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close this bookCERES No. 096 - November - December 1983 (FAO Ceres, 1983, 50 p.)
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Unconventional livestock

Indigenous animals with exceptional qualities of survival offer a whole new field of research

At Dubbo on the western plains of New South Wales, Australia, a herd of livestock quietly grazes the pastures of grass and clover. To the casual glance these 30 animals are cattle, but a closer look reveals some unusual features. The males are black but their rumps are white as if they had backed into a freshly painted barn. The females and calves are golden brown, but each has a thin black line in the middle of the back from head to tail. These animals are not cattle; they are banteng, a tropical species domesticated in prehistoric times in what is now Indonesia.

Banteng are just one example of indigenous Asian livestock little known in the rest of the world. Others include four species of pig. the mithan (see Cerescope, March/April 1982). the yak, two interesting bovine hybrids the madura and the chauri, as well as the kouprey, gaur, anoas tamaraw and other wild animals that have potential either in a domesticated role or in providing useful genes for livestock breeding. Most of these species have been grossly neglected, and some are close to extinction.

Australian researchers at Dubbo are excited by the banteng's potential. "We have found that with sensitive handling these animals are excellent in temperament, behaviour, breeding, disease resistance (except to malignant catarrhal fever) and food conversion," writes David Butcher, assistant director of the Western Plains Zoo. "We feed them no concentrates. In fact, they won't eat them. Natural grazing and some hay supplementation during winter keeps them in fat (unfortunately, often overweight) condition. It is our view that the potential for this species, especially in tropical and subtropical areas, is enormous."

Dwindling toward extinction.

Yet indigenous tropical animals such as these attract little research funding or recognition from the worldwide animal husbandry community and remain largely unknown to livestock specialists. Often there has been no basic research at all, no collection of strains, no study of growth rate, nutrition, reproduction or environmental tolerance. Research that could clarify utilization of banteng and other obscure tropical species is scattered, small-scale and poorly supported and is conducted mainly by wildlife specialists and anthropologists. many of whom suffer the frustration of seeing some particular species slowly dwindle toward extinction.

Among the long lists of indigenous animals that wildlife specialists and anthropologists believe should be seriously studied for their potential, the banteng, alone, already represents a major resource. Though little known elsewhere, it accounts for about 20 percent of the total "cattle" population in Indonesia, numbering more than 1.5 million head. Superficially, banteng resemble small cows and are often called "Bali cattle". However, they are a distinct bovine species, Bos javanicus. Banteng thrive in hot, humid climates. It is rare to see them in poor condition. In northern Australia they have been noted to maintain weight and body condition better than cattle when pasture quality is poor. They seem resistant to many tropical parasites and diseases - ticks and tick-borne diseases for example. They are docile when domesticated and have proved valuable for draught power and meat production in parts of Indonesia.

Banteng will crossbreed with domestic cattle to produce hybrids notable for vigour and heat tolerance. Crosses with European-type cattle (Bos taurus) give progeny in which the males are sterile owing to chromosomal incompatibility. But virtually all of the 575 000 "cattle" on Madura and other Indonesian islands nearby are fertile hybrid animals resulting from the crossing of indigenous domesticated banteng with Indian zebu cattle (Bos indicus). This hybridization dates back to about AD 400 when Indian invaders brought zebus to Java and mated them with the banteng. They are thrifty, hardy, and able to perform well under extreme conditions of heat and poor nutrition. For many centuries Madurese farmers have bred these animals for the annual bull races. They are probably the fastest-running bovines, their top speeds approaching that of a horse. Gourmets consider the meat of both banteng and the madura to be of fine quality. Indonesia cannot meet export demand from Hong Kong and Japan without seriously depleting its breeding herds.

Carved in history.

Another species with potential for upgrading tropical cattle is the kouprey. A native of Kampuchea and Lao, the kouprey (Bos sauveli) is among the rarest animals in the world. The last large mammal to be entered in biology texts, it first came to attention accidentally in 1937 when a collection of Indochinese animals was sent to Paris, and staff at the Vincennes Zoo could find nothing like it listed in the literature.

Perhaps the most primitive of living wild bovines, the kouprey has features typical of some cattle that existed 600 000 years ago and may be a direct relative of the prehistoric wild ancestors of zebu cattle. Carvings on the temples at Angkor Wat suggest that the kouprey may have been domesticated for a time during the Khmer culture, 400 to 800 years ago.

Kouprey have large dewlaps that in some specimens almost touch the ground. These provide a large pendulous surface for evaporative cooling and probably account for their exceptional heat tolerance. Kouprey survive on coarse forage in regions that are hot and humid for much of the year and hot and dry for the rest. They are believed to resist rinder-pest, a widespread and devastating cattle disease.

Today, however, the kouprey is perilously close to extinction. Only a handful of animals has ever been seen by scientists. Its native habitat has become a battleground. In 1982, five kouprey were sighted in Thailand near Kampuchea. A team of Thai foresters and conservationists immediately set out to capture them, but the animals apparently retreated across the border.

Another wild bovine that shares the kouprey's habitat is the gaur (Bos gaurus). This majestic animal is a shy grazing and browsing ruminant native to hill forests from India and

Nepal to Indochina and Malaysia. With its large size and massive muscles, the gaur, too, would seem to be a potentially meat-producing animal for the tropics. Gaur appear able to adjust to human presence. In Malaysia, for instance, they feed in farm fields, along roadsides and near villages. They seem able to maintain good body condition on low-quality forage, and they thrive in Southeast Asian regions where heat. humidity. and parasites make cattle husbandry difficult. In captivity gaur become tame and manageable and are promising as a domesticated species. But the total world population of gaur is down to only a few thousand head. Agricultural development, war. hydroelectric dams, human settlements. logging, and disease threaten many of the remaining populations.

