The story of cattle in Africa

Why diversity matters


Cattle are central to the lives and diverse cultures of Africa’s people. This book highlights how cattle have evolved in Africa over centuries and illustrates the varied and vital roles they have played in the past and continue to play today. Robust, genetically diverse African cattle are treasured assets for estimated 800 million livestock keepers across the continent. Cattle are a critically important daily source of food and nutrition, of much needed income, and of nitrogen-rich manure for replenishing soils and other uses. They also fulfil a wide variety of socio-cultural roles. Thanks to their rich genetic diversity, different breeds of African cattle are well adapted to a remarkably wide range of environments – from the harsh fringes of the Sahara Desert in North Africa, to the drier areas of the Horn of Africa, to the wet tropical lowlands found along the Congo River, and on to the vast savannahs of Southern Africa.

“The story of cattle in Africa: Why diversity matters” showcases a few of the continent’s indigenous cattle breeds, highlighting their social, cultural, economic, genetic and environmental importance. Through stories told by farmers, one learns about the contribution these animals make to the livelihoods of their keepers as well as those who participate in the extended range of economic activity that surrounds each animal. In addition, cattle are a critical daily source of nutritionally rich animal source foods (ASFs), providing protein, vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids that help meet the dietary needs of millions of African people, especially children and reproductively active women.

The content of this book has been jointly contributed by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Rural Development Administration (RDA) of the republic of Korea, and the Africa Union-InterAfrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR). Its development and release marks the culmination of the United Nations General Assembly Declaration 2011-2020 [the UN Decade on Biodiversity (Resolution 65/161)]. Designating 2011-2020 as the Decade on Biodiversity has served to support and promote the objectives of the strategic plan for biodiversity and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. The goal of this book is to reinforce recognition of the importance of animal biodiversity and while illustrating how to both utilise and conserve the genetic diversity of indigenous African livestock through improved management.

Changes in population, climate, technology, lifestyles, consumer demands, markets and other factors are driving rapid change in Africa’s indigenous livestock populations and breed compositions. These drivers are influencing the way that animal genetic resources are being used to sustain and improve the livelihoods of people; they also influence, and sometimes threaten, livestock diversity at the herd, national and regional levels.

The future of African cattle and the millions of people who depend on them as a source for food, income and improved livelihoods is at a crossroads. The tension between the need to improve productivity under more intensive systems and the need to halt the precipitous loss of irreplaceable, diverse and adapted breeds is growing rapidly and must be acknowledged.   We cannot expect African farmers to halt the crossbreeding, selection and changes in management practices that are dramatically improving the livestock business, but we also cannot ignore the loss of diversity. We believe that the international community must take positive actions and we hope that this book contributes to an increased understanding of the critical and enduring values of the many extraordinary African cattle breeds that have been bred and nurtured by African people over the millennia. To let this extraordinary resource disappear would be a tragic and dangerous loss to mankind.

Tadelle Dessie and Okeyo Mwai, Livestock Genetics Research Program, ILRI

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.
  • 280pages
  • 300+pics
  • 40+people
  • 1000+working hours