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SOUTH SUDAN: Protecting Cattle Saves People

Jared Ferrie

TEREKEKA, South Sudan, Oct 25 2011 (IPS) - With his bright orange hair, Angelo Waranyang cuts a striking figure as he strides amongst his cattle. His hair colour – dyed with a mixture of cow urine and ash from burnt dung – is symbolic of the close connection that he and the majority of South Sudanese have with their revered animals.

A member of the Mundari tribe stands amongst cattle in Terekeka, South Sudan. Credit: Jared Ferrie/IPS

A member of the Mundari tribe stands amongst cattle in Terekeka, South Sudan. Credit: Jared Ferrie/IPS

In fact, there are more cattle than people in South Sudan. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) puts the number of cattle at about 11 million, and it estimates that 80 percent of the country’s approximately eight million people depend on the animals for their survival.

With the FAO warning that South Sudan will likely produce only enough food to feed half its people next year, a push to vaccinate cattle against deadly diseases has taken on added urgency.

Preventing outbreaks of disease could stave off hunger, as well as mitigate violence that arises when herders attempt to steal cattle from neighbouring tribes after suffering losses to their own herds.

Waranyang, who hails from the Mundari ethnic group, welcomed the vaccination campaign, noting that he had already lost 25 cows to disease this year.

The FAO and South Sudan’s Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry would like to vaccinate 70 percent of South Sudan’s livestock (including 19 million sheep and goats), according to Edward Ogolla, a communications officer with FAO.

But he admitted that the figure could be achieved only “in a perfect situation.”

The situation in South Sudan is far from perfect. When the country became the world’s newest nation after seceding from the north on Jul. 9, it also became one of the poorest. While rich in oil, revenues from resources in the south had been diverted to the north for decades by Khartoum leaving the region one of the least developed in the world.

The vaccination campaign is hampered by lack of funding and trained personnel, insecurity and poor infrastructure, to name just a few challenges, Ogolla said.

The recent vaccination exercise in Terekeka underscores the point. The community is only about 80 kilometres from the capital Juba, and is considered quite accessible, but it took almost three hours to arrive after driving down rough, rutted, dirt roads littered with water-filled potholes the size of small ponds.

Of a total of 30 million animals, the FAO is targeting five million for vaccination this year. Officials say the campaign is becoming more important as South Sudan faces rising food insecurity due to weather patterns, insecurity and a large influx of southerners who are returning from the north to take up residence in their newly independent homeland.

“These diseases, especially east coast fever, can (result in) up to a 100 percent of the animals getting sick, and you can get up to 90 to a 100 percent mortality, which means it can wipe out the whole herd,” said George Okech, head of the FAO in South Sudan.

The team was also vaccinating against black quarter fever and haemorrhagic septicemia.

“If a disease were to come by and wipe (out) these (herds, people) would easily be tempted to go to the neighbouring county and try and get the animals from there,” said Okech. “And that definitely would be a cause of conflict.”

Cattle rustling attacks are common in South Sudan and were one of the main causes of death in the first half of this year, which was the most violent six months since the civil war ended in 2005. The U.N. said 2,368 civilians had died as of July, compared with 940 last year.

Cattle raiding is also holding back economic development, according to a 2010 study by the Netherlands Development Agency (SNV), which pointed to a large unmet local demand despite South Sudan’s vast herds.

“Despite the potential of home grown Sudanese livestock sources, large volumes of livestock and livestock products are imported from neighbouring Uganda to meet the demand in Juba,” said the report, which put the blame partly on cattle rustling.

“That’s a stumbling block for attempts to improve livestock sales at community level, because the animals can be easily stolen when they are being taken to market,” SNV noted.

FAO officials say a cow or bull can fetch anywhere between 300 and 800 dollars. With 11 million head of cattle in South Sudan, these herds represent vast potential for economic growth – provided they can be kept safe from disease.

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