|Little Known Asian Animals With a Promising Economic Future |
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Asia has several domesticated animals about which little is known. Among them are the banteng ("Bali cattle") of Indonesia, the yak of Central Asia's high country, and the mithan of the border region of India, Burma, and Bangladesh.( *The promise of another Asian animal, the water buffalo, is described in companion report no 32. ) Some Asian farmers use domesticated bovine hybrids: the madura (banteng-cattle hybrid) in Indonesia and the yakow (yak-cattle hybrid) in Central Asia. In addition, domesticated forms of at least two Asian pig species (the Indonesian wild boar and the Sulawesi warty pig) are important husbandry animals in parts of Indonesia.
Among Asia's undomesticated animals are five interesting and potentially valuable species of wild bovines: the kouprey in Thailand, Laos, and Kampuchea; the gaur in India and much of Southeast Asia; two species of anoas in Indonesia; and the tamaraw in the Philippines. There are also three species of undomesticated Asian pigs: the bearded pig, the Javan warty pig and pigmy hog. Perhaps the strangest Asian animal of all is the babirusa, a piglike species of eastern Indonesia that may be a rudimentary ruminant.
Many of these animals are either threatened or endangered species, and some will soon be extinct unless scientists, governments, and resource managers take forceful action to preserve them. Scientific management and a better understanding of the animals themselves is required.
An important need is to investigate their potential as livestock resources. All seem to be disease resistant and well adapted to difficult natural conditions. Some will interbreed with conventional livestock and might thereby pass on important characters to hybrid progeny. A few of the wild species are ancestors of domestic livestock and could be important genetic reservoirs for maintaining or improving the quality of their domestic descendants. Others may make useful new domesticates.
Appreciation of their potential in the long-term for the world's agricultural development could create a momentum for the protection, preservation, and greater use of these little-known animals.
In the past, many thought that the best way to raise animal productivity in tropical developing countries was to introduce high-performing breeds from temperate industrialized areas. The fact that the exotic animals were much more productive than local stock made this seem very appealing. But many such importations ended in failure when the animals either quickly died or their growth or reproduction rates declined so drastically that the herds dwindled away or became uneconomic. These introductions had been made without adequate consideration of the local environment that was expected to support the imported animal.
More recently, some animal scientists have decried the idea of wholesale importing of temperate-zone livestock into tropical countries without also evaluating the indigenous livestock. In many cases the local animals' apparent poor performance results not from their lack of genetic potential, but from inadequate feeding, breeding, selection, management, and health care.
Until an objective evaluation of particular indigenous breeds is undertaken, governments should regard local animals as vitally important for the long-term development of their domestic livestock industries.
To achieve an agriculture that is compatible with nature, we should try to raise an animal as much as possible within its own natural environment. Indigenous species are necessarily well adapted to their surroundings and have survival qualities that imported livestock often lack. They generally select food, either graze or browse, better than foreign species and can therefore exploit the habitat more efficiently and live within it more harmoniously.
But most of the livestock species the world depends on today are best adapted to temperate conditions. This is because Stone Age peoples in what today are Europe, the Middle East, and eastern China domesticated the prototypes of agricultural animals that were available in those places. The world's best-known breeds of cattle, wool sheep, and horses, for example, usually perform well in temperate regions and poorly in the tropics.
The species described in this report offer promise as new and important alternative livestock resources for tropical regions.
It seems likely that modern technology will substantially improve our ability to use new species and breeds of livestock. One of the most encouraging of the new biotechnology techniques is embryo transplantation. In this process multiple eggs (produced by hormonally stimulating female animals) are fertilized and transplanted to other female animals. The hormonal cycles of the donor and receiving animals are synchronized so that a pregnancy results.
This technique is widely used to transfer embryos between cattle, but researchers are now exploring transfers between different species and even between different genera. In 1981, for example, animal scientists at the New York Zoological Garden transplanted a fertilized gaur ovum into a Holstein cow, which carried the gaur calf to term. Now veterinarians at the University of Florida are attempting to transplant water buffalo embryos into both zebu and Holstein-Friesian cattle, and vice versa. If such pioneering work can become everyday practice, it will open possibilities of using common livestock to raise rare animals.
Moreover, because embryos are thought to be free of many diseases, their shipment between nations may soon be permitted without elaborate quarantine precautions. Methods for freezing embryos have been worked out so that the tiny bundles of cells can be air freighted inexpensively in small, insulated containers. This may make animals such as those discussed in this report available to Africans, Latin Americans, North Americans, and Europeans. It may vastly simplify the worldwide exchange of animal genetic material and become the animal counterpart of exchanging seeds.
An additional benefit of embryo transplants is that the surrogate mother's placental blood supply provides the fetus with natural immunity to some local diseases, thus perhaps reducing one of the most serious causes of failure when exotic animals are introduced to new environments. And at Utah State University it has been noted that raising wildsheep embryos in domestic ewes produces lambs that are more docile than if they were raised by their biological mothers. Embryo transplants may be a small step toward domesticating new animals.
With these possibilities on the horizon, it becomes even more important that all countries preserve their indigenous animals. The rest of this report suggests and discusses Asian species for protection and study.