The Red Maasai is an East African fat-tailed sheep breed mainly kept by Maasai pastoralists as well as neighboring communities. It is commonly found in Kenya and Tanzania among the smallholder farmers and pastoralists. The breed is utilized for meat, milk, manure and skin production. It also serves as a form of savings, insurance against emergencies, cultural and ceremonial purposes. A number of researches have attributed its preference by Maasai pastoralists due to its ability to withstand drought and diseases. It’s also known for its resistance to gastro-intestinal worms and relative tolerance to trypanosome. Storage of fats and the ability to walk for long distances also makes the Red Maasai sheep to be more popular among the Maasai pastoralists. Purebred Red Maasai sheep were common throughout the southern pastoral lands of Kenya till mid-1970s where they were estimated to be several million head. The synthetic Dorper breed from South Africa was later introduced to Kenya for its higher growth potential, better carcass quality and mothering ability. The dorper was favored more because of its outstanding high growth rate and carcass qualities as compared to the Red Maasai sheep. Hence prevalent indiscriminate crossbreeding between the dorper and the Red Maasai sheep followed because farmers failed to maintain a continuous crossbreeding programme and there was no instructions provided to them. Many farmers have therefore continued to upgrade their local flocks by crossing with Dorper, which subsequently have proved unsuitable in many production areas. As a consequence, the Red Maasai sheep breed is now under severe threat.
Characteristics of the Breed
Red Maasai sheep are named for their common color of red-brown, though they may also be multi-colored. It is a hair sheep hence not meant for wool production. It is also a fat-tailed sheep breed known for discernibly large fat deposits in its tail and hindquarters. The breed is medium-to-large bodied sheep. They are important for mutton and lard in marginal areas because they are hardy. They are good milkers and have high fertility.
Breeding objectives for Red Maasai
Based on the best animals and choice of animals in the herd, body size and growth rate have been considered as the most important traits especially where farmers are more market oriented. Milk yield is also ranked as the second most important trait after body size traits for the same market based scenarios. The Red Maasai has also been preferred for its better reproduction and tolerance against diseases and drought and that is why it has gained preference even in crossbreeding especially with dorper sheep. The Red Maasai is also more appreciated for its good reproduction and mothering ability.
Challenges facing the Breed
Indigenous genetic resources of Africa and the world at large are threatened with extinction. These sheep are faced with many challenges including persistent droughts, diseases, conflicts and poor nutrition. Their ability to walk long distances in search of pasture and adaptability to the harsh environmental conditions and together with some unique traits, like resistance to gastrointestinal nematodes increases their importance to resource-poor farmers and pastoralists. However, the greatest challenge being faced by these populations is the indiscriminate cross breeding with exotic breeds and especially with the Dorper and causing increasing threat to this unique breed. Apart from indiscriminate crossbreeding which is the major threat, Red Maasai sheep is also facing serious threat of extinction due to changing market preferences and production systems.
Conservation Strategies for Red Maasai Sheep
There is need for conservation of Red Maasai genetic resources so as to prevent genetic erosion of populations that retain value for current use, maintain sufficient genetic diversity to meet the needs of current and future utilization, provide options for adaptation to changing environmental conditions, support sustainable animal production systems for food security, provide genetic resources for cross-breeding and development of new genotypes, provide options to meet the demands of new markets for livestock products and services, preserve cultural and historical values and sustain the bequest value of livestock.
Generally there are two ways through which animal genetic resources can be conserved namely; in-situ and ex-situ conservation. In-situ method involves conservation of animal genetic resources in the original production conditions through on-farm or community based strategy while ex-situ conservation entails preservation of animal genetic resources outside its original production conditions through cryopreservation or maintaining live populations in experimental or show farms. The in-situ method is most preferred and because the breed is maintained in a dynamic state which allows it to adapt to changing production, marketing and social environment. It is also cost effective since the breed is being conserved through its continuous use in the production environment where it evolved or is currently found. Thus in-situ conservation is able to conserve both the genetic material and the processes that gave rise to the genetic diversity. Since the Red Maasai sheep is predominantly kept by the Maasai pastoralists, within-breed selection strategy for genetic improvement can be a good option to maintain pure Red Maasai sheep in a community-based sheep breeding program.
The main disadvantage of in-situ conservation is that the factors threatening genetic diversity remain and the live populations of animals are exposed to risk of loss in the event of disasters in the production environment. This problem can be solved by using ex-situ conservation methods to complement in-situ methods. Cryopreservation of semen and embryos or preservation of live animal populations outside the production environment can act as a back-up plan in case of disasters leading to extinction of animal genetic resources. However the major disadvantage of ex-situ conservation will be the development of disharmony between the breed and its original production environment because the selection pressure that shaped it had been removed. The most important question that requires an answer before initiating any indigenous breed conservation programme is, what incentives the farmers should be given in order to continue keeping the indigenous breeds which are often associated with low productivity. As noted by Pattison et al., (2007), to the farmer the loss of indigenous breeds may appear to be economically justified since the returns may be higher than those from activities related to conservation of these indigenous breeds. Furthermore the outcomes of conservation programmes are non-market benefits that accrue to people other than the farmers. Increasing the market value of threatened indigenous breeds can be a good strategy to encourage farmers to maintain pure indigenous breeds since it will ensure that the conservation programme is self-sustaining. Implementation of structured crossing with imported genotype can also be a successful conservation option since it will provide a commercial incentive to farmers to maintain a purebred population of indigenous breeds for crossing with exotic genotype. In some situations it may be necessary to conserve the desired genes and not the genotype. Development of composite breeds consisting of up to 50% of indigenous breeds can be a good way to conserve desirable indigenous genes especially in semi-intensive systems. Stakeholders should be the drivers of implementation and eventual success of any indigenous breed conservation program. Commitment on the part of livestock keepers and clear understanding of the events leading to extinction of the breeds is also crucial in any conservation efforts.