Vanishing breeds

  • 14/09/1997

Vanishing breeds while certain species of wild animals have hogged the attention of conservationists, India is losing its wealth of genetic resources in domesticated animals. Native breeds are being lost due to misdirected crossbreeding with exotic stock, indiscriminate crossing of native stocks, and slaughter of animals for export. Domestic animals, which are well-adapted to adverse climatic conditions and disease, are gradually being replaced by crossbreeds whose productivity is declining.

'Elitist' approach One of the major reasons why domestic animals in India came to be neglected was blind acceptance of Western notions of what constitutes a 'good breed'. Breeds-a selected group of animals of the same species, with distinctive inheritable traits-have adapted to local conditions over thousands of years. In this period, genes for many fitness traits have been tested. Each breed thus consists of a unique pool of genes.

Some highly productive breeds were promoted in the last three decades to meet the rising demand for animal products. The semen (or germplasm) of these 'elite' breeds was used extensively for crossing with indigenous breeds, leading to large-scale propagation of a few exotic breeds at the cost of the native breeds, some of which are now truly endangered.

Indigenous breeds adjust productivity to adverse climatic conditions and availability of food. They are resistant to diseases peculiar to the region in which they have evolved. 'Elite' breeds, however, are productive only in ideal, disease-free conditions. In the long run, exotic breeds are economically not viable. "Domestic animals have unique genetic traits. Unfortunately, their economic value has not been understood," says P N Bhat, officer on special duty at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research ( icar ), New Delhi.

In case of cattle and poultry, it was realised many years ago that populations of native breeds are declining alarmingly, but the people capable of reversing or halting this trend stood by silently. On the other hand, realising the potential of genes of domestic and wild animals found in India, developed countries took samples of their tissues and patented them. These countries are selling germplasm from Indian breeds to India for a profit, even as they are on the verge of extinction in their home country (see box: Ironic situation ).

The reservoir of genetic resources Various types of domestic animal genetic resources exist in India. There are 26 breeds of cattle and eight breeds of buffalo. Among the smaller hoofed animals, 42 breeds of sheep and 20 breeds of goat have been identified. Eight breeds of camel are known, and six breeds of horses are native to India. There are 17 breeds of domestic fowl, in addition to native pigs, mithun and yak.

With a repository of one-ninth of the germplasm of cattle breeds in the world and all breeds of the riverine buffalo (as distinct from the swamp buffalo, found in Southeast Asia), India is definitely rich in these resources. Its share of world genetic wealth in sheep, goat and cattle is around 20 per cent, 33 per cent and 16.5 per cent, respectively. Ladakh and the Northeast are also home to some unique domesticated breeds (see boxes: Adaptation at work and The yak in Ladakh ).

The adaptation of native breeds to Indian conditions comes with a cost: low productivity. And that was why introduction of genes from exotic breeds was considered by those interested in raising productivity-farmers and the Indian government.

The trouble with crossbreeding
Artificial insemination of nondescript domestic animals-a result of indiscriminate crossbreeding-appeared to be an easy way to produce animals with higher productivity. Starting in the 1960s, exotic germplasm was used to increase the productivity of native animals. But this came with a cost: loss of local breeds. Moreover, since the imported breeds were not adapted to their new environment, their performance over generations declined.

A number of animal husbandry scientists express dissatisfaction with Indian crossbreeding programmes (see box: Crossbreeding fiasco ). "Initially, crossbreeding with Jersey and Holstein germplasm was to be under taken on nondescript cattle to improve their performance. But the programme was actually implemented using well-defined breeds whose performance was satisfactory anyway. What was the point?" says A E Nivsarkar, director of the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources ( nbagr ) at Karnal, Haryana. "In fact, successive generations of crossbred cattle have shown a decline in milk yield."

Moreover, cattle diseases have been imported along with exotic germplasm. Certain diseases to which Indian cattle were resistant have become fatal with the import of new strains of bacteria. "It is not sheer coincidence that increased mortality due to foot-and-mouth disease has coincided with the import of foreign germplasm," says Nivsarkar. O S Tomer, director at the National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, adds protozoan diseases and blue tongue to the list of imported diseases.

