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Saving the 'night queen' of Chilika

Chilika buffalo in the brackish water of Chilika Lake (LIFE)
Chilika buffalo in the brackish water of Chilika Lake
LIFE

As the sun sets over Chilika Lake in India's eastern state of Orissa, a herd of buffalo enters the water for another night's grazing. These are the unique Chilika buffalo, the only breed able to feed on vegetation in the brackish lake. But recent attempts to increase the milk productivity of the Chilika by crossbreeding them with higher-yielding Murrah buffalo means their unique feeding habits are at risk, threatening the existence of this unique breed, the livelihoods of the villagers and the ecosystem of the lake.

A savings account

Attempting to preserve and promote these so-called "night queens" of Chilika, is The LIFE Initiative (Local Livestock for the Empowerment of Rural People). Dr Balaram Sahu, a scientist and researcher with the network, points out that Chilika buffalo are just like a savings account for their owners, enabling them to feed and educate their children and buy land for farming. "Without anything else, they earn through their buffaloes," he says.

Their unusual feeding habits means the buffalo are very low maintenance and require no additional feed or shelter, except that provided by trees at the lakeside. Generally, they do not receive any medication either but, despite this, the mortality rate is low. The animals produce about 2kg of milk per day and, while this is lower than other breeds in the area, the milk, and particularly its curd or yoghurt, can remain fresh for a week without refrigeration because of the buffaloes' saline diet.

The buffalo are the only cattle in the area able feed on the vegetation in the lake (LIFE)
The buffalo are the only cattle in the area able feed on the vegetation in the lake
LIFE

The benefits of the Chilika are not confined just to the villagers who rear them, they are crucial to the ecosystem of the lake itself. As the largest lagoon in Asia, Chilika Lake supports a fishing industry of around 100,000 people and the 19,000 pure-bred Chilika that remain are key to sustaining it. Buffalo excreta in the lake increases the phytoplankton, vital for maintaining fish stocks. Second, weed growth has been partly blamed for the reduction of bird populations, especially near the Nalanana bird sanctuary, and so by feeding on weeds in the lake and on the shore the buffalo help prevent vegetation clogging up the lake. Thirdly, the buffalo benefit birds by exposing the roots of the Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), which some birds eat.

Villagers also use "dung patties" (a sun-dried mix of dung and leaves) as fuel; Sahu argues that in this way the buffaloes, as "converters of water into fire", have saved trees in the area from being felled for firewood and helped reduce deforestation.

So, while crossing Chilika with Murrah buffalo has increased milk yields, the crossbreed is unable to feed in the lake and is more prone to parasitic infections such as liver flukes; therefore it is more expensive, requiring feed supplements and medication. Sahu warns that the increased cost of rearing this crossbreed means it will not be a sustainable livelihood option for local people. A reduction in buffalo grazing in Chilika Lake would also lead to the unchecked growth of weeds and plants, and Sahu fears that if the numbers of pure-bred Chilika continue to decline the lake could become clogged up, affecting the fish populations, on which so many local people rely for their income.

Investing in the future

Efforts to preserve and promote pure-bred Chilika are now underway. The LIFE Initiative has helped Chilika herders link up with private entrepreneurs in urban areas through its "mind to market" programme, which helps add value to Chilika buffalo milk. They have also begun to develop and market other goods containing the milk, such as yoghurt, sweets and cakes. Consequently, the value of Chilika milk has risen from 13 to 18 rupees per litre.

Another LIFE Initiative project, 'Pathe Pathshalal School on Move' - a farmer field school - encourages farmers to promote Chilika buffaloes and pass on traditional knowledge to other livestock keepers in the region. The school goes from village to village, informing people about the benefits of rearing the breed, how to care for and manage Chilika with few inputs, and how to market the milk to make maximum profit.

Chilika buffalo milk has a longer shelf life than milk from other cattle, thought to be due to its higher salt content (LIFE)
Chilika buffalo milk has a longer shelf life than milk from other cattle, thought to be due to its higher salt content
LIFE

A technique to prevent unwanted crossbreeding is the use of rudimentary but effective buffalo contraception, such as "condoms". This involves tying a large sheet around weaker animals to prevent them reproducing. Villagers are also taught about traditional animal healing methods using locally available medicinal plants.

These are encouraging steps towards maintaining and promoting the unique characteristics of the Chilika. But Sahu argues that to secure their future in the long-term, further measures are vital; these include maintaining "bull farms" to preserve pure-bred Chilikas, providing regular vaccination and de-worming services, and rewarding farmers for conserving the animals. Sahu believes that if these measures are taken now, the Chilika buffalo has a bright future.

Date published: March 2009

 

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