and extreme weather events more common, the economic value of many indigenous breeds has yet to be appreciated

A catalogue of potential change

The indigenous fat-tailed Red Masai hair sheep are known for being resistant to helminth (worm) parasites as well as being able to cope with droughts and floods on the East African savannah. Livestock scientists have identified that with improved nutrition, disease control and selection, an increase in body size, growth rates and production of milk can be achieved in these populations and yet in 15 years, this indigenous breed has been nearly wiped out by the introduction of Dorper sheep, originally from South Africa.

In an effort to enhance information exchange and build a greater interest in conservation of indigenous breeds, ILRI has established the Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information System (DAGRIS), a detailed database containing information on the distribution, characteristics and status of 669 breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens indigenous to Asia and Africa.

The database also brings together development initiatives conducted by various stakeholders to help countries learn about best practice. Case studies in Uganda, for example, have shown how engaging with farmers can result in increased conservation of local breeds.

While the establishment of genebanks would ensure the immediate survival of the most endangered breeds, ILRI is also working on in-situ conservation. "Storing semen and eggs in genebanks is like taking out an insurance policy," continues Seré. "But in-situ conservation enhances community participation for sustainability." In collaboration with the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the institute has initiated projects for in-situ conservation in four countries in West Africa. A similar project is also planned in Asia.

Valuing the past for the future

There are only 2500 Sheko cattle left in Ethiopia (ILRI)
There are only 2500 Sheko cattle left in Ethiopia

By involving communities, the projects will also help conserve indigenous knowledge. In Ethiopia, the Sheko breed of cattle is renowned for its tolerance to trypanosomiasis and is traditionally found in areas infested with tsetse fly, the vector that carries the trypanosomes. Despite the Ethiopian government clearing bushes to reduce tsetse fly numbers, which enabled farmers to introduce high-yielding cattle breeds, many other parts of Ethiopia are still infested with tsetse, making it important to conserve Sheko populations. However, less than 2500 Sheko cattle currently remain in Ethiopia.

The time is now

Worldwide, one billion people are involved in livestock farming and 70 per cent of the poor are dependent on livestock. "For the foreseeable future," says Sere, "livestock will continue to create the means for hundreds of millions of people to escape absolute poverty." Yet compared to the conservation of plant genetic resources, there has, until now, been only limited international attention and efforts to conserve indigenous animal breeds.

However, Sere notes that while the Interlaken conference "did not solve problems per se; it was a political process that challenged ILRI and other stakeholders to capitalise on the good gesture from governments and the international community." He concluded, "Visibility over this issue has been increased and coming together to discuss these issues has helped us to define a way forward."

Written by: Zablon Odhiambo

Date published: November 2007


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