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A better backyard chicken for Africa could help save the continent’s diminishing wildlife populations

An Ethiopian boy carries one of his family’s prized chickens (photo credit: ILRI/Barbara Wieland).

The idea that the humble chicken could become a savior of wildlife will seem improbable to many environmentalists.

‘. . . A study last year identified bushmeat hunting as the primary threat pushing 301 mammal species worldwide toward extinction. . . .

So what do chickens have to do with this gruesome business?

‘Assuming you could persuade governments to enforce laws against the hunting and selling of bushmeat, said David Wilkie of the Wildlife Conservation Society, you could not possibly make it work without providing an alternative source of protein. In many rural areas, particularly in Central and West Africa, wildlife is what there is to eat, accounting for up to 80 percent of protein in the diet—and 100 percent of the animal protein. Abruptly cutting off access to bushmeat could mean starvation. . . .

Chickens, though, have been subject to intensive domestication efforts over roughly 8,000 years, Mr. Wilkie said, and we know how to rear them cheaply and in quantity.

The trick is to translate that knowledge to the small backyard flocks, generally kept by women, in rural villages everywhere.

An Ethiopian farmer holds one of the chickens she raises (photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu).

‘Such an effort is already underway, largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The focus, said Donald Nkrumah, a program officer there, is on providing more protein for chronically malnourished people and a means of economic independence for village women. It’s not about saving gorillas. But those goals are not mutually exclusive. “I grew up in West Africa. I know they are eating most of the wildlife,” he said.

‘The reason they are not eating chickens or eggs instead, Mr. Nkrumah said, “is that African chickens don’t grow very fast and don’t lay many eggs”—30 or 40 a year, rather than the 150 that would be possible with improved breeds. The chickens are also vulnerable to diseases like Newcastle virus, which can periodically kill off 90 percent of a village’s flocks. Better breeds and a suitable Newcastle vaccine already exist to fix such problems. But big agriculture companies have little commercial incentive to push their products out to remote rural markets. . . .

‘Chickens alone won’t stop bushmeat hunting if countries are unwilling to discourage open sale of endangered animals in the marketplace. But in the 1980s, India combined enforcement of anti-hunting law with a program to make chicken far more widely available in rural villages. . . . [T]he eventual result was that hunting was no longer worth the risk of arrest in much of the country.’

Will it also work in Africa, Asia and other regions now eating their way down the food chain?

As the human population grows at a rate that rapidly outpaces the ability of natural habitats to feed it, a better backyard chicken could be a real hope for people and wildlife alike.

Read the whole article by Richard Conniff in the New York Times: Chickens can help save wildlife, 18 Mar 2017.

Read about the African Chicken Genetic Gains project, which is also funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). African Chicken Genetic Gains is an Africa-wide collaboration with partners from Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Tanzania that is testing and making available high-producing, farmer-preferred chicken genotypes that increase smallholder chicken productivity in Africa.

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