UN highlights project helping Asian countries to conserve their native livestock and wild relatives

Farmer Ma Thi Puong feeds her pigs on her  farm near the northern town of Meo Vac.

The Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project is encouraging wider use of native Asian chicken, goat and pig breeds to help sustain the livelihoods of poor farmers (photo credit: ILRI) 

A Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project conducted by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and other partners to conserve indigenous livestock breeds in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam has been recognized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as one of eleven global projects ‘assisting farmers in developing diversified and resilient agricultural systems to ensure communities and consumers have more predictable supplies of nutritious food.’

The ILRI project is featured in an UNEP booklet launched on Tuesday 19 October 2010 during the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, taking place in Nagoya, Japan.

Securing sustainability through conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity: The UNEP-GEF contribution provides lessons from projects about useful tools for conserving and managing agricultural biodiversity over the long term. The report features project partnerships among UNEP, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and national and international organizations conducted over the last 10 years.

The ILRI-led and GEF-funded US$6.4-million Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project was started in 2009 to better conserve local breeds of chickens, goats and pigs that help sustain the livelihoods of poor farmers and the health and well-being of women and children in Asia.

As much as 10 per cent of the world’s livestock breeds have disappeared in the last six years, due mostly to substitution or cross-breeding of local indigenous animals with exotic commercial breeds. Most of the extant indigenous livestock breeds today are found in pastoral herds and on small farms in developing countries. Understudied and insufficiently documented, many of the strengths and potential benefits of these tropical local breeds remain untapped.

The Farm Animal Genetic Resource Project works to encourage wider use of local breeds, such as the Bengal goat in Bangladesh. Each of the four countries where the project is implemented has a long history of use of indigenous livestock and a rich diversity of animals, including the wild relatives of domestic livestock, which provide additional genetic resources for breeding programs to improve domestic animals.

ILRI’s project partners include the Bangladesh Agricultural University; the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council; the University of Peradeniya, in Sri Lanka; and the Vietnamese National Institute of Animal Husbandry, with more organizations expected to join the project later. By the time the project is completed, in 2014, these partners aim to have developed breeding tools for use in low-input livestock production systems, cost-benefit analysis tools for comparing breeding programs for different indigenous breeds and populations, and analytical frameworks for assessing policy and marketing options for farm animal genetic resources.

So far, with the input of local actors, including farmers, researchers and development agents, the Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project has developed baseline survey tools for assessing animal genetic biodiversity and constraints to its conservation. These tools will also be used to assess marketing opportunities for indigenous animals and the contributions these animals make to rural livelihoods. The project has also developed a flock and herd monitoring tool that helps to measure genetic and phenotypic diversity, to track genetic changes in livestock populations over time, and to capture the relations between indigenous domesticated animals and their wild relatives.

Mohamed Ibrahim, ILRI’s coordinator of this Asia project, says that the project is increasing the capacity of local institutions to collect and analyse data related to indigenous livestock breeds. ‘Our goal,’ says Ibrahim, ‘is to ensure that important chicken, goat and pig breeds in the four targeted Asian countries are protected for the future benefit of local farmers’.

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Read the complete report on the following link: http://www.unep.org/dgef/Portals/43/AgBD_publication_FINAL.pdf

And find out more about the Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project on their website: http://www.fangrasia.org; and partner websites: www.fangrbd.org, www.fangrvn.org

Imported breeds threaten global livestock biodiversity

Resilient, disease-resistant, 'ancient' cattle are among the African breeds at risk of extinction as imported animals supplant valuable, but less productive, native livestock on the continent.

Urgent action is needed to stop the rapid and alarming loss of genetic diversity of livestock not only in Africa but also throughout the developing world, where a treasure-trove of drought- and disease-resistant animals still exists, according to a presentation made today at a key event in the Australasian region held to mark the UN International Year of Biodiversity.
 
Drs Okeyo Mwai and Gabrielle Persley, from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Kenya, warned that investments are needed now to expand efforts to identify and preserve the unique traits of Africa’s rich array of livestock developed over several millennia but now under siege. In a joint paper, they said the loss of livestock diversity in Africa is part of a global 'livestock meltdown'. 
 
Drs Mwai and Persley joined other biodiversity conservation specialists and advocates at the Crawford Fund’s 2010 international conference, “Biodiversity and World Food Security: Nourishing the Planet and Its People,” being held in Parliament House, Canberra, over 30 August to 1 September.
 
“In the industrialized world”, said Dr Mwai, a leader of ILRI's breeding projects, “just six tightly defined breeds already account for 90 percent of all cattle. A 2007 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that over-reliance on a small number of livestock breeds is resulting in the loss of around one breed every month. FAO also report that some 20 percent of the world's 7616 livestock breeds are now viewed as at risk.”
 
He also noted that in Vietnam, the proportion of indigenous sows dropped from 72 percent in 1994 to just 26 percent 8 years later. In some countries, chicken populations have changed practically overnight from genetic mixtures of backyard fowl to selected uniform stocks raised under intensive conditions.
 
“From Africa to Asia, farmers are increasingly choosing the breeds that will produce more milk, meat and eggs to feed their hungry families and raise their incomes. But we cannot afford to lose altogether breeds that possess genetic attributes that may be critical for coping with increasing threats such as climate change and emerging pests and diseases,” he said.
 
Dr Mwai described a variety of pressures threatening the long-term viability of livestock production in Africa and globally, including rangeland degradation and cross-breeding hardy native stock with “exotic” breeds imported from Europe, Asia and the America.
 
“We need to link local, national and international resources and conserve livestock genetic diversity through dedicated livestock genebanks”, he said. “International livestock genebanks should store frozen cells, semen and DNA of endangered livestock from across the world. It is these genes that will help us feed humanity and cope with unforeseen crises.”
 
