Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page



An issue of relatively recent interest is the conservation of livestock biodiversity.6 Although a concern for “rare breeds” has been a European theme since the 1960s, it was not explicitly either an economic or an ethical enterprise. With the rise of a conception of biodiversity as a whole and the realization that the loss of domestic animal breeds is a loss of genetic capital in the same way as the loss of wild species is, interest gradually developed throughout the 1990s. Interest in European breeds has partly a hobbyist and antiquarian motivation. However, it has become apparent that the high diversity of breeds in many tropical or marginal areas is crucial to overall livelihood strategies.

The breeds that are most relevant to biodiversity concerns are those that have co-evolved with a particular environment and farming system and that represent an accumulation of both genetic stock and management strategies in relation to a particular environment. These have usually taken a long time to evolve and have characters, such as humidity-resistance, that cannot easily be developed. However, “breed” is a broad term that covers ornamental breeds of dog and rabbit and also what may be called “research station constructs”. For example, many catalogues of breeds include recently developed crosses between a local breed and an exotic. This is particularly the case in the former Soviet Union where many existing “breeds” have no natural habitat and only persist in fields outside research stations (see FAO, 1989a). The Third FAO Worldwatch List (FAO, 2000) includes a large number of breeds of turkey and goose in sub-Saharan Africa. These are not indigenous species, and on reading the text it appears that they are all twentieth-century introductions, some of which have never left the research station. There appears to be no significant case for the conservation of such breeds except at the level of individual country priorities.

Local races and breeds of livestock disappear for a variety of reasons, some representing rational responses to changing economic, ecological or social conditions, others pressure from government bodies and development agencies or simply an inappropriate understanding of short-term gains against long-term viability. When communities voluntarily replace one breed with another, or cease keeping livestock in order to concentrate on other activities such as tree crops, it would be inappropriate to pressurize them to conserve breeds; this should be the role of national institutions. Livestock breed conservation is a public good, both nationally and internationally, and a long-term investment in future genetic resources. In many areas in southern Nigeria, the rising prices of such tree crops as cocoa and palm oil have caused communities to dispense with their traditional dwarf cattle and goats in order to concentrate on these profitable crops. This is a perfectly rational medium-term strategy, but it would be shortsighted of the national government to lose the genetic resource that such livestock represent simply because of a temporary pattern in world trade. As to whether such a strategy is sustainable on the part of a government, the analogy is not with an economic enterprise but with an investment against unpredictable future developments. New antibiotics are expensive to discover and produce and, when discovered, they may have to be reserved against future, still unknown epidemics. The same is true of genetic resources.

Existing baseline data are too imprecise to allow an estimate of the rate of loss, although this is possible to calculate in some developed countries. New breeds are always being created, especially by large livestock companies and on research stations, but this points to a fundamental asymmetry. A breed that has evolved over centuries in a particular socio-economic and pathogen niche cannot be replaced by a modern breed, any more than a wild plant or animal that becomes extinct can be recreated in the laboratory.

Factors accelerating the erosion of livestock biodiversity



Development interventions

Preference given to high-input, high-output breeds developed for benign environments Commercial interests in donor countries promote use of relatively temperate-adapted breeds and create unrealistic expectations in developing countries


Emphasis on a single productive trait, e.g. dairying, leading to exclusion of multipurpose animals

Genetic introgression

Cross-breeding and accidental introgression leading to loss of indigenous breeds


Machinery replaces work animals


Cryopreservation equipment that is inadequate to store germplasm of threatened breeds Artificial insemination and embryo transfer rapidly displace indigenous breeds

Political instability

Can eliminate local breeds owned by vulnerable populations

Natural disaster

Floods, drought and epizootics preferentially affect remote or isolated human and livestock populations

Source: Adapted from Hammond and Leitch, 1995.