Creatures great and small
bovine stocks: There are 26 well defined breeds of cattle in India, constituting around 18 per cent of the country's total cattle population. The remaining 82 per cent of the cattle are referred to as nondescript and are generally named after the region they come from. For optimal productivity of the animal, attention should be paid to the breeding partners, which should possess good characteristics such as high milk yield. This is often not done.

Like other native animals, Indian cattle are well-adapted to a hot climate and resistant to many diseases. It is precisely for these qualities that they have been used for crossbreeding in other countries. But in India the number of pure-bred cattle has declined drastically. nbagr scientists say that pure-bred animals are now only found in areas inaccessible by vehicles.

There is great variation in body size, colour, pattern, horns and other physical characteristics of Indian breeds, apart from yield and use. The indigenous cattle breed Zebu ( Bos indicus ) differs substantially from the European ( Bos taurus ). Zebu can be classified into three sub-types: dairy breeds, dual-purpose breeds (used for draught, with medium milk yield), and draught cattle.

The Siri cattle of Sikkim, and the local cattle of Himachal Pradesh and the hills of Uttar Pradesh are excellent for draught work at high altitudes. The cattle of Assam and Bengal are useful for agricultural operations on small holdings and terraces.

The Hariana breed, renowned in rural north India for its draught power and milk production, specially in its native tract in Haryana (Rohtak, Bhiwani and Sonepat, and adjoining areas of Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh) is facing the effects of the Green Revolution. Mechanisation and commercialisation of agriculture (which led to shrinking areas for grazing), over-enthusiastic crossbreeding and the emergence of buffaloes as commercial dairy animals have sounded the death knell for the breed.

"There is an urgent need to reverse this trend," says B K Joshi, principal scientist at nbagr , who conducted a survey on these cattle. Improvement of local breeds is ideally carried out by selecting superior dams and bulls for crossing. The survey indicated that the animal husbandry department in the state did not possess enough semen of superior bulls.

The fate of a breed depends on the number of pure-bred females available for perpetuation of the breed. In some breeds this number is dismally low. There is reason to believe that Red Sindhi, Sahiwal and Punganur cattle breeds are heading towards extinction. Genetic dilution of the Siri breed in Sikkim is likely to threaten its existence in the future. The 10 per cent increase in cattle population in the state between 1982 and 1995 is due entirely to increase in crossbred cattle.

While these cases show lack or misdirection of effort, the case of the Vechur cow is an example of how conservation of a near-extinct breed can be thwarted by certain interests (see box: The Vechur case)

buffalo breeds: With a population of nearly 75 lakh, the buffalo is mainly used for dairy purposes. India possesses nearly all breeds of riverine buffalo, many of them good milch breeds: Murrah and Nili-Ravi in Haryana and Punjab, Jaffrabadi, Surti and Mehsana in Gujarat, and the Nagpuri in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. The Bhadawari breed of Uttar Pradesh is known for its high butterfat milk. The eastern states have swamp-type buffaloes that can be used to plough paddy fields. The wild Asiatic buffalo is found in the Kaziranga reserve forest in Assam and other northeastern hill states.

The Bhadawari and the Toda (raised by the Toda tribe in the Nilgiri hills) breeds are heading towards extinction. "Unless the Toda buffalo can be put to some economic use, conservation efforts will not serve any purpose," says Bhat. "For conservation, the breed has to be utilised, for which its genetic traits need to be investigated and mapped."

Bhadawari buffaloes have a high milk yield and are good draught animals. However, a preliminary nbagr survey of 40 villages in its native tract in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh some years ago revealed that just one village had 20 buffaloes, while the rest had only two or three.

The fate of the Murrah buffalo in its home tract-Rohtak, Jind and Sonepat districts in Haryana-is no better. A survey revealed that though there was an 11 per cent increase in milk production in Haryana between 1982 and 1987, average milk yield had declined. This is an alarming trend, since India is supposed to have the best buffalo germplasm in the world. The decline has been attributed to mismanagement. Superior animals have been ignored by breeders and artificial insemination facilities are inadequate. Farmers favour natural breeding of their buffaloes, and select bulls on the basis of body weight rather than their dairy merit. Successive generations just do not have the genetic potential for high milk yield.