Australian Dr Gabrielle Persley warned that Australian livestock producers are likely to lose many benefits in improved production and disease resistance if Africa’s indigenous genetic resources are lost.She explained that livestock genebank collections must be accompanied by comprehensive descriptions of the animals, the populations from which they were obtained, and the environments and local practices under which they were raised.
 
“The necessary technology is already available,” Dr Persley said. “Cryopreservation has been used for years to aid both human and animal reproduction. What’s lacking is a strong policy framework for widespread use of the available technologies to preserve livestock genetic diversity.”
 
She stressed that documenting and conserving the diversity of the world’s remaining cattle, goat, sheep, swine and poultry populations is at least as essential as the maintenance of crop diversity for ensuring future food supplies in the face of health and environmental threats.
 
“Just as we should know which crop varieties are most tolerant to flooding or disease,” she said, “we should know which types of chicken can survive avian flu.”
 
But while crop genes are being stored in thousands of collections across the world and a fail-safe genebank is buried in the Arctic permafrost, she argued, “no comparable effort exists to conserve livestock genes”.
 
Other speakers at this year’s Crawford Fund annual event include:
  • Dr Cristián Samper, Director of the world’s largest and most visited natural history collection, the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; 
  • Professor Steve Hopper, an internationally recognised Australian plant conservation biologist who is Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, arguably the planet’s most famous garden; 
  • Dr Emile Frison, Director General, Bioversity International, the largest international research organisation dedicated to the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity;
  • Professor Hugh Possingham, member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and Director of the Ecology Centre at the University of Queensland
  • Dr Megan Clark, Chief Executive, CSIRO.
 
Speakers from Australia, Asia and Africa will also be addressing biodiversity issues in relation to the fields of fisheries, forestry, microbials, biosecurity, genetically  modified organisms and human health.

Scientists argue the importance of Africa’s diverse livestock — and the need for genebanks to conserve them

Steve Kemp, a geneticist at the Nairobi laboratories of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) for both ILRI and the University of Liverpool, argues in this short video (2:24 minutes) the new opportunities — as well as urgent need — for exploring the remarkably rich livestock diversity that evolved and still exists on the highly diverse African continent.

‘We need to study the genetics of the animals,’ he says, as well as ‘the farming systems in which they are being used and their production characteristics. And that has never been done systematically in situ across this extraordinary diversity of African livestock.’ Kemp describes fast-improving technologies in the ‘new genetics’ — technologies that are allowing scientists, for the first time, to attempt these very broad kinds of genetic analyses. And he makes a case for establishing livestock genebanks to help preserve the continent’s livestock diversity, which is rapidly being lost. ‘Unless you move relatively quickly,’ warns Kemp, ‘there’ll be nothing left to study.’ Kemp makes these points in an article published in a June 2010 issue of the international journal Science. The co-authors of the article are Tadelle Dessie, an ILRI livestock breeding specialist based at ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Olivier Hanotte, a geneticist that formerly worked at ILRI and now directs a Frozen Ark initiative at the University of Nottingham, in the UK. Although genebanks are an important ‘stop-gap’ for preserving livestock diversity, says Kemp, his article makes the point that ‘at the same time that you bank, you must understand the characteristics of what you’re preserving.' 'ILRI is well positioned to catalyze this kind of research,’ Kemp says. ‘It has strong links with Africa and with African partners, who have access to the livestock. It has the mix of skills it needs to understand the function of livestock, right across the spectrum from disease resistance to their role in the marketplace. And it also has the technology — the molecular tools and the informatics tools — to allow us to begin this process.’ ‘But ILRI cannot perform any of this analysis alone,’ warns Kemp. ‘It needs to network with partners in the West and across Africa.’

Science: 'Time to tap Africa's livestock genomes', 25 Jun 2010

BBC News: 'African livestock offers untapped genetic resource', 24 Jun 2010

New film makes a case for conserving East Africa’s elegant long-horned Ankole cattle

The genetic diversity of African livestock is increasingly under threat as indigenous livestock varieties are cross-bred, or slowly replaced, with exotic breeds that produce more milk and meat. Exotic livestock varieties are, however, less resistant to African environmental and climatic challenges and are also less resistant to endemic diseases like trypanosomosis (called ‘sleeping sickness’ in people).

The following 3-minute film highlights an initiative supported by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Uganda that is working to conserve purebred Ankole cattle, a breed native in eastern Africa and relied upon by farmers in at least four countries.

In the film, Daniel Semambo, Director of Uganda’s National Animal Genetic Resources Centre and Data Bank, outlines the issues facing many developing countries as they try to improve their livestock productivity and at the same time they try to stem losses of their native livestock breeds and genes.

Les experts avertissent que la disparition rapide du bétail indigène de l’Afrique menace l’approvisionnement alimentaire du continent

N'DamaHerd_WestAfrica

D’ « anciennes » espèces bovines d’Afrique de l’Ouest, résistantes aux maladies, figurent parmi les races qui risquent de disparaître parce que le bétail importé est en train de supplanter un précieux cheptel indigène.

Une action urgente est indispensable pour arrêter la perte rapide et alarmante de la diversité génétique du bétail africain qui apporte nourriture et revenus à 70 % des Africains ruraux et constitue un véritable trésor d’animaux résistants à la sécheresse et aux maladies. C’est ce que dit une analyse présentée aujourd’hui à une importante réunion de scientifiques africains et d’experts du développement.

