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Kenyan Pastoralists Look Back to Secure Their Future

Isaiah Esipisu

NAIROBI, Feb 15 2011 (IPS) - David Lenamira, watching as usual from a seat outside his compound, has no trouble picking out his sheep as the herd boys drive them home every evening. The red-brown animals are smaller than those in his neighbours’ herds, but he’s proud of them just the same.

Red Maasai sheep in Kenya. Credit:  John Atherton/Wikicommons

Red Maasai sheep in Kenya. Credit: John Atherton/Wikicommons

“The dream of any livestock farmer is to make profits, which in most cases comes through keeping animals that can mature faster, and have high productivity. But experience has taught me that this may not always be true,” said the farmer from Sirata-oribi, in the northern Kenyan district of Samburu Central.

Unlike most of his neighbours, Lenamira’s herd are Red Maasai sheep. Most of Lenamira’s fellow pastoralists in this semi-arid part of the country keep Dorpers, an exotic breed of sheep originally from South Africa. The breed has been promoted by the government since 1952 due to both their size and their high productivity.

Custom-designed sheep

“The Dorper sheep breed was developed specifically for semi-arid climatic conditions. But compared to the Red Maasai, Dorpers have bigger bodies, which mean that they need more feed. As well, Dorpers are less resistant to pests and diseases compared to the Red Maasai breeds, and they have been developed for a shorter time compared to the Red Maasai,” said Dr Pat Lenyasunya, a pastoralist veterinarian from Samburu.

Herders in Kenya’s dryland areas say that Dorpers are now proving less resilient under more frequent drought linked to climate change.

The conditions are bringing the qualities of Lenamira’s Red Maasai to the fore. This indigenous Kenyan breed, typically reddish-brown in colour, has not enjoyed much popularity internationally both due to its small stature and because it grows hair on its body rather than wool.

“I have seen my neighbours lose their Dorpers to drought, and this is an experience I wouldn’t want to go through,” says Lenamira.

His friend Kalani Lenguris, from Nontoto village, is still feeling the pinch after he lost 300 sheep during last year’s drought.

“I lost nearly all the pure Dorpers during the drought. The remaining are crossbreeds with the Red Maasai, but they are already emaciated by the drought that is ravaging our countryside at the moment,” Lenguris told IPS.

But the Red Maasai breed is under pressure, says Dr Jacob Wanyama, coordinator of the African LIFE Network, which works to defend the rights and livelihoods of pastoralists. “It is not easy to find pure indigenous breeds especially of cattle, sheep and goats.

“The few surviving animals have at least some genes from exotic animals, which dilutes the purity of the original indigenous genetic makeup,” he says.

“When I worked as an agricultural extension officer in the 1980s, one of the government’s policies was to promote high-producing animal breeds through encouraging herders to keep exotic breeds, or to crossbreed. At some points, we encouraged farmers to castrate the indigenous bulls so that they depend either on artificial insemination or have their animals sired by exotic breeds.”

At the time, Wanyama says, improving productivity of livestock seemed to be the magic bullet answer to poverty. “But little did we know that it was going to haunt us; most of the animal breeds currently available in Kenya and many other African countries are neither pure indigenous breeds nor pure exotic. The pure genetic biodiversity especially in Africa is almost extinct.”

Though no proper survey has yet been done to confirm this, Wanyama’s observations tally with the herder Lenguris: with increasingly frequent drought, farmers with pure exotic breeds are usually the first to lose their animals, followed by those with crossbreeds.

“This reveals how important it is to protect the genetic biodiversity,” says Wanyama.

Shepherds saving sheep

In an effort to safeguard the remaining stock of pure indigenous sheep, Lenamira and others have with support from the LIFE Network formed a conservation group composed of 60 pastoralists from the district, who have specialised in rearing Red Maasai. Each of them has between 200 and 500 animals.

The conservation group may have found some allies in an unexpected quarter. Animal genetic experts at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi have discovered that the Red Maasai breed has genetic traits that make it resistant to intestinal worm parasites, a major problem for sheep herders not only in Kenya, but on commercial farms in Australia and New Zealand.

Dr Okeyo Mwai, one of the lead researchers at ILRI, says that the individual genes have not yet been isolated; and scientists are still a long way from being able to transfer specific traits to other sheep breeds.

“At the moment, the most logical option is to have the Red Maasai bred [conventionally] for improved growth, fertility and feed efficiency,” says Dr Okeyo Mwai, one of the lead researchers at ILRI, “crossbreed with other hardy breeds to ensure that such important genes are not lost, but are sustainably conserved in commercial flocks, as we hold a waiting brief for genomic technologies to be become affordable and more practical.”

The government of Kenya has quickly recognised that, save for the modest efforts of groups like Lenamira’s, genetic treasures like the Red Maasai are under threat and indigenous breeds need urgent protection.

This realisation has led the government of Kenya to launch the National Advisory Board on Animal Genetic Resources to coordinate indigenous livestock farmers, research institutions, universities and all other interested parties in an effort to preserve the remaining genetic resources.

“The Board has already been launched. At the moment, we are in the process of drafting a bill on the same, which will be presented to the cabinet during the month of February 2011 to be turned into law,” said Cleopas Okore, the Deputy Director of the Kenya’s Ministry of Livestock and Development, and the Coordinator of the Advisory Board on Genetic Resources.

Isolation of worm-resistance genes from the Red Maasai sheep may see this most neglected sheep breed catapult into a very important resource, providing farmers with the most needed biological worm control mechanism.

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