Ancient genes offer hope for the future
The African continent is home to an extraordinary array of indigenous cattle—well over a hundred distinct breeds. As the small sample featured in this coffee table book demonstrates, they come in every shape, size and colour, from the miniature Lobi to the large-bodied Ethiopian Boran, the humpless N’Dama to the humped Red Fulani, the favoured white of the Kamba to the deep, dark red of the Ankole.
Why this diversity? The answer lies in the very diversity of the peoples and landscapes of Africa itself. Each unique breed is adapted to a particular environment, be it harsh semi- desert, acacia-dotted savannah or some other ecosystem; or to the requirements of the cattle keepers, whether for milk, meat, traction or even for some aesthetic attribute, such as the shape of the horns. The resulting diversity represents a living storehouse of precious genetic material that is taking on growing importance as modern methods of fighting animal diseases falter, the climate warms and markets change.
But this remarkable biological capital is under threat. The world’s livestock genetic resources are disappearing at an alarming rate— every month, one breed of domestic livestock become extinct. Many of Africa’s indigenous cattle breeds are at risk of suffering the same fate as market forces increasingly favour imported animals that promise greater yields of milk or meat, but bring a narrow gene pool ill-suited to African production environments.
Each disappearance of an indigenous breed represents an irreversible loss of unique traits that may serve as vital
insurance against future challenges, such as increasing drought or emerging pests. It is also a missed opportunity for small-scale African livestock keepers to tap into expanding markets and transform their livelihoods.
But there is hope. The exciting new science of genomics is enabling us to unravel the genetic make-up of African cattle breeds and identify, and breed for, those traits that are best suited to local conditions, and offer greater milk or meat production. ILRI and its partners, including RDA and AU- IBAR, are in the vanguard of efforts to put this burgeoning store of knowledge to practical use. ILRI’s Domestic Animal Genetic Resource Information System (DAGRIS), its LiveGene program linking public, private and scientific partners to deliver improved animals to small-scale livestock keepers, and its new joint Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health with The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh) are few examples of initiatives that can bring the benefits of science to the farmer or pastoralist.
As ILRI intensifies its initiatives together with its international and national partners, this publication is a testimonial to the precious heritage of indigenous African cattle and their enduring connection to the lives and livelihoods of their keepers, and the way livestock research and resources will help us to advance the global research and development agenda for a better future.Jimmy Smith, Director General, ILRI
The answer lies in the very diversity of the peoples and landscapes of Africa itself. Each unique breed is adapted to a particular environment, be it harsh semi-desert, acacia-dotted savannah or some other ecosystem.