Les experts de l’Institut international de recherche sur l’élevage (ILRI) ont expliqué aux chercheurs réunis pour la cinquième Semaine africaine des sciences agricoles (www.faraweek.org), accueillie par le Forum pour la recherche agricole en Afrique (FARA), que des investissements sont indispensables aujourd’hui même pour intensifier, en particulier en Afrique de l’Ouest, les efforts d’identification et de préservation des caractères uniques de la riche variété de bétail bovin, ovin, caprin, et porcin, qui s’est développée au long de plusieurs millénaires sur le continent et qui est aujourd’hui menacée. Ces experts expliquent que la perte de la diversité du bétail en Afrique fait partie de « l’effondrement » mondiale du cheptel. Selon l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour l’alimentation et l’agriculture, près de 20 % des 7 616 races de bétail existant dans le monde sont aujourd’hui considérées comme à risque.

« L’élevage africain est un des plus robustes au monde, et pourtant nous assistons aujourd’hui à une dilution, si pas une perte totale, de la diversité génétique de nombreuses races, » dit Abdou Fall, chef du projet diversité animale de l’ILRI pour l’Afrique de l’Ouest. « Mais aujourd’hui, nous avons les outils nécessaires pour identifier les caractéres de grande valeur du bétail africain indigène, une information qui peut être cruciale pour maintenir, voire augmenter la productivité de l’exploitation agricole africaine. »

M. Fall décrit les différentes menaces qui pèsent sur la viabilité à long terme de la production de bétail en Afrique. Ces menaces comprennent une dégradation du paysage et le croissement avec des races « exotiques » importées d’Europe, d’Asie et d’Amérique.

Par exemple, on assiste à un croisement sur une très large échelle de races des zones sahéliennes d’Afrique de l’Ouest et susceptibles aux maladies avec des races adaptées aux régions subhumides, comme le sud du Mali, et qui ont une résistance naturelle à la trypanosomiase.

La trypanosomiase tue entre trois et sept millions de tètes de bétail chaque année et son coût pour les exploitants agricoles se chiffre en milliards de dollars, lorsqu’on prend en compte, par exemple, les pertes de production de lait et de viande, et les coûts de médicaments et prophylactiques nécessaires au traitement ou à la prévention des maladies. Bien que le croisement puisse offrir des avantages à court terme, comme une amélioration de la production de viande et de lait ou une plus grande puissance de trait, il peut également faire disparaître des caractères très précieux qui sont le résultat de milliers d’années de sélection naturelle.

Les experts de l’ILRI déploient à l’heure actuelle des efforts importants en faveur d’une campagne visant à maîtriser le développement d’une résistance aux médicaments chez les parasites qui provoquent la trypanosomiase. Mais ils reconnaissent aussi que des races dotées d’une résistance naturelle à cette maladie offre une meilleure solution à long terme.

Ces races comprennent les bovins sans bosse et à courtes cornes de l’Afrique de l’Ouest et du Centre, qui ont vécu dans cette région avec ces parasites pendant des millions d’années et ont ainsi acquis une résistance naturelle à de nombreuses maladies, y compris la trypanosomiase, propagée par la mouche tsétsé, et les maladies transmises par les tiques. De plus, ces animaux robustes sont capables de résister à des climats rudes. Mais les races à courtes cornes et à longues cornes ont un désavantage : elles ne sont pas aussi productives que les races européennes. Malgré ce désavantage, la disparition de ces races aurait des conséquences graves pour la productivité future du bétail africain.

« Nous avons observé que les races indigènes sans bosse et à courtes cornes d’Afrique de l’Ouest et du Centre font l’objet d’un abatage aveugle et d’un manque d’attention aux bonne pratique d’élevage, et risquent ainsi de disparaître,» explique Fall. « Il faut qu’au minimum nous préservions ces races soit dans le contexte de l’exploitation, soit dans des banques de gènes : leurs caractéristiques génétiques pourraient en effet s’avérer décisives dans la lutte contre le trypanosomiase, et leur robustesse pourrait être un atout essentiel pour des exploitants agricoles qui auront à s’adapter au changement climatique. »

Le Kuri aux grandes cornes bulbeuses du Sud Tchad et du Nord-est du Nigéria fait partie des bovins africains à risques. Non seulement il ne se laisse pas déranger par les piqûres d’insecte mais il est également un excellent nageur, vu qu’il s’est développé dans la région du lac Tchad, et est idéalement adapté aux conditions humides dans des climats très chauds.

Les actions de l’ILRI en faveur de la préservation du bétail africain indigène s’inscrivent dans un effort plus large visant à améliorer la productivité de l’exploitation agricole africaine au travers de ce qu’on appelle la « génomique du paysage ». Cette dernière implique entre autre chose, le séquençage des génomes de différentes variétés de bétail provenant de plusieurs régions, et la recherche des signatures génétiques associées à leur adaptation à un environnement particulier.

Les experts de l’ILRI considèrent la génomique du paysage comme étant particulièrement importante vu l’accélération du changement climatique qui impose à l’éleveur de répondre toujours plus rapidement et avec l’expertise voulue à l’évolution des conditions de terrain. Mais ils soulignent qu’en Afrique en particulier, la capacité des éleveurs à s’adapter aux nouveaux climats va dépendre directement de la richesse du continent en termes de diversité de son cheptel indigène.

« Nous assistons trop souvent à des efforts qui visent à améliorer la productivité du bétail dans la ferme africaine en supplantant le cheptel indigène par des animaux importés qui à long terme s’avéreront mal adaptés aux conditions locales et vont demander un niveau d’attention simplement trop onéreux pour la plus part des petits exploitants agricoles, » dit Carlos Seré, Directeur général de l’ILRI. « Les communautés d’éleveurs marginalisées ont avant tout besoin d’investissement en génétique et en génomique qui leur permettront d’accroitre la productivité de leur cheptel africain, car ce dernier reste le mieux adapté à leurs environnements. »

M. Seré souligne la nécessité de nouvelles politiques qui encouragent les éleveurs et les petits exploitants agricoles africains à conserver les races locales plutôt que de les remplacer des animaux importés. Ces politiques, dit-il, devraient comprendre des programmes d’élevage centrés sur la l’amélioration de la productivité du cheptel indigène comme alternative à l’importation d’animaux.

