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GERSHOM MUGIRA COMES from a long line of cattle-keepers. His people, the Bahima, are thought to have migrated into the hilly grasslands of western Uganda more than a thousand years ago, alongside a hardy breed of longhorns known as the Ankole. For centuries, man and beast subsisted there in a tight symbiotic embrace. Mugira’s nomadic ancestors wandered in search of fresh pasture for their cattle, which in turn provided them with milk. It is only within the last few generations that most Bahima have accepted the concept of private property. Mugira’s family lives on a 500-acre ranch, and one sunny day in November, the wiry 26-year-old showed me around, explaining, with some sadness but more pragmatism, why the Ankole breed that sustained his forebears for so many generations is now being driven to extinction.
As we walked down the sloped valley path that led to a watering hole, we found a few cows lolling beneath a flat-topped acacia. They looked like the kind of cattle you might encounter in Wisconsin: plump and hornless creatures with dappled black-and-white coats. Mugira, a high-school graduate, was wearing a pair of fashionably baggy jeans and spiffy white sneakers. To a modern African like himself, he said, the most desirable cattle were the American type: the Holsteins.
In recent decades, global trade, sophisticated marketing, artificial insemination and the demands of agricultural economics have transformed the Holstein into the world’s predominant dairy breed. Indigenous animals like East Africa’s sinewy Ankole, the product of centuries of selection for traits adapted to harsh conditions, are struggling to compete with foreign imports bred for maximal production. This worries some scientists. The world’s food supply is increasingly dependent on a small and narrowing list of highly engineered breeds: the Holstein, the Large White pig and the Rhode Island Red and Leghorn chickens. There’s a risk that future diseases could ravage these homogeneous animal populations. Poor countries, which possess much of the world’s vanishing biodiversity, may also be discarding breeds that possess undiscovered genetic advantages. But farmers like Mugira say they can’t afford to wait for science. And so, on the African savanna, a competition for survival is underway.
Mugira was just about to tell me what made the Holsteins so valuable when suddenly, Dr. Grace Asiimwe, a veterinarian and my guide through western Uganda’s ranchlands, shouted, “The Ankoles are coming!”...
“You know, in Uganda, we have to look for survival of the fittest,” Mugira said once he finished sorting out the confusion. “These ones, they are the fittest,” he went on to say, gesturing toward his Holsteins. In physical terms, there was really no contest between the tough Ankoles and the fussy foreign cattle, which were always hungry and often sick. But the foreigners possessed arguably the single most important adaptive trait for livestock: they made money. Holsteins are lactating behemoths. In an African setting, a good one can produce 20 or 30 times as much milk as an Ankole.
Mugira explained that, unlike most of his peers, he was holding onto some longhorns, mostly for sentimental reasons. His father, who died in 2003, loved his Ankoles. One of them wandered over and nuzzled Mugira, who placed his hand gently on its forehead. In the days before Christianity arrived in this part of Africa, the Bahima made offerings of milk to herdsman gods. Their language contains a vast catalog of cattle names, which refer to characteristics like color and hide pattern. This cow was called Kiroko, indicating it had some white patches on its face. The ideal Ankole, Mugira told me, has a lustrous brown coat and gleaming horns that curve out and then inward, forming a shape like a lyre. “They are naturally good,” Mugira said. “They are beautiful. In our culture we preferred these. But then we developed another culture, from Western culture.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization, an agency of the United Nations, recently reported that at least 20 percent of the world’s estimated 7,600 livestock breeds are in danger of extinction. Experts are warning of a potential “meltdown” in global genetic diversity. Yet the plight of the Ankole illustrates the difficulty of balancing the conflicting goals of animal conservation and human prosperity. An estimated 70 percent of the world’s rural poor, some 630 million people, derive a substantial percentage of their income from livestock. Increase the productivity of these animals, development specialists say, and you improve dire living standards. The World Bank recently published a report saying it was time to place farming “afresh at the center of the development agenda.” Highly productive livestock breeds, the World Bank asserts, are playing an important role in alleviating poverty.
“You do have local animals with various kinds of disease resistance and whatever other kinds of things you don’t want to do away with,” said Chris Delgado, an agriculture policy adviser at the World Bank. “But there’s a problem: They are kept by very poor people, and they don’t want to stay poor.”
Every cow in the world is the product of some human agency. The extinct feral ancestor of all cattle, the auroch, was a fearsome horned creature that could grow to be six feet tall. There are two theories about the taming of wild aurochs. The traditional view holds that it happened around 6000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent. But recent archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that domestication may have first occurred in Africa 2,000 years earlier, in the then-lush plains of the eastern Sahara. Then, beginning around 2,000 years ago, Arab merchants introduced humped cattle of Indian origin to East Africa, which were crossed with the indigenous longhorns to produce breeds like the Ankole.
For millennia, changing a breed’s genetics through husbandry required a long trial-and-error process. But today it can happen in an evolutionary eye blink. Multinational breeding companies, many of them based in the United States, collect semen from prime bulls, freeze it and export it to the developing world. Official estimates say there are about three million Ankole cattle in Uganda and smaller populations in bordering nations. An unknown — though by all accounts large — percentage of them are in the process of being turned into something else. After one cross with a Holstein, the brown Ankole cow will produce a black calf with darkened horns. After two, the horns will shrink and a dappled coat will appear. The third generation will basically look like American dairy cattle. With each cross, the offspring will produce more milk. The World Bank estimates that 1.8 million small-scale farmers in East Africa are benefiting from such genetic changes to their cattle and that some 100 million cows and pigs are created through artificial insemination in poor countries each year. Those numbers substantially understate the extent of genetic interchange, because half the offspring produced by artificial insemination are male and spread their genes the old-fashioned way.
To see the evolution in Ugandan dairy cattle, I visited a farmer named Jackson Sezibwa, who lives down a reddish dirt path outside the central Ugandan town of Mukono. A weather-beaten man of 46, Sezibwa greeted me in a torn, muddy shirt. He showed me to the metal-roofed stall where he keeps his Holstein, Kevina.
Chris Blattman has good coverage of Ugandan politics and developments