Projects and development aid for livestock have historically focused on large ruminants, and tend not to focus on work animals, small species or “microlivestock” (to adopt Vietmeyer’s term). The only significant exception to this is the occasional chicken project, and even these have been dominated by attempts to establish large-scale intensive poultry production. The agendas have been set by the priorities and economies of developed countries, reflecting both their research structures and their commercial interests. The most notorious example of this is probably the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA), a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centre, which refused to countenance research on animals other than cattle, sheep and goats, thereby ignoring key African domesticates and work animals such as donkeys, camels and all types of poultry.

Box 7. The expansion of microlivestock in Nigeria

Livestock production in Nigeria has historically been dominated by ruminants which have been the focus of both veterinary services and animal production extension. However, an extensive national survey in 1990-1991 demonstrated that the preceding decades had seen a significant expansion of backyard species, both newly introduced and experimentally domesticated. Among these species were turkeys, rabbits, guinea-pigs, Achatina snails, turtles and giant rats. The principal reasons advanced for preferring these species were their low capital costs, the simplicity of feeding them with household scraps, the potential to keep them in confined spaces, the ease with which they were turned into cash, the absence of ritual accretions (meaning that anyone could keep and sell them) and the low veterinary costs. Poorer households were diversifying species to increase the diversity of sources for their livelihoods.

Source: RIM, 1992.

If poverty alleviation and sustainable livelihoods are the key agenda (and even if they are not but the priority is to work with species that are important to the majority of rural farmers), there is strong evidence to suggest that these priorities are very skewed. Most rural households depend on a scatter of small species for protein, with the slaughter of cattle or sheep as a very occasional festival meal. Microlivestock often do not have to be fed, do not require substantial labour inputs and do not require access to land beyond the backyard. The sale of individual animals can provide small cash sums without threatening household capital in the way that the sale of larger animals does.

In many regions of the world where livestock are an important element in overall subsistence, the large ruminants are in the hands of professional pastoralists or ranchers. Such systems make an important overall contribution to national meat and dairy supplies, but often the majority of their output is used to feed the cities. Pastoralists in both tropical Africa and Central Asia have historically made significant investments in breeding races of domestic animal that are appropriate to the environment they exploit, and are constantly exchanging and adapting bloodlines to meet changing external conditions. Typically, animals are bred for their ability to survive subclinical pathogens and to digest poor and variable pasture, with yields of meat and milk only a secondary consideration. Local breeds are thus a key element in trying to ensure food security.

Although New World indigenous species were traditionally used for a type of transhumant pastoralism, this has been largely replaced by ranching systems based on Eurasian ruminants. In the New World, much of the output from South America goes to supply the “fast-food” market of North America. This may be important in terms of the priorities of the civil servants with whom developers often have to deal but it is not necessarily central to the concerns of those at whom interventions are purportedly aimed.

There is a strong correlation between poverty and a high degree of genetic diversity, both of livestock and of crop plants. This has been subject to two differing interpretations:

  1. Poor people keep a biodiverse range of species7 because they do not have access to high-output breeds and would switch to these if resources were available.
  2. Keeping a range of species and breeds enables poor people to continue producing in uncertain environments and thus to manage risk effectively, as well as using a diverse range of outputs and permitting a flexible allocation of labour

Interpretation a) is clearly favoured by those development agencies that wish to promote exotics, cross-breeds and high-input systems. It also has the advantage of appearing to increase food security. However, interpretation b) seems to be taking hold after several decades of ethnographic study of rural subsistence systems suggests that poor rural households trying to ensure their food security are, above all, interested in minimizing risk. The risks induced by such natural phenomena as weather anomalies and insect or disease surges have now been compounded by an increasingly unstable socio-economic environment, where sudden changes in policy can make produce uncompetitive. Development agencies have added to the risk by making rapid changes in policy and failing to provide long-term support to introduced species or inputs. An analogous situation is found in the health sector, where Western medicine does not replace a diversity of local remedies but is simply added to them, sometimes with unfortunate effects.

