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.”

Local breeds at risk

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 FAO’s 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 world’s animal genetic resources

FAO is coordinating a process to develop the first Report on the State of the World’s 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 taken,

  • 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 World’s Animal Genetic Resources is scheduled for completion in 2005.

Salah Al-Bazzaz
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 570 56328