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A Pastoral Elegy

Contrary to popular belief, indigenous breeds are a sturdier option than disease-prone crossbreds

A Pastoral Elegy
A Pastoral Elegy
Raising Them At Home
  • Goat: The hardy black Attapady, dubbed the "poor man’s cow"
  • Sheep: The ginger Garole, with its propensity for breeding twins
  • Horse: The sickle-eared Marwari horse, coveted abroad for its show-jumping and endurance.
  • Cow: The Ongole breed, the model for numerous carved Nandi bulls, and the Kankrej, familiar to us as the cow on the Harappan seals from the Indus Valley, the Amrit Mahals, used by Tipu Sultan’s army to pull their gun carriage
  • Buffalo: The massive Jaffrabadi buffalo, whose trumpet-like horns keep lions at bay
  • Dog: The regal white Rajapalayam, the Indian Great Dane, and Kombai, the Indian bear hound, who bit at the hamstrings of horses of the British cavalry in the Poligar Wars


There are a few sights that Dr Asimabha Batobyal, a scientist with the central government’s animal husbandry department, will never forget in his lifetime. Topping the list is the elephantine Jaffrabadi buffalo whose wildly flailing horns he saw caught between two trees in a village in Gujarat. "It was built like a tank, it was stuck, and it was charging ahead," he recalls, "It didn’t even think of moving its head sideways—typical buffalo IQ!" But the Jaffrabadi’s Schwarzenegger-like unthinking brute force is actually its usp for villagers living near the Gir forest, who let these huge creatures loose on marauding Asiatic lions.

The garole sheep is in demand. A prolific producer of twins, it’s gene has been added to the new Merino sheep.

This buffalo is among over a hundred distinct breeds of indigenous animals that India is home to, all named after the regions and districts whose climate and vegetation they have adapted to—often with extremely useful results. Some we instantly recognise, even if we can’t put a name to them, like the statuesque Ongole cow breed from Andhra, inspiration for numerous carved Nandi bulls in temples, or Gujarat’s Kankrej, the cow on the Harappan seals from the Indus Valley. Others, like the Garole sheep, the Ghungroo pig and the Attapady goat are more anonymous, but perform sterling service in the rural communities they belong to.

Assam’s Ghungroo pig, less disease-prone and equally succulent, is losing out to the white pasty Yorkshire breed.

A recent Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report tells of 30 distinct, documented breeds of Indian cattle, 10 breeds of buffalo, 40 breeds of sheep, 20 breeds of goat, 18 breeds of poultry, nine breeds of camel, and six breeds of horse. What’s more, the world’s first dog is said to have been domesticated here during the Mesolithic period, making our trusty native hounds the forebears of all the canines in the world.

As breeds come about by geographic isolation, it is our vast range of landscapes and habitats that has produced this untold wealth. Unfortunately, it is a wealth we are squandering. Take cattle, for example. For the past few decades, the government has been aggressively pushing exotic crossbreeds for their supposed high yields, which has been disastrous for the survival of indigenous breeds. In his book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, P. Sainath relates the story of a Rs 4-crore ‘rural uplift’ programme implemented in Orissa in the ’80s, in which local cattle were impregnated with the semen of the legendary English Jersey cow. To prevent the strain from "dilution", local bulls were ruthlessly castrated. The result? Eight sickly crossbred calves were born and died in quick succession, villagers lost their livelihood and means of sustenance, and were forced to migrate. And the majestic Khariar cow died out in the region.

Black Beauty: The princely Marwari horse, popular for show-jumping

This reproductive theatre of the absurd is being repeated all over the country, and not just with cows. For short-term profitability, indigenous breeds are being supplanted by exotic, homogenised—and inevitably inbred—ones. The pasty white Yorkshire pig is being favoured over our equally succulent, less disease-prone dark breeds, such as Assam’s grey, hairy-necked Ghungroo and the Doom. In poultry farms too the stringy White Leghorn chicken is swiftly overtaking our lustrous black Kadaknath and bellicose Aseel.

