Animal Breeding / Animal Diseases / Cattle / East Africa / Film and video / Genetics / ILRI / Indigenous Breeds / Kenya / Sheep / Small Ruminants

Australian TV program highlights research in race against time to save Africa’s ‘hairless sheep’ and other native breeds

Disease-resistant red Maasai sheep in Kenya

Worm-resistant red Masai sheep, an indigenous ‘hairless’ sheep kept by Maasai herders, in Kenya (photo credit: ILRI).

Catalyst, the Australian Broadcasting Company’s well-regarded science television program, yesterday (14 Jul 2011) broadcast an episode on research being conducted in Kenya to conserve the native livestock of Africa.

Okeyo Mwai, an animal geneticist working at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), gives Catalyst’s Paul Willis an overview of some of Africa’s livestock treasures, including East Africa’s big-horned and beautiful Ankole cattle, the hardy and drought-resistant Boran cattle, and a ‘hairless’ and worm-resistant red Masai sheep. While the red Masai sheep produces no wool, this fast-disappearing breed possesses a genetic resistance to intestinal worms, a trait of intense interest to sheep breeders across Australia and the rest of the world, who still have to deworm their sheep on a regular and costly basis.

Africa has some 150 native breeds of cattle alone, says Mwai. And they are disappearing at a rapid rate, and along with them, the genes they carry that could help humankind feed itself in the coming decades in the face of major climate and other changes.

Mwai has been working for two decades to help local farmers reap the benefits of reintroducing old breeds into new herds. He tells Willis: ‘Our job is to race against time, not to lose the genes that are already there. . . .’

Willis concludes the program by reminding his audience that Africa’s livestock genetic treasure-house matters to us all: ‘By pinning down these valuable indigenous genes before they become extinct, researchers hope to bring a bit of Red Masai toughness to sheep across the globe.’

Watch the 6-minute program: ABC Catalyst: African livestock, 14 Jul 2011.

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