Steve Kemp, qui dirige l’équipe de génétique et de génomique de l’ILRI, ajoute que les mesures de conservation en exploitation doivent également s’accompagner d’investissements en faveur de la préservation de la diversité qui permettront de geler le sperme et les embryons. On ne peut en effet exiger du seul exploitant agricole qu’il renonce à une augmentation de la productivité au nom de la conservation de la diversité.

« Nous ne pouvons pas attendre de l’exploitant qu’il sacrifie son revenu avec pour seul objectif de préserver le potentiel de diversité, » explique M. Kemp. « Nous savons que la diversité est essentielle pour relever les défis auxquels l’exploitant africain est confronté, mais les caractéres de grande valeur qui seront importants pour l’avenir ne sont pas toujours évidents dans l’immédiat. »

M. Kemp recommande une nouvelle approche pour mesurer les ressources génétiques du cheptel. Aujourd’hui, dit-il, l’estimation de ces caractéristiques porte essentiellement sur des éléments tels que la valeur de la viande, du lait, des œufs et de la laine, mais elle ne prend pas en compte d’autres attributs qui pourraient avoir une importance égale, voire supérieure, pour l’éleveur, qu’il soit en Afrique ou dans une autre région en développement. Ces attributs comprennent la capacité d’un animal à tirer la charrue, à fournir de l’engrais, à faire office de banque ou compte d’épargne ambulant, et d’être une forme efficace d’assurance contre les pertes de récolte.

Mais l’association de ces multiples attributs avec l’ADN d’un animal exige de nouveaux moyens pour rechercher et comprendre les caractéristiques du cheptel dans une région caractérisée par une grande diversité et une grande variété d’environnements.

« On dispose aujourd’hui des outils nécessaires, mais nous avons besoin de la volonté, de l’imagination et des ressources avant qu’il ne soit trop tard, » indique M. Kemp.
 

Experts warn rapid losses of Africa’s native livestock threaten continent’s food supply

N'DamaHerd_WestAfrica

Resilient disease-resistant, 'ancient' West African cattle, such as these humpless longhorn N'Dama cattle, are among breeds at risk of extinction in Africa as imported animals supplant valuable native livestock

Urgent action is needed to stop the rapid and alarming loss of genetic diversity of African livestock that provide food and income to 70 percent of rural Africans and include a treasure-trove of drought- and disease-resistant animals, according to a new analysis presented today at a major gathering of African scientists and development experts.

Experts from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) told researchers at the 5th African Agriculture Science Week (www.faraweek.org), hosted by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), that investments are needed now to expand efforts to identify and preserve the unique traits, particularly in West Africa, of the continent's rich array of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs developed over several millennia but now under siege. They said the loss of livestock diversity in Africa is part of a global 'livestock meltdown'. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, some 20 percent of the world's 7616 livestock breeds are now viewed as at risk.

'Africa's livestock are among the most resilient in the world yet we are seeing the genetic diversity of many breeds being either diluted or lost entirely', said Abdou Fall, leader of ILRI's livestock diversity project for West Africa. 'But today we have the tools available to identify valuable traits in indigenous African livestock, information that can be crucial to maintaining and increasing productivity on African farms.'

Fall described a variety of pressures threatening the long-term viability of livestock production in Africa. These forces include landscape degradation and cross-breeding with 'exotic' breeds imported from Europe, Asia and the America.

For example, disease-susceptible breeds from West Africa's Sahel zone are being cross-bred in large scale with breeds adapted to sub-humid regions, like southern Mali, that have a natural resistance to trypanosomosis.

Trypanosomosis kills an estimated three to seven million cattle each year and costs farmers billions of dollars each year in, for example, lost milk and meat production and the costs of medicines and prophylactics needed to treat or prevent the disease. While cross-breeding may offer short-term benefits, such as improved meat and milk production and greater draft power, it could also cause the disappearance of valuable traits developed over thousands of years of natural selection.

ILRI specialists are in the midst of a major campaign to control development of drug resistance in the parasites that cause this disease but also have recognized that breeds endowed with a natural ability to survive the illness could offer a better long-term solution.

The breeds include humpless shorthorn and longhorn cattle of West and Central Africa that have evolved in this region along with its parasites for thousands of years and therefore have evolved ways to survive many diseases, including trypanosomosis, which is spread by tsetse flies, and also tick-borne diseases. Moreover, these hardy animals have the ability to withstand harsh climates. Despite their drawbacks—the shorthorn and longhorn breeds are not as productive as their European counterparts—their loss would be a major blow to the future of African livestock productivity.

'We have seen in the short-horn humpless breeds native to West and Central African indiscriminate slaughter and an inattention to careful breeding that has put them on a path to extinction', Fall said . 'We must at the very least preserve these breeds either on the farm or in livestock genebanks because their genetic traits could be decisive in the fight against trypanosomosis, while their hardiness could be enormously valuable to farmers trying to adapt to climate change.'

Other African cattle breeds at risk include the Kuri cattle of southern Chad and northeastern Nigeria. The large bulbous-horned Kuri, in addition to being unfazed by insect bites, are excellent swimmers, having evolved in the Lake Chad region, and are ideally suited to wet conditions in very hot climates.

ILRI's push to preserve Africa's indigenous livestock is part of a broader effort to improve productivity on African farms through what is known as 'landscape genomics'. Landscape genomics involves, among other things, sequencing the genomes of different livestock varieties from many regions and looking for the genetic signatures associated with their suitability to a particular environment.

