Conserving horse heritage in Saudi Arabia
21 March 2003, Dirab, Saudi Arabia A comprehensive
breeding and conservation programme here is working to guarantee
the future of the Arabian horse breed, famous for its beauty and
strength. The programme is technically assisted by FAO as part of
its continuing work to conserve global animal genetic diversity.
The King Abdul Aziz Centre for Arabian Horses supports two complementary
programmes -- one to maintain the indigenous bloodline and one to
breed indigenous Arabian horses with imported horses.
The Centre started over 15 years ago to document in a herdbook
the bloodlines of the estimated 2 500 horses indigenous to the kingdom.
The book, following World Arabian Horses Organization standards,
now describes 1 720 horses, with an upcoming survey expected
to add another 400.
We are doing this to conserve an outstanding aspect of Arab
Islamic culture, says Centre manager Sami Sulaiman Al Nuheit.
These horses are one of the most important animal species
in the Middle East.
The Bedouin tribes of the desert believed the horse to be a gift
from God and considered them prized members of their households.
Animal husbandry remains the most important means of subsistence
in the arid areas. The Bedouins herds and flocks are moved
seasonally over great distances in search of food and water and
have evolved to suit this lifestyle.
The Arabian horse was bred for its gentle nature and striking beauty,
but also for the stamina to withstand long treks across the desert
and for the speed and responsiveness needed when tribal conflicts
ensued from these trips. These characteristics have made the Arabian
a much-sought-after breed. Europeans seeking to improve their saddle
horses, for example, imported Arabians to cross with native strains.
Building skills in breed management
A horse stud management expert, Bruce William McCrea, works at the
Centre under the auspices of an FAO project financed by the Saudi
Government. Mr McCrea handles the mating plans for Arabian horses
imported from around the world. He is also helping to build skills
in horse breed management.
Around 20 Saudi nationals have recently joined training courses
at the Centre, located one hour from the capital, Riyadh. We
would like to have a core group of managers who could offer assistance
in other parts of the country, says Mr Al Nuheit. Making
use of foreign experts is still a necessity so that we can keep
up with technological developments in this field. However, we are
proud to say that a number of young Saudis have gained experience
in breeding Arabian horses.
Demand for livestock products in the developing world is
expected to double over the next 20 years, because of population
growth, urbanization and rising incomes. To meet this demand,
animal agriculture is intensifying and relies increasingly
on a few breeds that can produce high yields. As a result,
less productive but genetically valuable local breeds are
threatened. Already an estimated 35 percent of mammalian breeds
and 63 percent of bird breeds risk extinction -- 60 percent
of them in developing countries. And of the local breeds that
remain, few are being bred for higher productivity, a missed
opportunity to help the developing world feed its people.
The transfer of animals from developed to developing countries
often leads to crossbreeding or even replacement of local
breeds, threatening domestic animal diversity. In developing
countries, breeds from the industrialized world are considered
more productive. The problem, however, is that these animals
are only suited to the conditions of the countries they come
from, and many cannot survive under the often harsh environment
of developing countries.
Using as many different breeds as possible is likely to be
the most cost-effective way of conserving and developing the
animal gene pool. It is important to conserve local
breeds because they utilise lower quality feed and are more
resistant to climatic stress, parasites and diseases,
says Ricardo Cardellino of FAOs Animal Genetic Resources
Group. They will continue to be the basis for local
food security. Their disappearance or replacement by exotic
breeds will have an impact on human populations and on environments.
Assessing the state of the worlds animal genetic
FAO is coordinating a process to develop the first Report
on the State of the Worlds Animal Genetic Resources.
This process is a way to
analyse data on animal breeds to determine the state
of global farm animal genetic resources,
evaluate policies and traditional and new technologies
to use, develop and conserve these resources better,
identify country priorities so immediate action can be
build countries capacities to manage their resources.
Most breeds at risk are not supported by any established
conservation and management activity, or related policies,
and breed extinction rates are increasing, says Mr Cardellino.
The goal of the Report is to promote the wise use and development
of locally adapted animal genetic resources, improve food
security, strengthen environmental protection and reduce poverty.
It also aims to raise awareness and make better use of traditional
livestock practices of smallholder farmers and nomads.
Around 140 countries have agreed to submit Country Reports,
which will identify priority actions to be taken to use and
conserve the full range of domestic animal breeds better.
FAO will encourage and support such actions at national and
regional levels throughout the process. To this end, it has
developed an online database -- the Domestic Animal Diversity
Information System (DAD-IS) -- to help countries collate and
store information on animal genetic resources. A draft of
the full Report on the State of the Worlds Animal Genetic
Resources is scheduled for completion in 2005.
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 570 56328