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Fighting for survival in Central Asia

Central Asia has a wealth of livestock well-adapted to its many ecosystems (C Kerven)
Central Asia has a wealth of livestock well-adapted to its many ecosystems
C Kerven

Vast and varied, Central Asia has many distinct ecosystems giving rise to numerous well-adapted species of sheep, cattle, horses, goats and camelids. But, in spite of their genetic vigour, human activity has demonstrated that rates of adaptation are not fast enough: the collapse of the Soviet Union was a devastating blow to livestock keepers across the region, and now the introduction of exotic breeds is diluting the beneficial traits of local stock.

The zebu cattle of Tajikistan are a prime example of the power of nature. While producing relatively modest quantities of meat and milk, the small, tough animals are prolific, with very low rates of infertility and a tolerance of high altitudes. For the communities who keep them, the zebus are a godsend. The meat, milk and cheese are consumed and traded locally, whey is used to make shampoo, dung is used as a fuel, the animals provide draught power in the fields, and they are an important component of many dowries. Finally, they are so farmer-friendly that they don't even need herding, trotting conveniently back home after a day's grazing on the rangelands. If in the west the dog is "man's best friend", in parts of Tajikistan it's almost certainly the zebu.

But zebu numbers were hit hard by the fall of the Soviet Union. The economic crisis and five-year civil war that followed, together with uncontrolled crossbreeding with exotic milk breeds, such as Holstein-Friesian and Brown Swiss, saw a 50 per cent drop in the pure zebu population. In the FAO publication People and Animals (2007), Ergashev et al. call on policymakers to recognise the importance of the Tajik zebu to local communities, and to develop effective methods of conservation. Their suggestions include a bank of semen, oocytes and DNA, as well as policies to encourage farmers themselves to refine their breeding programmes.

A bumpy ride for local sheep

The collapse of the Soviet Union hit livestock production hard in Kazakhstan (C Kerven)
The collapse of the Soviet Union hit livestock production hard in Kazakhstan
C Kerven

In nearby Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, sheep have also had a tough time. Many well-adapted breeds had emerged as a result of thousands of years of natural and human selection, contact with other breeds along the silk routes, and some ingenious breeding strategies by the Soviets themselves. "The Soviets were very clever and industrious people," explains Carol Kerven of the Odessa Centre, who has spent the last ten years involved in livestock development in Central Asia. "They introduced many different crossbreeds adapted to a number of ecological niches." These included breeds suited to the desert, mountain and steppe regions.

Enormous state-run farms of up to 60,000 sheep were common in Kazakhstan, supported with government subsidies, and totally dependent on the state for animal feed, machinery, fuel and other inputs. The state also controlled the purchase and marketing of meat. At its peak the Kazakh sheep industry was formidable, supplying a quarter of the Soviet Union's mutton and wool. But genetic resilience was no match for the ideological meltdown of 1989 and, when communism fell, the consequences were catastrophic. "As state money disappeared, many state farms couldn't support themselves so they began borrowing from each other and paying their debts in sheep," says Kerven.

While this caused the value of the animals to plummet, worse was to come. With the loss of central planning, state distribution systems for meat also vanished. In a region where meat consumption is extremely high - up to one kilo per person, per day - the sheep, regardless of their hereditary hardiness, were never going to last long. In 1990 Kazakhstan had around 33 million sheep; by 1996-7 this had slumped to just 7 million. In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, the figures are equally grim with sheep numbers dropping by 75 per cent in three years. "They were all eaten - even the specially-bred ones. It was a real mess," continues Kerven. But, sheep numbers have been steadily rising in the past few years, as a result of farmers cross the remaining Soviet breeds with their own more hardy local stock.

Assured destruction?

The future of local breeds is uncertain in Kazakhstan (C Kerven)
The future of local breeds is uncertain in Kazakhstan
C Kerven

Whether it is the indigenous cattle, sheep or the many other valuable livestock breeds in Central Asia, all will struggle to survive without radical changes in public policy. "There is the idea that if it's local it's bad, and if it's imported it's good," says Kerven. This apparent misperception has resulted in a government-sponsored programme to 'improve' wealthier farmers' sheep flocks with less hardy Australian merino sheep, while home-grown breeds are ignored. So protecting valuable local breeds will take time and money, and a revolution in thinking: "Local breeds are out of fashion," laments Kerven. "Farmers recognise their value but those in government, who make the funding decisions, do not."

Date published: March 2009


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