Approaches to livestock issues in the context of biodiversity are still uncommon and often inadequately coordinated. Even FAO, which is leading the Domestic Animal Diversity – Information System (DAD-IS) initiative, continues to send out free semen from Friesian cattle from another programme without careful control of the uses to which it will be put. Large livestock companies have significant political influence, especially in the United States, and approaches that run counter to their commercial philosophies often get short shrift in international decision-making. This is particularly striking in the Americas, where aid for the purchase of “modern” livestock breeds in development projects is still very prevalent. Even in Southeast Asia, where work is beginning in earnest on the evaluation of local breeds, development projects involving cross-breeding remain commonplace. The recent financial collapse in Southeast Asia and Brazil is likely to demonstrate just how unsustainable such strategies are, as householders who accepted the blandishments of the projects will no longer be able to afford the inputs necessary to keep their stock alive.


As well as conserving livestock biodiversity, there is the broader issue of maintaining the environments that most pastoralists inhabit, i.e. rangelands (Blench, 2001b). Rangelands do not represent an ancient climax vegetation that can somehow be restored to its natural state; those that exist in the world today represent the result of millennia of intense human activity. Even the grasslands that are thought to be edaphic, such as those in eastern Africa, may well be ancient artefacts. This is not to say that their management and biodiversity are not an issue. For pastoralists, the maintenance of high levels of biodiversity in rangelands may be crucial to their survival strategies. But the extent of rangelands and the sort of biodiversity they are expected to exhibit are as much political and economic decisions as they are science-driven ones.

As with the oceans, rangelands depend on priorities being set on a regional basis; grasslands do not stop at national borders, nor do the animals that exploit them recognize political boundaries. Conservation of biodiversity in rangelands involves the cooperation of different stakeholders, including foragers, pastoralists, ranchers, arable farmers, local and national governments and international bodies. Conservation approaches must recognize that rangelands are physically and institutionally fragmented. As populations increase, the numbers and types of claim on these lands expand, cross-cutting and interlocking with one another. Institutional environments differ extremely, not only from continent to continent, but also within single countries. Conservation has tended to focus on threatened and endangered species rather than landscape. However, it is the landowner and the land user who have the closest contact with conservation of biodiversity and, economically, they are likely to be the most affected by international programmes. If they see economic losses for themselves as a result of such programmes, it can be expected that they will try to prevent, or sabotage, conservation efforts. Even local governments may lack the will to enforce conservation rules and laws in such circumstances (Tisdell, 1995: 218).

At the local level, the incentive to conserve biodiversity is often limited, as the benefits are very broadly distributed. The global community benefits more from the maintenance of genetic diversity than do individual smallholders, at least over the time period that concerns individual households. Nevertheless, maintenance or restoration of habitats should be a main concern, because the best way to minimize species loss is to maintain the integrity of ecosystem function; determination of the status of each species, and design of conservation measures to meet its needs, can thus largely be avoided. It is therefore important to create local-level incentives to conserve biodiversity. Landowners and users will have to be awarded a larger share of the total gains from conserving biodiversity. Mechanisms that can be used for this purpose are: subsidies for conserving biodiversity; payment of royalties on the use of genetic material conserved; and utilization of conserved areas for tourism, with income transfer (Tisdell, 1995).

Rangelands are more perplexing environments than most others when it comes to conserving or recreating their biodiversity. They are not lost visibly, in the way that forests are, nor do many shelter the headline species that attract funds and research. Some rangelands are characteristic of highly developed economies and have been managed in ways that do not necessarily elicit sympathy. Yet the role they play in supporting subsistence households around the world, and the evident problems that arise when biodiversity is undermined and the range can no longer respond to extreme conditions, argue for greater importance being attached to rangelands.

6 This chapter has been largely developed from Blench, 2001a.

7 This does not contradict the previous observation that the highest density of breeds is found in the developed world. Rural households can map a range of low-input species against diverse capital and labour availability.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page