ILRI experts see landscape genomics as particularly important as climate change accelerates, requiring animal breeders to respond every more quickly and expertly to shifting conditions on the ground. But they caution that in Africa in particular the ability of farmers and herders to adapt to new climates depends directly on the continent's wealth of native livestock diversity.

'What we see too often is an effort to improve livestock productivity on African farms by supplanting indigenous breeds with imported animals that over the long-term will prove a poor match for local conditions and require a level of attention that is simply too costly for most smallholder farmers', said Carlos Seré, ILRI's Director General. 'What marginalized livestock-keeping communities need are investments in genetics and genomics that allow them to boost productivity with their African animals, which are best suited to their environments.'

Seré said new polices also are needed that encourage African pastoralist herders and smallholder farmers to continue maintaining their local breeds rather than abandoning them for imported animals. Such policies, he said, should include breeding programs that focus on improving the productivity of indigenous livestock as an alternative to importing animals.

Steve Kemp, who heads ILRI's genetics and genomics team, added that in addition to conservation on the farm, there must also be investments in preserving diversity by freezing sperm and embryos because farmers cannot be asked to forgo productivity increases solely in the name of diversity conservation.

'We cannot expect farmers to sacrifice their income just to preserve the future potential of diversity', Kemp said. 'We know that diversity is critical to dealing with the challenges that confront African farmers, but the valuable traits that may be important in the future are not always immediately obvious.'

Kemp called for a new approach to measuring the characteristics of livestock genetic resources. Today, he said, these estimates focus mainly on such things as the value of meat, milk, eggs and wool and do not include qualities that can be of equal or even greater importance to livestock keepers in Africa and other developing regions. These attributes include the ability of an animal to pull a plough, provide fertilizer, serve as a walking bank or savings account, and act as an effective form of insurance against crop loss.

But associating this wider array of attributes with an animal's DNA requires new ways of exploring and understanding livestock characteristics in a region where there is so much diversity in so many different environments.

'The tools are available to do this now, but we need the will, the imagination and the resources before it is too late', Kemp said.

Serengeti surely SHALL die if a proposed highway bisects its northern wilderness—and if its human neighbours remain poverty-stricken

Zebra and wildebeest in the Masai Mara Game Reserve

Zebra and wildebeest in Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve (photo credit: ILRI/Elsworth).

The New York Times and other media are reporting this week that one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth—the annual migration of nearly 2 million wildebeest and zebra from the drying savannas of the Serengeti, in Tanzania, to the wetter, greener, pastures of Kenya’s adjacent Masai Mara, and back again—is threatened by a proposed new national transit road for northern Tanzania that would cut right across the migration route of these vast herds of ungulates, likely leading to the collapse of this migration and possibly the crash of this ecosystem as a whole.

Kenya’s Masai Mara is the only year-round water source in the Greater Serengeti, and thus serves as critical dry-season grazing grounds for these vast herds of big mammals.

Just one of the problems such a road would bring is a greater disease burden to people, livestock and wildlife alike. In her extensive and useful research notes to her recent article, ‘Road Kill in the Serengeti’, in the New York Times, Olivia Judson refers readers to a scientific paper written by Eric Fevre, of the Zoonotic and Emerging Diseases research group at the University of Edinburgh, now based at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya while working on a 3-year human-animal disease research project in Busia District. Fevre describes the spread of animal diseases through animal transportation in his article, ‘Animal movements and the spread of infectious diseases’ (Trends in Microbiology, 2006).

Perhaps just in time, just this month former ILRI ecologist Robin Reid, now director of the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, USA, began a project in Kenya that is putting radio collars on wildebeest to learn more precisely what routes the animals take in their migration. This project’s members are involving Maasai schoolchildren, who are naming the wildebeest, which they will then be able to follow. The wildebeest collars send regular tracking signals to Safaricom, which are then sent to Colorado, where the routes are posted on a web map that the schoolchildren can follow.

This year’s annual wildebeest migration has already begun. Herds are reported to have crossed the common border of Kenya/Tanzania from Northern Serengeti into Masai Mara, about 4 days ago. ‘What has been unusual about this year’s migration,’ says Paul Kirui, in the Masai Mara, ‘is that the main migration from the south arrived in the Mara early ahead of the Loita herds—the Kenyan resident herds of wildebeest—which usually migrate into the Mara from the east of the park. Normally when we start seeing them move into the park, it is a sign that the main migration from the south is on the way.’

The first population of wildebeest that Reid’s team darted and then tagged with radio collars in the Mara is the Loita group that remains resident in Kenya all year round. Or so the researchers think. The radio collars, now fixed on the first 15 wildebeest, have already started to report back and will be letting scientists, and those schoolchildren, know just where they go, and when.

Reid’s return gave ILRI cause to revisit two remarkable films about her ILRI research in the Mara. Counting in a Disappearing Land (ILRI, 11 minutes, 2007) describes Reid’s project with a Maasai community that has traditionally herded their livestock in Kenya’s wildlife-rich Masai Mara region. This ILRI project was looking to find ways of balancing the needs of people, lands and wildlife. In The Great Migration (CBS ’60 Minutes’, 15 minutes, October 2009), Scott Pelley interviews Reid about the threats to this natural spectacle and the part local Masai are playing to address these threats.

Collaborative conservation may indeed be the answer to saving the Serengeti ecosystem. Protecting majestic wild places and the wildlife they support, places that instill wonder in us, matters, of course, but so does protecting millions of people from severe poverty, chronic hunger and the afflictions that come in their wake: disease and untimely death.

