Keeping the genes: recognition of local livestock breeds
At sunset, herder Rama Ram Raika brings his flock of sheep back from a day's grazing in the hills of southern Rajasthan to the temporary compound where they will spend the night. "That breed is good at surviving drought," he explains, as he points out the traditional black-headed Boti breed. "When there is nothing to eat they will still survive." Now, an international effort, finding more effective ways to identify and conserve valuable breeds, like the Boti, is gaining momentum.
Traits and traditions
The LIFE (Local Livestock for Empowerment of Rural People) network, a group of organisations and individuals who promote community-based conservation and development of indigenous livestock breeds, has begun to record 'forgotten breeds' in countries such as India, Pakistan, Uganda and Argentina using a new approach. Whereas scientists have generally defined breeds by measuring populations, observing traits (phenotypes) and noting production characteristics, the LIFE method measures the benefits of traditional breeds that are more difficult to quantify. These include their contribution to social cohesion and identity, their role in nutrient recycling, as providers of energy, their capacity to act as a savings bank, and the insurance they provide against drought and other natural calamities. "It takes time," says Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, project co-ordinator for the League for Pastoral Peoples and a founder member of LIFE, "but it is the only way to get the information to define the breed, from its traditional role to, very importantly, its future potential."
Essentially a participatory process, the LIFE approach has been developed and tested with large animals such as cattle, buffalo and sheep mainly in pastoral contexts. First, individual and group discussions are undertaken with women, men, community elders and village breeders. Once the cultural context has been established, it progresses to mapping the area where the breed is found and noting how it integrates into the farming system and landuse as a whole. Then, it considers its contribution to local livelihoods, records breeding objectives, breeding management, trends in population and threats to the breed's survival. "Discussing the importance of our local breeds has given us confidence" says Rama Ram Raika, who keeps three breeds of Rajasthani sheep. "Before, we did not know how to make people have respect for our animals and our way of life. Now, we are not afraid to go to the town or the city to speak up for what we have, and our rights as pastoralists."
The concept of livestock keepers' rights is a very recent development. The LIFE network lobbied hard to get recognition for livestock keepers in FAO's Global Plan of Action on Animal Genetic Resources agreed in 2007. One tactic was to get livestock keepers seen and heard at international discussions. "Recognising livestock keepers as creators of breeds as well as custodians, with rights to participate in policymaking processes, and acceptance of traditional breeds as collective property, is the next step," says Köhler-Rollefson. The long process of recognising livestock keepers' rights in existing legal frameworks is currently underway.
Breed conservation is bringing rewards. For example, scientists in the western Indian state of Gujarat, recently discovered the Banni breed of buffalo. Analysis has shown the Banni to have exceptional milk yield, longer lactation and higher fertility than even the Murrah buffalo, widely considered to be the most productive Indian buffalo. Such a discovery supports Köhler-Rollefson's belief that the only practical way to conserve genes or breeds is in situ. "If the genetic material is frozen in cryo-conservation it does not have the chance to continue to evolve along with disease and other environmental challenges," says Köhler-Rollefson. Breed survival is more likely if these animals remain in their original environment and make money for those who keep them. Local breeds produce meat, milk or eggs that are often very popular with local consumers and getting this produce to further markets, or developing high value, niche products such as camel milk ice cream strengthen the economic as well as genetic case for conserving traditional breeds.
...but new herders?
In darkness now, and with his flock safely penned Rama Ram can rest for the night. Does he have children that will carry on the tradition of herding these indigenous breeds? "I do not think the next generation will follow. Our children are likely to look away from traditional livestock to a life in a big city instead."
Those passionately campaigning for conservation of animal breeds are well aware that without supporting traditional keepers like Rama Ram, indigenous breeds - and the genetic diversity and potential they contain - are very unlikely to survive.
Date published: January 2009
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