Indigenous livestock play an integral part in the livelihoods of majority of the rural population throughout Africa by contributing to nutritional security through provision of meat, milk and eggs, and provision of important farm inputs such as draught power and manure to sustain crop production for food and feed.
They also serve as investment sinks and sources of cash income in times of need, as providers of transport for goods and services and are central to many socio-cultural events and ceremonies.
Populations of IL species contain tremendous genetic variation arising from natural selection for adaptation to different environments and to an extent from human intervention through artificial selection for specialized breeding.
This diversity is essential for meeting human requirements for food and agriculture in a sustainable way, as well as, guarantees the flexibility needed to adapt to changing environmental conditions.
The Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources (GPA) of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of United Nations has reported that IL resources are increasingly under threat of genetic erosion and this situation is expected to worsen in the future due to several factors such as; uncontrolled crossing breeding programs with exotic germplasm, changes in production systems, changes in producer preference (due to socio-economic factors) and development interventions (technologies and bio-technologies).
Based on FAO reports, the current population of IL account for about 70% of the total livestock population in Africa. These resources are widespread throughout Africa and it is difficult to ascertain that certain breeds of the IL are only found in a particular region as such FAO has noted significant numbers of regional trans-boundary breeds which highlights the need for cooperation at regional or sub-regional levels in order to ensure sustainable use, management and conservation of these resources.
Reports show that there are roughly 100 to 150 indigenous cattle breeds in Africa which have been classified into four broad categories: The Humpless cattle, widely distributed in West and Central Africa; The Humped cattle (Zebu), widely distributed in East and the dry parts of West Africa; The Sanga, found mainly in Eastern and southern Africa; and Zenga types, found in Eastern Africa.
The humpless category is divided into two groups; the longhorn and shorthorn types. The shorthorn types are further sub-divided into 14 breed groups while the longhorn types are represented majorly by two breeds; the N’Dama and the Kuri.
These breeds are known for their small body size and low productivity but this has majorly been attributed to the stringency of the environmental resources in these areas. Nonetheless, they have acquired hardiness to the harsh climatic conditions and resistance to the various diseases endemic to these environments.
Notable among these adaptations is their tolerance to trypanosomiasis, particularly the N’Dama breed, which is a major disease limiting the introduction of exotic cattle in the humid and sub-humid regions of West Africa. The breeds are kept purposely for meat, milk, manure and draught power.
The humped cattle category is represented by the Zebu cattle which are abundant in the continent, with a high concentration in East Africa. They are identified by their characteristic hump (varies in size but usually large and hanging backwards in the bull) and pendulous dewlap, and are thought to have descended from the secondary cattle domestication in the arid areas in Africa.
The zebu cattle are known to be better than the humpless cattle in regulating body temperature (hence lower body water requirements) and have hardened hooves and lighter bones that enable them to endure long migrations.
These adaptive attributes make them suitable for the drier agro-ecological regions of Africa. This category is divided into two major groups; the Large East African Zebu (LEAZ) and Small East African Zebu (SEAZ). Although their evolutionary origins are similar, they differ in body size which has resulted from responses to different environment adaptation; for instance the LEAZ can attain a mature weight of 450Kg while the SEAZ can attain 150Kg.
Large East African Zebu is represented by populations of the Borana cattle of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, and the Butana and Kenana of Sudan. In Kenya, LEAZ has undergone genetic improvement for beef and now it is recognized as an excellent tropical beef breed, known as the Improved Boran, with finished weights as high as 850Kg.
The SEAZ found in Kenya comprise several types that are as a result of tribal or ecological origins, which doesn’t necessarily imply genetic differences. Some of these types include the Kikuyu Zebu (central Kenya), Coastal Zebu (south-west & south-east Kenya), Maasai Zebu (southern Kenya extending to north-east Tanzania), Winam/Kavirondo Zebu (Lowlands of L.Victoria Basin), Nandi Zebu (western Kenya), Teso Zebu (western Kenya) and Turkana Zebu (north-west Kenya), Samburu (northern Kenya) and Watende Zebu (south of L. Victoria). Of these types, the Kikuyu Zebu has suffered greatly from the impact of crossbreeding and upgrading with exotic European cattle initiated in the 1930s to improve milk production and currently the breed is considered endangered.
The Zebu cattle are also found in West Africa mainly in the drier regions. Their body conformation resembles the SEAZ. They consist mainly of two groups: The Gudali group represented by two sub-groups (Sokoto with only one breed, and Adamawa with 3 breeds/strains); and the Fulani group (with 6 breeds/strains).
A special characteristic of the Fulani Zebu is the presence of long horns which makes it differ from the typical East African zebu. They are known to have excellent potential as dual-purpose (milk/beef) cattle.
Although Zebu are trypano-susceptible, in the absence of tsetse fly they have higher production levels, attain large body sizes and stronger plough ability compared to the trypanotolerant N’dama cattle and this is slowly leading to genetic erosion of the N’Dama cattle in West Africa due to producer preference of the Zebu which is considered highly valuable .
The Sanga cattle are believed to have first evolved in the East and Northeast Africa as a result of interbreeding of the humpless and Zebu type cattle hence the mixture of features from the Zebu (hump and dewlap) and humpless cattle (long horns and no humps).
The Sanga cattle are sub-divided on the basis of location into the Sanga of Eastern Africa and Sanga of Southern Africa. The sanga of eastern Africa consist of three groups: Nilotic sanga of southern Sudan and south-western Ethiopia; the Abyssinian sanga of Ethiopia and Eritrea; the Ankole group with representatives in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire).
The sanga of southern Africa are represented by six groups: the Shona group (Zimbabwe); the Nguni group; the Zambia/Angola group; the Ovambo and south-western group; the Setswana group; and the Afrikaner group.
In Southern Africa, the Sanga have undergone major breed improvement through well-organized programmes and presence of breed societies. Selective breeding of the Shona, Tuli and Africaner has resulted in local cattle that are highly productive in beef production than exotic beef breeds.
They have also provided the basis for the Commercial Composite breeds of South Africa, namely Drakensberger and Bonsmara. Overall, the Sanga cattle possess tropical beef characteristics and under proper selection strategies and good management condition they are excellent beef producers.
The Zenga cattle type developed as a result of the initial cattle plague (Rinderpest) that wiped out large population of the Sanga cattle in East Africa leaving remnants that were interbred with Zebu cattle introduced from Asia into Africa at various points on the east coast of the continent.
Naturally, the Zenga are localized in eastern Africa, the natural point of contact of the zebu and Sanga populations. The Zenga are mainly used for milk production, meat and draught power.
No breed improvement programmes exist for the Zenga but Ethiopia has taken the initiative to carry out an on-station characterization of the Horro Zenga, which is on-going.