With a large percentage of its land area under protection, Tanzania is a world leader in biodiversity conservation. It is also very, very poor. How this tug at resources—whether the Serengeti Plains will be used for wildlife tourism or other kinds of commerce—will play out may depend on how much the local communities living in poverty near the wildlife benefit from saving this, the last of the great migrations of big mammals on Earth.

More . . . (New York Times, 15 June 2010)

An alternative, southern road in Tanzania is discussed on a webpage of the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

See Paul Kirui’s blog on 17 June 2010 the migration on Masai Mara Updates.

A frozen zoo in Nottingham ‘bio-banks’ wildlife threatened with extinction

HanotteOlivier_08APM

We thought it appropriate in this United Nations ‘International Year of Biodiversity’ to highlight not only work by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and its partners (see ‘Livestock Diversity Needs Genebanks Too’, an opinion piece by ILRI Director General Carlos Seré published on the SciDevNet website on 21 May 2010) to conserve breeds and genes of native livestock that are rapidly disappearing, but also those of wild animals similarly threatened.

The Frozen Ark is such an initiative. It is led by Olivier Hanotte, an animal geneticist who spent many years at ILRI working to conserve livestock genetic resources indigenous in developing countries. These days Hanotte is running The Frozen Ark Consortium, a worldwide group of institutions coordinated from an office within a Frozen Ark Unit at the School of Biology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom: Frozen.Ark@nottingham.ac.uk

The aim of the Frozen Ark is to preserve, for hundreds if not thousands of years, critical information about the species collected. As their website explains: ‘Despite the best efforts of conservationists, thousands of extinctions have occurred before the animals could be rescued. There has not been enough knowledge or money to stem the tide. This pattern is being repeated across all animal groups and emphasises the importance of collecting the DNA and cells of endangered animals before they go extinct. The loss of a species destroys the results of millions of years of evolution. If the cells and DNA are preserved, a very great deal of information about the species is saved. . . . For animals endangered but not yet extinct, the stored DNA and cells can also provide renewable resources of variation for revitalising captive breeding populations when the loss of variation through inbreeding threatens their survival.’

What has caught the public’s imagination is the possibility—a possibility ever more credible in light of ongoing, transformative, breakthroughs in molecular biology, particularly genetics and genomics, as well as drastic falls in the cost of sequencing genomes—that in future scientists will be able to reconstruct extinct animals from such preserved material.

‘While the reconstruction of extinct species from frozen material is not yet practicable, the possibility is not remote,’ says Hanotte. ‘If we fail to preserve the DNA and cells, the information and the possibilities will be lost forever. If DNA is stored in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Centigrade, it should survive intact for many hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years.’

The International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List distinguishes more than 16,000 animal species that are under threat. The Fozen Ark aims eventually to collect the DNA of all these species, and the viable cells (somatic cells, eggs, embryos and sperm) of as many as possible, over the next 50 years. But Hanotte is quick to point out that the Frozen Ark Project is not a substitute for conserving the world’s diverse wildlife species, but is rather ‘a practical and timely backup of their genetic material.’

For more information, visit the Frozen Ark Website.

And watch the online version of this week’s broadcast (30 Mar 2010) of the American television program ’60 Minutes’, which explores the possibility of Resurrecting the Extinct from frozen samples.

Genebanks needed to save farm animal diversity of the South—and assure the world’s future food supply

Carlos Sere amongst farm animals

Opinion piece in SciDev.net by Carlos Seré, Director General ILRI

Today, scientists are reconstructing the genomes of ancient mastodons, found in the frozen north. Dreams of resurrecting lost species rumble in the collective imagination. At the same time, thousands of still-existing farm animal breeds—nurtured into being by generations of farmers attuned to their environments—are slipping into the abyss of extinction, below the wire of awareness.

Livestock genetic diversity is highly threatened worldwide, but especially in the South, where the vast majority of remaining diversity resides. This diversity—of cattle, goats and sheep, swine and poultry—is as essential to the future world food supply as is the crop diversity now being stored in thousands of collections around the world and in a fail-safe crop genebank buried in the Arctic permafrost. But no comparable effort exists to conserve the animals or the genes of thousands of breeds of livestock, many of which are rapidly dying out.

Hardy and graceful Ankole cattle, raised across much of East and Central Africa, are being replaced by black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cows and could disappear within the next 50 years. In Viet Nam, the percentage of indigenous sows declined from 72 per cent of the total population in 1994 to only 26 per cent just eight years later. In some countries, national chicken populations have changed practically overnight from genetic mixtures of backyard fowl to selected uniform stocks raised under intensive conditions.

Some 20 per cent of the world’s 7,616 breeds of domestic livestock are at risk, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And change is accelerating. Holstein-Friesian dairy cows are now raised in 128 countries in all regions of the world, and an astonishing 90 per cent of all cattle in the North are of just six tightly defined breeds.

Most endangered livestock breeds are in developing countries, where they are herded by pastoralists or tended by farmers who grow both crops and livestock on small plots of land. With survival a day-to-day issue for many of these small-scale farmers, they are unlikely to make conservation of their rare breeds a priority, at least not without significant assistance. From Africa to Asia, farmers of the South, like the farmers of Europe, Oceania and the Americas before them, are increasingly choosing the breeds that will produce more milk, meat and eggs to feed their hungry families and raise their incomes.

They should be supported in doing so. At the same time, the breeds that are being left behind not only have intrinsic value, but also may possess genetic attributes critical to addressing future food security challenges, in developed or developing countries, as the climate, pests and diseases all change. Policy support for their conservation is needed now. This support could be in the form of incentives that encourage farmers to keep traditional animals. For example, policies could support breeding programs that increase the productivity of local breeds, or they could facilitate farmers’ access to niche markets for traditional livestock products. And policymakers should take the value of indigenous breeds into account when designing restocking programs following droughts, disease epidemics, civil conflicts or other disasters that deplete animal herds.

