Ankole Longhorn Cattle
Bos indicus/Bos taurus
by Jay Sharp
Ankole longhorn cattle, an "intermediate breed" of central and eastern Africa, lie at the heart of the culture and subsistence of the pastoralists of the region, especially in western and southwestern Uganda. "Our status is rated by the number and beauty of cattle one possesses," said Elizabeth Katushabe, writing for the Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa.
Characteristics of Ankole Longhorn Cattle
Ankole longhorns, says the Ankole Watusi International Registry (AWIR), "should appear elegant, well-bred, and graceful." The cattle are distinguished by their massive whitish horns and, preferably, solid dark reddish brown coats. Some -- less desirable -- animals have white and reddish brown or even spotted white coats.
The Horns: Ideally, the animal's horns rise from a large base, and they taper symmetrically to a point, describing a lyre shape as they rise above the head. They may measure six to eight feet in length, giving the animal its common name. The horns serve for defense, and with a honeycombed structure and many blood vessels, they help -- almost like a radiator -- to provide a measure of thermoregulation in the animal's harsh environment.
Body and Weight: Typically, a well-bread Ankole longhorn has a straight-backed, lean body with relatively long legs. It may have a small neck hump. Its body measures some six feet in length and four feet in height at the shoulder. According to the AWIR, a bull usually weighs 1000 to 1600 pounds, and the cow, 900 to 1200 pounds.
Head and Neck: Given its immense horns, the Ankole longhorn has a relatively small head and face. Its neck has a pendulous dewlap.
Communication: Said Katushabe, the Ankole longhorns "have a beautiful 'moo' (i.e., they have a nice sound)." When called by name, they often moo and come to the caller.
The Ankole longhorn "is an ancient breed belonging to the Sanga group of cattle," said the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. The Sanga group apparently descended from east African and Indian breeds that cross bred and drifted into eastern and central Africa, possibly driven southward by nomadic herders several thousand years ago. "The migration was not easy," said the Nguni Cattle Breeders Association of Namibia, "as they had to cross the most cattle-diseased affected areas in the world." As the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations said, the Ankole longhorn, "having been developed mainly through natural selection, [has] the ability to survive and reproduce under the climatic stresses of the wooded savannah of south-western Uganda and the surrounding areas where diseases and parasites are prevalent."
Given their hardiness, the Ankole longhorns can survive with relatively sparse grass and shrub pasturage and limited water. "This has enabled cattle keepers to utilise this bovine resource under a low input production environment for food and agriculture," said the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
"We care for our cattle with love and affection," said Katushabe. Herdsmen -- usually men over 15 years old -- drive their Ankole longhorns from corrals to pasture lands early in the morning. Through the day, they guard the animals from overly aggressive herd members, intruding livestock, predators and thieves. They water their animals about mid-day, more often if needed, often using troughs made from mud taken from an ant hill. They groom their livestock frequently, provide salt licks and maintain corrals. They tend to the pregnant, sick, lame, young and old. In cold weather, they may build fires from animal dung to provide warmth in corrals and near watering sites. They medicate their cattle preventatively and curatively, using both traditional and modern treatments. They milk lactating cows in early morning and late evening.
Preparing for the breeding season -- normally February and March, or between the wet and dry seasons -- "We select our cattle in order to get offspring of the same colour or pattern since these would look beautiful..." said Katushabe. The Ankole longhorn cow's gestation period extends for about nine months, and she usually delivers a single calf that weighs 30 to 50 pounds. In a lifetime, she may, if strong and healthy, deliver 10 to 20 calves. Although mortality for calves is comparatively high, an Ankole longhorn that reaches maturity may live for 20 or 30 years.
Over the millennia, the pastoralists and the Ankole longhorn have forged a social and economic relationship that anthropologists describe as "cattle complex," which is defined as "an extensive ritual usage of cattle with an emotional attachment to or identification with cattle," said the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna.
The pastoralists, said Katushabe, have made their longhorns an integral part of their lives. They use their livestock to strengthen human relationships, for example, giving the animals as gifts, dowry or compensation. They sell the animals, using the proceeds to fund education for their children. They use the longhorn as a food source, drinking the high-fat-content milk and eating the low-cholesterol meat. They make bread and gravy from its blood. They look to the animal as a source of income, using the hides, for instance, in fabricating products such as shoes, clothing, bags and drums; and the horns in crafting ornaments, pipes, buttons, trumpets and violins. They use its dung to fertilize pastures and fields. They look to the longhorn as a source of medicines and medical instruments, using, for instance a mixture of its milk and urine to treat coughs and fevers; its dung for making casts, curing measles, and reducing a baby's stomach pain; its hooves, boiled, for treating joint pain; its horns for fashioning medical tools. They hold community meetings around their longhorns' corrals, often praising their livestock in poetry.
"Since we love our cattle very much," said Katushabe, "they in turn love us..."
Over the past decade, the Ankole longhorn cattle population has fallen. It has lost pasturage as human populations multiply and obnoxious invasive grasses spread. Its economic value has declined, primarily because of its relatively low milk production. It has been crossbred with other breeds, especially Holsteins, in an attempt to enhance value by increasing milk production. (A Holstein cow may produce 25 times more milk than an Ankole longhorn cow.) "Some of us are pessimistic," said Katushabe, "that the Ankole cattle may [become] extinct," although others are hopeful that the smaller population will drive prices higher.
According to legend, the beneficent king "Omugabae" Nyabugarobwera Nitarel, alarmed that the Ankole longhorn had become extinct during his reign, fired a magic arrow into the air, causing rain to fall for four days. On the fifth day, the rain stopped, and his people found their homes full of the cattle.
The pastoralists use their cattle's urine to clean containers used for churning milk and for storing and drinking yogurt. Some stir the urine with milk, using the mix as a laxative. Others use a urine and herb blend as a mouthwash.
In some areas, the pastoralists regard Ankole longhorns as sacred, with the elites holding claim to those with the longest horns.
Katushabe says that the Ankole longhorn can now be found "all over the world," for example, in zoos in Europe and the United States.
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