Only Indians seem to be blind to the attractions of their indigenous breeds. Foreign breeders from Europe to South America and the Antipodes have been smuggling out our prized livestock, or at least its frozen sperm. At home, we may disregard the charms of the "dual-purpose" Ongole cow (used as draught animal and for milk), but it is today a star in Brazil, featuring in Brazilian trade magazines, and being pimped out to local heifers. The woolly ginger Garole sheep is equally in demand abroad. This grazer in the saline waters of the Sunderbans is a prolific producer of twins, and this gene has been incorporated into a new super-replicating breed of Australia’s famed Merino sheep.

Alarmed at these trends, Indian scientists were able to get nearly Rs 9 crore earmarked in the 10th Five Year Plan for the conservation of threatened indigenous breeds. But money is not enough—they cannot survive without a mindset change. Batobyal recalls how a newly arrived senior bureaucrat in his department asked him, incredulously, why indigenous breeds were needed when crossbred animals yielded so much more. He took her to meet a lady tending 20 Gir cows in a village near Ajmer. When the official pointed out that four crossbreds could have produced the same amount of milk, the lady, Batobyal reports, laughed and said: "You clearly don’t have a crossbred cow of your own, or else you’d never ask me this question! Crossbreds are fussy about food, they want it served up to them, and refuse to do any work!"

In addition, they’re near-impossible to acclimatise to extreme heat, have difficulties reproducing and are prone to disease. Asks Batobyal, "Have you seen what happens to a Holsten Friesen from Denmark when you put it out in the heat? Almost immediately, it begins to heave its large barrel and pant—it’s an unbearable sight!" Clearly, it is misguided to think of crossbreds as walking vats of milk. In a new, unfamiliar production environment, a heat-struck, stressed-out cow isn’t likely to produce anything more than a dolorous moo.

Luckily, there is a counter-current to this disastrous drive for poverty-generating, breed-depleting cross-breeding. One of its foremost examples is the work done by Sosamma Iype’s Vechur Conservation Trust in Kerala. Twenty years ago, the Vechur—a dwarf breed of cattle which produces epic quantities of milk despite being the smallest cow in the world—was nearly crossbred out of circulation. After scouring the state, Sosamma and her students at the Kerala Agricultural University managed to round up eight Vechurs. Today, there are 700 Vechurs, and local farmers can’t get enough of them. "At the university, we fixed their price at Rs 6,000," says Sosamma. "But outside, people are willing to pay Rs 25,000 for a Vechur because it is seen as rare and scarce, easily yields eight lactations, and isn’t prone to udder infections!"

That’s what makes conservation programmes like this one a sustainable success: they actually involve the owners of the animals, unlike government initiatives that sequester a herd of animals in a musty zoo for research, or are based on top-down policies framed by officials whose pen-pushing fingers have never so much as grazed an udder. Points out Sosamma, "In our country, production is by the masses, it’s not mass production. That’s why it’s important for us to come back to our indigenous animals. Those crossbred animals never survive."

Our native dogs could use the services of an imaginative conservation effort. Most of them are hounds, bred by kings to accompany them on hunts, or ‘dogs of war’, as in the case of the slender Rajapalayam and Indian bear hound Kombai. During the 18th and 19th century Poligar wars, between the British and Tamil rulers, these breeds were sneaked into the stables of the British cavalry, where they bit the horses’ hamstrings and incapacitated them.

Today, with hunting banned, and dogs reduced to coddled pets or fierce guards—functions that the Rajapalayam, Mudhol and Rampur Hound, and Kombai are ill fit for—these breeds are rapidly becoming rare. Chennai-based C.V. Sudarshan, secretary of the Kennel Club of India, has tried to revive five Indian breeds but his venture has never taken off. "They scale walls, they’re impossible to domesticate, they break out, and get run over," Sudarshan says. "As pack animals, they also tend to bay, which is considered a bad omen." He ought to know: his attempt to keep a pair of Rajapalayam pups was thwarted by irate neighbours, who didn’t take kindly to the hounds’ habitual howling at daybreak.

Every dog still has his day, and the desi hound’s day is the dog show in Chennai. Here, Rajapalayams and Kombais parade, lean and alert, their springy tails held jauntily high. Unfortunately, there’s no such day to celebrate our other indigenous livestock. There used to be a Gopal Ratna milk yield competition, with indigenous cattle competing, but it was discontinued two decades ago; a telling symptom of their neglect. Perhaps it’s time to reinstate it, and with it, our pride in indigenous animals.

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