To say that Ankole cattle are in the spotlight right now, might be a bit of an understatement. They are strikingly majestic, a favourite breed of South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, and regularly sell for stunning prices when they go on auction. But what is it that makes Ankole so sought after?
Martin Kyle Joubert, from the Ankole Society of South Africa, explains why the animals are so highly valued. He says that, in South Africa, there are only about 800 Ankole cattle and that international numbers are dropping at an alarming rate.
“What’s alarming is their drastically dropping international numbers, especially in Uganda where Ankole are from. This is due to relentless slaughter and crossbreeding. They are [expected] to become extinct in Africa in less than 20 years if nothing is done to save them.”
Joubert explains that there is a high demand for Ankole across various markets, and that the animal is what is considered a multipurpose breed.
“The saying that’s associated with the breed is that they have beauty with purpose, and that sums them up quite well.”
Joubert sat down with Food for Mzansi to unpack exactly why Ankole cattle are so highly prized.
You mentioned before that South Africa has a rather small population of Ankole cattle. Why are more farmers not importing the animals?
It’s extremely costly as well as risky to get the genetics from Uganda to South Africa. This is what a lot of people don’t realise. It can cost millions and take years, and you can still end up having nothing.
Can you outline the importing process for us?
It can only be done through an embryo process. For example, you have to send the Ankole genetics you want to bring to South Africa from Uganda to Kenya first. This is because the only embryo centre that’s able to bring the genetics to South Africa is in Kenya, and that trip alone is very difficult. We’ve done it ourselves, a few years back, and we’re still waiting for the genetics to come in, five years later, after extremely high costs and high risk.
The animals the embryos come from have to stay in Kenya for six months and have to survive on a Big Five game reserve while they are flushed for embryos. They go through a battery of tests to make sure those embryos are clean and free of any diseases. That also costs a lot of money.
What stops a farmer from bringing a live animal into the country?
They have to come down through the embryo process because that’s the safest way to bring those genetics here without bringing diseases into South Africa. It’s impossible to bring live animals from other African countries as our regulations do not allow it.
What are the characteristics of Ankole that make the breed so special?
Many breeds are formed predominantly for milk and beef, and that’s where the individual breeds sell. There are a few breeds that are dual purpose, but Ankole is one of the very few multipurpose breeds. They have good beef production for true African cattle and have very rich milk. The third facet of their use is ecotourism, which [makes it]unlike any other breed. In Kenya and Uganda, they are as popular as the mountain gorilla and the Big Five game for international tourists.
Also, what really stands out amongst an array of characteristic traits is their longevity, their hardiness, and their tolerance. They’re so hardy that they are often kept on game reserves with wildlife and seldom need to be dipped. And they need very little inputs.
Their longevity is absolutely outstanding. It’s almost double what you find with other cattle. They can live up to 30 years with over 25 calves produced by one female. These are statistics from Uganda. Their hardiness, heat tolerance and their resistance to internal and external parasites are unparalleled.
Ankole have very distinctive horns. Can you tell us a bit about them?
Their horns are very high-value by-products and, in the US, sell for over $2 000 per horn. It’s a very malleable horn product that can be moulded into shape when heated without breaking or cracking, and is very durable.
Their horns actually have a multitude of functions, like heat regulation, and are honeycombed inside. They are partially hollow and blood regulates through these honeycombs in the heat of the day where it is cooled, almost like in a radiator. And then the blood is brought into the animal’s system, cooling it too.
Their horns also serve them in fighting and defence. That’s why they can be kept on Big Five game reserves with predators. And they actually enable the cattle to browse in times of drought. For example, [I’ve seen] a bull going up to a tree and breaking the branches to allow the leaves to hang lower for his herd so they can feed.
Finally, what should a potential Ankole buyer look for in an animal they want to purchase?
The animal must be DNA-verified and registered as a full blood with the Ankole Society of South Africa. This means each ancestor in the pedigree or family tree is matched back to pure Ugandan Ankole.
This is very important as it’s essential to preserve the genetic integrity of the breed. The animals must be true to Ankole type and inspected by officials at the Ankole Society.
Horn size, the whiteness of the horn and the shape of the horn, coat colour, pedigree, growth performance, body capacity … those are good examples of what buyers of cattle should look at in general. Fertility, functionality, and production are very important traits that one would look for when selecting Ankole.
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