But even such assistance will not enable developing-world farmers to stem all the losses of developing-world farm animals. A parallel, even bigger, effort, linking local, national and international resources, must be launched to conserve livestock genetic diversity by putting some of it ‘in the bank’. The cells, semen and DNA of endangered livestock should be conserved—frozen—and kept alive. The technology is available and has been used for years to aid both human and animal reproduction. It should also be used to conserve the legacy of 10,000 years of animal husbandry. Furthermore, such collections must be accompanied by comprehensive descriptions of the animals and the populations from which they were obtained and the environments under which they were raised.

We should know the type of milking goat that is able to bounce back quickly from a drought. We should know the breeds of cow that resist infection with the animal form of sleeping sickness. We should know the native chickens that can survive avian flu.

We should do all we can to assist farmers and herders in the conservation of these endangered animals—especially now, in the midst of rapid agricultural development. And if some of these treasured breeds fail to survive the coming decades of change, we should at least have faithfully stored and recorded their presence, and have preserved their genes. It is these genes that will help us keep all our options open as we look for ways to feed humanity and to cope with coming, yet unforeseen, crises.

A woman in science: Jean Hanson

Jean  HansonJean Hanson leads the Forage Diversity team at the Ethiopia campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Having worked in the fields of genebank management and conservation of forage genetic diversity for over 35 years, later this year she will ‘go on to the second phase’ of her career, as she puts it, when she retires from ILRI. ‘I want to concentrate on sharing the knowledge I gained throughout my career,’ she says. ‘I plan to work on building capacity and training students in my fields and working and learning from them, too.’ Early on, Hanson knew she was not going to follow the traditional path of women of her day. She did not feel like becoming a teacher or a nurse. ‘I was brought up in an age where women were not scientists. But raised on a farm, I was always interested in science,’ she says. ‘When I was 16, I thought women should have the same right to choose their career as men did, and I knew I was interested in science, so I went to university and first studied agriculture.’

After obtaining a PhD in seed physiology, she started a post-doctoral assignment with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, working with curating the maize genebank, in Mexico. She then worked in Indonesia for 5 years with the British Cooperation (DFiD) as a seed physiologist, establishing a legume genebank with a national research institute. Later, Hanson worked in Rome with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, among other organizations. Then, in 1986, she applied for and got a short-term contract with ILRI’s predecessor, the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA), based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and stayed for…25 years.

Azage Tegegne, an animal scientist colleague of hers, remembers her from those days. ‘In 1986, I was working around Zwai, where Jean had substantial research activities. I was looking at feed, she was working on forages. We then started a very good and long-lasting working relationship,’ he says. ‘She also became a very good friend of mine. I have never known a more hard-working, dedicated person. She also goes the extra mile to make people feel good,’ he adds. ‘And she is very loyal and committed to her work and this institute. If plants need watering at 5 a.m., she is there, always taking responsibility.’

Jean Hanson has been leading ILRI’s project on forage genetic resources since 1989. She was Interim Director of Institutional Planning from 1996 to 2001 before taking up the position of Senior Advisor on matters relating to strategies, technologies and operational procedures for conserving and managing plant genetic resources ex situ on a joint appointment with IPGRI (now known as Bioversity International) and ILRI from 2002–2004. ‘In the field of genetic resources, she is an expert,’ says Alexandra Jorge, Coordinator of the Global Public Goods Project for Bioversity International, who has been working with Jean for the past 7 years. ‘She is well known and respected at the international level and scientists really take her comments into consideration.’

‘I am a hard core genetic resources scientist,’ confirms Jean Hanson. ‘When I started, it was pure science, all about technical things. These days, since the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1994, issues such as access and benefit sharing or the ownership of genetic resources make it more political.’

If Jean is a renowned scientist whose work is recognized and appreciated by the international scientific community, she is also very well liked and colleagues unanimously comment on it. ‘If I have issues I want to discuss, I go to her for advice. She is always there, never says no and finds a way to have time to give,’ says Jorge.

‘Even in times of difficulties, she seems to handle everything so calmly,’ adds Janice Proud, coordinator of a Napier grass project of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA). ‘She sets high standards and I learned how to run a project thanks to her experience. I trust her judgment because she is good at dealing with the details as well as being able to see the big picture.’

Yeshi W/Mariam, research assistant and seed technologist, who has worked with Hanson for 18 years, confides, ‘We will miss her a lot. We are like a family here in the forage diversity team.’ According to Yeshi, ‘Gender is an important issue for Jean. Thanks to her, I am now taking a day leave per week to go back to university and study to obtain my BSc in biology. She is very encouraging because improving your career matters to her. But it is the freedom she gives me in my work that I appreciate most.’

Gender is indeed an important issue to Jean and she is involved in mentoring through the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development program to enhance the careers of women crop scientists in East Africa. ‘I believe women in science are capable and important. That’s why I agreed to be a mentor,’ she says. ‘You learn skills about how to be a better mentor. We learn from one another and provide support to the generation that will replace us.’  

Coming from that next generation is Esther Gacheru, research fellow and infosystems specialist. ‘She is inspiring people,’ says Gacheru. ‘Working with Jean has been a great start for me; she lets me do what I want to do and at the same time oversees my work to help me learn and progress. I don’t know if I will have that “space” or that type of work relationship later in life.’

About life and work, we will let the last words be from Jean Hanson herself. ‘If you are determined, anything is possible. Don’t give up when the going gets tough. Persevere. And you will end up where you want to be.’