Thriving in the clouds.

The mithan (Bos frontalis) is a domesticated form of gaur. It is a large bovine used by the hill tribes of Chutan, northeastern India, Bangladesh and western Burma. It is the main domestic animal of the Nagas and other tribes of Assam.

The mithan is a browser. Herds are often allowed to range freely in the woods. They have an insatiable craving for salt and the people control them by judiciously placing salt licks near their villages. It is an unusually tame animal: "Gentle as a mithan" is a common expression. Villagers use mithan and mithan-cattle hybrids as draught animals to pull ploughs and other implements. The Government of Bhutan is developing a strain for dairy purposes.

The greatest immediate potential for such unconventional livestock species as mithan, kouprey, madura, and banteng is in marginal tropical regions where conventional farm animals are least adapted. But another marginal region is the mountain uplands where snow and cold temperatures limit the use of conventional livestock.

The only bovine that thrives at high altitudes is the yak (Bos grunniens). It is able to live and work in cold climates and to produce meat and milk more efficiently at high altitudes than conventional cattle. Its long, rank hair and thick undercoat of fine, light wool protect it from the bitter cold at altitudes up to 6 000 metres. Its native region is mainly the inhospitable barrens of the cold deserts of Tibet and central Asia. However, domestic yaks occur from Afghanistan and Bhutan in the south to Mongolia and the Soviet Union in the north.

It is estimated that there are more than a million domesticated yaks in the world. Accustomed to travelling great distances in mountainous regions, yaks are especially useful a riding and pack animals. They can carry loads of up to 150 kg at a steady pace for days and remain in good condition. For much of the year yaks live off coarse mountain grasses (often digging them out from beneath heavy snow) and for long periods they can get sufficient moisture by eating snow.

Yaks have not been scientifically, bred as dairy animals and their milk production is only 700 kg or less per lactation, but under the conditions where yaks survive, the milk is extremely important nutritionally. Yak butter is a staple food and a widely used fuel for lamps. Yak meat is particularly important in parts of Mongolia and the USSR Yak hides Make outstanding leather and the wool can be used to make blankets and other goods.

Throughout the Himalayan and central Asian highlands farmers mate yaks with cattle to produce a hybrid known by a variety of names, including chauris, zo, and pien nui. These docile hybrids surpass their parents in strength and vigor' hardiness, working ability, and milk production. They may, for example, weigh as much as half again as much as their parents Female hybrids are fertile, Although the first- generation males are sterile. Yaks and yak-cattle hybrids were tested with good results as domestic animals in Alaska and northern Canada from the 1 920s until World War II halted the work and it was forgotten.

A treasure trove.

There are several other Asian animals that have been overlooked, including taking, and wild banteng (cattle relatives); tamaraw and anoas (water buffalo relatives); markhor anti hozoar (goat relatives); many wild sheep; the scrow and "oral, which are known as goat-antelopes. And beyond these there is a mix of wild and domesticated Asian pigs that show great promise for improving the domestic pig's tolerance of tropical conditions.

In parts of Southeast Asia pigs are the most abundant source of meat. Most of these are various subspecies of the common domestic pig (Sus scrofa) that represent a treasure trove of possibilities for tropical swine improvement. But there are, in addition, four pig species that are indigenous to Asia: pigmy hog (Sus salvanius), Celebesian warty hog (Sus celebensis), bearded pig (Sus barbatus), and Javan warty pig (Sus verrucosus).

None of these species is well known, but they or their hybrids are an extremely important resource among some tribal peoples. The pigmy hog is native to northeastern India and is one of the world's most endangered animals. The Celebesian warty pig is domesticated on the island of Roti, near Timor, and the pigs of New Guinea seem, at least in the main, to derive from hybridization between it and the common pig. The bearded pig has a long history as one of man's important resources in parts of Indonesia and the Philippines, and is a progenitor of some presently domesticated forms. However, it has become rare as the lowland forests are logged and divided up by fast-spreading human populations. The Javan warty pig was thought to be extinct but a sizeable population has recently been found on a remote mountain in Java.

A strange piglike animal of the Moluccas and Sulawesi Islands of Indonesia is the babirus (Babyrousa babyrussa). It is a retiring animal of the dense jungle. Its feed includes roots, berries and grubs and it also browses on leaves, more like a deer than a pig. Its closest relative appears to have been a wild species known to have lived in Europe 35 million years ago. The babirus is the shape and size of a large domestic pig, weighing as much as 100 kg. Males have tusks that thrust upwards, piercing through the flesh of the muzzle before curving backward toward the skull.

The babirus is frequently captured young, tamed, and even bred by the villagers. It is so little known to science that its physiology and capabilities are. only slightly understood. Since it has an extra sac on its stomach it has been referred to as a "ruminant pig". If this supposition proves true, the babirus could be a very important animal for areas where grain and other high energy feeds are too scarce to feed to pigs.

Today there is a need to attract scientists and entrepreneurs to the study of such unconventional livestock. Well adapted to their local environment, these indigenous animals have qualities of survival that imported livestock often lack. Their domestication could complement conventional species offering the possibility of enhancing the output of world agriculture and the economies of tropical nations in particular.

Asia is not alone in having this wealth of indigenous animals. Africa and Latin America have similar resources. A whole new field of important animal research waits to be explored. The enthusiasm of the banteng researchers in New South Wales may just be the beginning of a recognition of this new world of animal resources.