Another disturbing trend is increase in the number of high-yielding buffaloes exported from rural areas. The cost of maintaining buffaloes when not in milk and declining yields over the years induces affluent farmers to sell them off to slaughter houses in cities, from where the beef is exported. When buffaloes which have the genetic potential for high milk yield are slaughtered, the number of fertile generations is reduced to one or two, affecting the number of breeding females. "There is no replacement of these animals in the breeding tract; the movement is one-way, from rural to urban areas. This should stop," says Nivsarkar. But icar deputy director-general (animal sciences) M L Madan says that the issue is not that simple. "This is the price one has to pay for globalisation and earning of foreign exchange," he says.

smaller hoofed animals: The genetic variation in the sheep and goat population in India is significant. The second World Watch List of Domestic Animals which are endangered or vulnerable, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization ( fao in 1995, lists 59 breeds of sheep. Of these, no less than 42 have been documented in India over the years. Twenty breeds of goats are native to India. Depending on their utility and geographical distribution, sheep breeds can be divided into four types: fine wool type, carpet wool type, large mutton sheep and highly fertile sheep.

Large-scale introduction of Merino type of sheep by the government in the last few decades has led to near extinction of native breeds which yield wool in Jammu and Kashmir. The Nilgiri, a fine wool sheep of Tamil Nadu, is facing extinction since there is no demand for wool in the state and slaughtering is indiscriminate. Muzaffarnagari, one of the largest breeds of sheep, is native to western Uttar Pradesh. Small land holdings and growth in agriculture has reduced grazing opportunities for these sheep, endangering their existence. Others breeds whose populations have shown a decline are the Malpura, Chokla and Jaisalmeri in Rajasthan, the Munjal in Haryana, the Changthangi and Tibetan from the higher Himalayan ranges, and the Bonpala in Sikkim.

The Malpura, which yields a substantial amount of wool, is bred by nomads in Jaipur, Tonk, Sawai Madhopur, Chittorgarh and Bhilwara districts in Rajasthan. These areas fall in the migratory route of Marwari sheep, which yield more wool. Farmers cross the former with the latter for improved wool productivity, and if the trend goes unchecked, it may endanger the Malpura.

Perhaps one of the most unique breeds is the Garole (see box: A genetic wonder ), found in West Bengal. Though not endangered, indiscriminate crossbreeding to improve its wool productivity may threaten its existence.

Goats are widely distributed and well-adapted to the climatic conditions in the regions they inhabit. Well-known breeds which are endangered are the Changthangi and Chegu in the higher Himalaya, the coarse-haired Gaddi goat of Himachal Pradesh and the Jamnapari-used to upgrade other breeds in India and Southeast Asian countries-and Beetal of northwestern India.

poultry breeds: There are 17 indigenous breeds, which have evolved from the Red Jungle Fowl and Aseel. All of them are facing extinction. The Red Jungle Fowl, originally found all over India, is now confined to the Terai forests of Uttar Pradesh ( up ) and Assam. The Aseel (originally found all over Andhra Pradesh, up and Rajasthan) and Kadaknath (native to Jhasma and Dhar districts in western Madhya Pradesh) are rarely seen today. The Naked Neck, Aseel and Kadaknath, which were highly prized for their meat, have been replaced by high egg-laying, fast-growing European and North American broiler breeds.

Nivsarkar and Bhat agree that there is a lack of information about native poultry breeds, while modern varieties have taken over. "But Indian poultry breeds have some desirable traits," says Bhat. The Naked Neck, for instance, which originates from the west coast of India, has a bare neck, apparently due to a thermoregulatory gene which helps it to cope with heat stress. "This gene has been introduced in the White Leghorn in the us . The developed breed can adapt quickly to heat," Bhat adds. Besides these, a large variety of duck, turkey, partridge and quail are found in different parts of the country.

camels: Over 70 per cent of the 1.5 million one-humped camels, bred primarily in western India, are in Rajasthan. The rest are found in Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, but some can be spotted as far east as West Bengal and in the south. Opinions differ over the actual number of breeds. Only the Bikaneri and Jaisalmeri are universally accepted as distinct. Others include the Sindhi, Marwari, Mewari, Mewati, Kutchi and Shekhawati breeds. The double-humped Bactrian camel is practically extinct in India. The one-humped Malvi breed, which the National Research Centre on Camels, Bikaner, has not yet recognised, is already endangered (see box: Losing out ).

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