As is said here in Ethiopia, where Jean has spent most of her life as a scientist, Yiqnash (‘May everything turn out to be good for you’), Jean Hanson!

Inauguration of a new forage diversity lab at the International Livestock Research Institute in Ethiopia

A new forage diversity lab was inaugurated yesterday afternoon, Monday 12th April 2010, at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the presence of the ILRI board members, the forage diversity staff and guests. Jean Hanson, forage diversity leader, looked pleased at the result, and with emotion she spoke of the lab achievement. “It is an ILRI Ethiopia lab” she said, “it will give us and students much more space to work and has now allowed all the equipment that was previously scattered to be centralised. This will also help us and our National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) partners to be cost effective.” The construction work started in December 2008 and the building was actually ready for the board meeting which took place in Addis in November 2009. The finishing touches, supervised by Jean Hanson, were added and the spotless lab is now ready to use. Prior to the visit to the lab by participants of the inauguration, was a very symbolic planting of two Acacia Tortilis trees which will, in a few years, give shade to the molecular lab. The Chairman of the board, Knut Hove, put on his gardening gloves and efficiently planted this indigenous, dry land tree, commenting that it was “the best possible tree we could have for this lab”. Dr Hanson then emphasized that the genebank not only works on conservation of forage diversity but also on improved use of diversity for better forages which requires more molecular work with newer techniques. “The lab will allow us to work more with our sister centers of the CGIAR”, she stated, “and the nicest thing would be to bring a group of students together, who will energize the group, emulate each other, share and learn, because a major role of CG centers is capacity building.” According to Dr Ananda Ponniah, in charge of capacity strengthening at ILRI, “there is now space for more students and therefore we can also diversify students, have them coming from Ethiopia but other countries as well.” After the official cutting of the ribbon by Knut Hove and applause, the visit was led by Janice Proud, Project coordinator of the Napier grass smut and stunt resistance project, and Alexandra Jorge, Global Public Goods Project Coordinator (SGRP/CGIAR). Janice Proud explained how the new lab would help the work on Napier grass diseases, smut and stunt, which cause feed loss in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. “The new facility will allow us to use PCR techniques in real time. We also have some students looking at milk proteins. The beauty of a molecular lab is that you can use it for different projects”, she concluded. Alexandra Jorge talked about tissue culture and how the space would now allow the Centre “to have one dedicated area for tissue culture and therefore avoid contamination”. She also feels that the new lab will help to link better with ongoing projects such as the Napier grass project because “vegetatively-propagated crops like Napier grass can greatly benefit from production of clean plants and distribution of in vitro materials”. “We hope that a lot of publications will follow!” added the Chairman of the board. Mr Traoré, board member, also expressed that “the lab nicely complements BeCA (Biosciences eastern and central Africa) in Nairobi. Students in Ethiopia will be able to do the preliminaries here then go to BecA to make use of more sophisticated equipment.” As a final word, the board Chair summed up the achievement by stating that “the whole building smelled of a brand new lab which is exciting for new students to come and work, get their hands dirty and green!”

Women scientist leading national project to conserve Vietnam’s native livestock breeds wins prestigious Kovalepskaia Award

Prof Dr Le Thi Thuy Prof Dr Le Thi Thuy, Director of the Department of Science and International Cooperation of Vietnam’s National Institute of Animal Husbandry, has been awarded the 2009 Kovalepskaia Award in recognition of her role as a woman scientist working on conservation of indigenous livestock breeds. The award is named after Sophia Kovalepskaia, an eminent 19th-century Russian mathematician. Thuy is serving as the national project director in Vietnam of a multi-national project scientists are leading at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) to help conserve the indigenous farm animal genetic resources of Asia. This project is funded by the Global Environment Facility. The Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation of Germany bestows a bi-annual Sofia Kovalevskaya Award to promising young researchers from all fields. From Wikipedia: Sofia Kovalevskaya, 1850–1891, was the first major Russian female mathematician, responsible for important original contributions to analysis, differential equations and mechanics, and the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe. Despite her obvious talent for mathematics, she could not complete her education in Russia. At that time, women there were not allowed to attend the universities. To study abroad, she needed written permission from her father (or husband). Accordingly, she contracted a "fictitious marriage" with Vladimir Kovalevsky, then a young paleontology student who would later become famous for his collaborations with Charles Darwin. They emigrated from Russia in 1867. In 1869, Kovalevskaya began attending the University of Heidelberg, Germany, which allowed her to audit classes as long as the professors involved gave their approval. Shortly after beginning her studies there, she visited London with Vladimir, who spent time with his colleagues Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin, while she was invited to attend George Eliot's Sunday salons. There, at age nineteen, she met Herbert Spencer and was led into a debate, at Eliot's instigation, on ‘woman's capacity for abstract thought’. This was well before she made her notable contribution of the ‘Kovalevsky top’ to the brief list of known examples of integrable rigid body motion. After two years of mathematical studies at Heidelberg, she moved to Berlin, where she had to take private lessons, as the university would not even allow her to audit classes. In 1874 she presented three papers—on partial differential equations, on the dynamics of Saturn's rings and on elliptic integrals—to the University of Göttingen as her doctoral dissertation. This earned her a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude, bypassing the usual required lectures and examinations. She thereby became the first woman in Europe to hold that degree. Her paper on partial differential equations contains what is now commonly known as the Cauchy-Kovalevski theorem, which gives conditions for the existence of solutions to a certain class of those equations. In 1889 she was appointed Professorial Chair holder at Stockholm University, the first woman to hold such a position at a northern European university. After much lobbying on her behalf (and a change in the Academy's rules), she was granted a Chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences, but was never offered a professorship in Russia. Kovalevskaya died of influenza in 1891 at age forty-one. Sofja Kowalewskaja