I have just returned from the most amazing trip tracking some of India’s traditional breeds in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Thanks to the efforts and enthusiasm of several of my friends and colleagues in the LIFE Network I was able to meet with a wide variety of livestock keepers – nomadic, semi-nomadic, settled; male, female; poor and affluent; young and old; landless and land-owning – who all shared a tremendous passion and pride in their breeds. This trip has filled me with hope, even conviction, that India’s long ignored local breeds will survive and thrive, even as socio-economic patterns evolve, because they are developing new utilities as providers of organic manure, healthy milk and even companionship.
In Tamil Nadu, Karthikeya Sivasennapatty and other member of the Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation www.kangayambull.com introduced me to the Kangayam draft cattle breed that is kept by the Gounder community and linked with the Korangadu pasture, a traditional sylvipastoral system enclosed by a live fence. The Kangayam cattle was traditionally used for lifting water, ploughing, and pulling carts, but its future importance may well lie in providing organic manure and in milk for health conscious families.
The breed has ritual significance and it is used for the game or sport of jellikut, a type of bull wrestling contest that can mean both fame and money for successful participants (although also death). Traditionally a girl is given a cow and a calf by her parents when she gets married and moves to her in-laws and surprisingly, this custom is still prevalent, even if the girl is highly educated.
The Kangayam Foundation is doing a yeoman’s job of promoting the breed by organising shows and motivating the traditional breeders. This is having an effect on local politicians and policy makers – a brochure about the newly created district of Trissur, devotes a whole page to describing the Kangyam cattle as local heritage.
Bargur Hill Cattle
From the Kangayam breeding tract in the plains, we ventured into the MM Hills to meet the Lingayat that have been stewarding the Bargur hill cattle breed for centuries. For this leg of my trip I was accompanied by Mr. Vivekanandan of the NGO SEVA and by a young lawyer, Mr. E.N. Sivasenapatty who is the Secretary of the Bargur Hill Cattle Breeders Association.
This is a densely forested area full with wildlife, including elephants and large cats, and the Bargur cattle with its coat colour resembling a spotted dear is part of the eco-sysem. The traditional system is for them to be kept in the forest for about 7-9 months, and near the village or the rest of the time. For this purpose they have received a grazing and penning permit from the Forest Department since time immemorial. However, this year, the penning permits have been cancelled and there is great worry and concern among the community how they will be able to sustain their cattle. Fortunately, the Lingayat recently established a Biocultural protocol about their role in biodiversity conservation that refers to the various laws. Now is the time to see, whether such rights are actually invocable and implemented.
Coimbatore and Mecheri Sheep
Next, Dr. Kandasamy, a retired professor from Tamil Nadu Veterinary University and animal breeding expert took over the baton and introduced me to Coimbatore sheep which are kept by the Kurumba in totally migratory systems. While the women stay in the village, the men take the flocks to graze on harvested fields of paddy and other crops. In the night they are penned in the fields, and the land owners pay for this service. The Coimbatore sheep is a wool breed, but now wool prodution is no longer remunerative. The women have all but given up the practice of weaving kamblis, allthough the older women still have the skills and occassionally weave on order. The younger women however all work in the textile factories of Coimbatore.
While the population of Coimbatore sheep has declined, the Mecheri sheep, a hair breed is thriving. It is excellently adapted to the Korangadu pastures and provides reliable income to poor and uneducated people – many of them women – due to the booming meat market. Of course, raising Mecheri sheep is dependent on the survival of the Korangadu pastures. Dr. Kandasamy expects that rising property values may put much of the extremely biodiverse Korangadu – which are basically a community conserved areas – under pressure.
Kerala is an extremely fertile area and for 50 years cross-breeding has been promoted heavily. This had led to the virtual extinction of the local Vechur cow, an animal that is only about 90 cm high, by the late 1980s. At this point in time, Prof. Sosamma Iype and a dedicated team of students stepped in for a systematic rescue effort. They scouted all over the state, eventually locating about 30 animals and then started multiplying them. Now the population is back to about 1500 head and this small cow has carved out a niche for itself in the increasingly popular zero-input farming. It is kept by highly educated families in their backyard to provide manure for growing household vegetables and for milk. More information is available at www.vechur.org.
The Vechur conservation Trust has expanded its labours to save Kerala’s other indigenous breeds as well. Among these are the Ankamali pig, the Malabari and Attapady goats, the Kasargod cattle, and the Kuttanadu ducks which are also kept in migratory systems. As I could see for myself, and have detailed in an upcoming article, all these breeds are a boon to landless and peri-urban livestock keepers, especially women. Why cross-breed, if there is such perfectly adapted bio-cultural bounty is already available?