Domestic animal diversity in danger

Posted: 10 May 2001

Every week the world loses two breeds of its valuable domestic animal diversity, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports.

"In the past 100 years we have already lost about 1,000 breeds. Our new findings show that domestic animal breeds continue to be in danger: one-third are currently at risk of being extinct," said Keith Hammond, Senior Officer of FAO's Animal Genetic Resources Group.

Of 6,379 breeds of 30 mammalian and bird species, population data is available for 4,183 breeds of which 740 are already extinct and 1,335 or 32 per cent are classified at high risk of loss and are threatened by extinction.

Commenting on the publication of the 3rd edition of the World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity, co-published in March 2001 with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP, he said these were conservative figures:

"Since 1995, the number of mammalian breeds at risk of extinction has risen from 23 to 35 per cent, as countries have extended their surveys and updated their animal genetic resources data. The situation with bird breeds is even more serious. Alarmingly, without adequate action, a large number of domestic animal breeds at risk of extinction (2,255 breeds) could be lost within the next two decades."

Domestic animal diversity is unique and cannot be replaced, Hammond said. "As much as novel biotechnology may attempt to improve breeds, it is not possible to replace lost diversity. Loss of diversity is forever."

Threat to diversity

The greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries, which leads to cross-breeding or even replacement of local breeds. The problem, however, is that these animals are mainly suited to the conditions of the country they come from and they have difficulty coping with the often harsh environment of developing countries.

"We estimate that 4,000 of the world's remaining breeds are still popular with farmers, but only about 400 are the subject of breeding programmes - almost all of them in developed countries," Hammond said. "The often difficult environments in developing countries, with very hot, dry and humid climates, require particular types of animal genetic resources, that are adapted to them." Genetic diversity is an insurance against future challenges and threats such as famine, drought and epidemics and may contain valuable, but unknown resources that could be essential for the future, he added.

Among breeds at risk are the Renitelo cattle in Madagascar now nearly extinct. It is particularly well adapted to the different climate zones in Madagascar and provides meat and draught power. In Mexico, the Chiapas sheep has been reared for almost 500 years in the highlands of the State of Chiapas. Indigenous women produce wool for their clothing and for sale. Sheep are considered sacred, and people do not consume lamb or mutton. In Vietnam for many years, the H'Mong cattle have been kept isolated but is now under threat. The breed is very well adapted to mountain regions up to 3,000 metres. The current population is estimated at 14,000 cattle. In Europe, the German sheep Rauhwolliges Pommersches Landschaf is endangered. It is well adapted to marginal lands. Around 1,600 animals are remaining. In the Russian Federation, the Yakut cattle can tolerate temperatures as low as -60°C. Its numbers are estimated to be less than 1,000.

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The English version of the FAO/UNEP World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity is available to download.