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Local or indigenous livestock breeds play an important, even crucial role for sustainable rural livelihoods and the utilization of marginal ecological areas. Besides providing a wide variety of products, they yield important non-monetary benefits by enabling poor and landless people to access and utilize communally owned grazing areas, by producing dung that is vital to sustain intensive crop cultivation, by being a component of indigenous rituals and social exchange systems, and by representing a mobile bank account that can be cashed in at times of need. They thus form an essential component of sustainable rural livelihoods.

For many decades these indigenous animal genetic resources were perceived as unproductive and inherently inferior to high performance or improved breeds and, as a consequence, they were subjected to crossbreeding or even replacement with exotic breeds. Due to this and various other factors, the number of indigenous breeds livestock breeds has declined rapidly during the 20th century. About one third of the more than 7,000 livestock breeds (incl.poultry) breeds registered in the FAO’ global database are regarded as threatened by extinction (Scherf 2000).

The revival of interest in these local animal genetic resources can be attributed to the following factors:

  1. There is a growing number of comparative studies indicating that, within the context of their respective production systems, local breeds may be able to compete with improved breeds, even in regards to productivity (Interco operation 2000, Kebede 2000).

  2. Local breeds harbour genes for resistance against diseases, which are needed for maintaining the viability of animal production systems in northern countries.

  3. With the wild ancestors of most domesticated animal species being extinct, genetic diversity within domesticated species – necessary for providing opportunity for selection and adaptation to change - is vested mostly with traditional breeds.

  4. In the context of “sustainable livelihood” approaches to development, local livestock is an important contributor to rural welfare and poverty alleviation (Anderson 2000).

The aim of this report is to elaborate on the role of traditional pastoral and farming communities in the management of domestic animal diversity and to suggest possible avenues for the conservation of animal genetic resources by means of sustainable use in community contexts.

Origin of domestic animal diversity and of livestock breeds

The approximately 7,000 officially catalogued livestock breeds have been developed out of less than 20 wild species within a span of 10,000 years – beginning with the first domestication of sheep and goats at around 8000 years B.C in the Near East. This enormous diversification has been driven by the following processes.

  1. Introduction of domesticated species into new habitats: By taking animals into new environments and ecological niches, humans subjected animals to selection for adaptability to new sets of ecological factors and created new “ecotypes”.

  2. In addition, human societies manipulated their animals genetically, by subjecting their animals to different sociocultural breeding regimes and economic utilization patterns, practicing selection depending on their cultural preferences and needs.

  3. Furthermore, some human societies and cultures tended to monopolize their animals. Animals were not exchanged at random, but they changed ownership only within the community. Often animal-exchange networks corresponded to an endogamous human group or ethnic group, so that individual breeds evolved in tandem with each ethnic group.

What is a breed ?

“especially in Africa, livestock breeds…. are known by the same name in different places, but often look quite different from one place to another. Conversely, there are breeds that look alike but have different names in different places” (ILRI 1996).

The term “breed” is escaping a clear definition. Commonly, it is defined as a “phenotypically distinct group of animals within a species”, or “animals that, through selection and breeding, have come to resemble one another and pass these traits uniformly to their offspring” (Breeds of Livestock – Oklahoma State University, website However, the criterion of “looking alike” can be problematic, as above quotation shows.

Therefore some definitions focus on the breeders’ perception. “ A breed is a group of domestic animals, termed such by common consent of the breeders, …. A term which arose among breeders of livestock, created one might say, for their own use, and no one is warranted in assigning to this word a scientific definition and in calling the breeders wrong when they deviate from the formulated definition. It is their word and the breeders common usage is what we must accept as the correct definition.” (Jay Lush, The Genetics of Populations”, quoted on web-site of Oklahoma State University)

A definition that applies a combination of social and ecological criteria is the following: “A domestic animal population may be regarded as a breed, if the animals fulfil the criteria of (1) being subjected to a common utilisation pattern, (2) sharing a common habitat/distribution area, (3) represent largely a close gene pool, and (4) are regarded as distinct by their breeders” (Köhler-Rollefson 1997).

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