From Jellicut to jallikattu

Only science can ensure commercial viability and protection of indigenous breeds.

January 23, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:26 am IST

With the Tamil Nadu Governor clearing an ordinance on jallikattu , the question is whether the sport will help preserve indigenous breeds of cattle. The proponents of jallikattu say that first, if the sport is banned, owners of indigenous bulls may no longer find it worth preserving the indigenous variants . Second, they say it is the ‘untamed’ bull that is used for breeding and so they may no longer be able to identify the strongest male, as a result of which the stock will weaken.

It is only the Jellicut (identified as Pulikulam) that has been described scientifically (between 1870 and 1930) as a “small bull specially bred for bull-fighting/taming in the Tamil region“, according to the Roslin Institute of the University of Edinburgh. I am unable to identify what breeds are currently used in jallikattu. Again, it is medieval to identify a herd bull through an inefficient method like jallikattu. Better methods to identify a herd bull are by identifying desirable heritable qualities in the animal, ensuring pedigree (purebred or cross-breed), reading expected progeny differences, breeding soundness (ability to get cows pregnant), and semen examination. Alternatives such as artificial insemination should also be considered. A herd book or register should be established.

Accurate and permanent records of individual cows and breeding herds also need to be maintained, even for those cows that are culled and sold, to trace family histories. Herd bulls should also be recorded for health treatments, frame size, testicular size, breeding soundness and identification. Electronic tagging is used to identify individual members of the herd over their life spans. Mating group records help the breeder to check on group fertility and identify issues. These records enable viability of the herd over generations.

Lack of data

There don’t seem to be accurate recorded data for indigenous cattle. The 18th Livestock Census, 2007, enumerates no indigenous variants at all for Tamil Nadu. It lists only Exotic Jersey, Exotic Holstein Friesian, Exotic Other, and Exotic Cross-breeds. On the other hand, the Jharkhand Livestock Census only has data on numerous indigenous cattle by name: Alambadi, Bachaur, Deoni, Gaolao, Jellicut (0), Kangayam (0), etc. However, the 19th Livestock Census of 2012 enumerates indigenous cattle in Tamil Nadu as an unsorted group, and unfortunately so does the Jharkhand Census. Yet again, the breed survey of 2013 estimates the breed-wise population of several indigenous variants.

While breed development has been undertaken in the past in India, little has been done to record and scientifically manage the herd. The 1928 Linlithgow Commission on Indian Agriculture names the Pattagarar of Palayakottai as an example of a breeder whose careful breeding had resulted in the Kangayam breed. However, till date, there is no herd book or register established for the breed, according to the Animal Genetic Resources of India website. Some breeds like the Gir and Ongole have an established herd book. A Jellicut herd book is also not available. Genetic data on livestock is now being maintained in several countries. This data will help enthusiasts and commercial organisations to choose the kind of animal they would like to breed.

Several important considerations determine breeding and herd strategies. The purpose of breeding could be to enhance or maintain existing qualities such as strength for draught work, milking, or carcass quality for beef. Another is to breed animals that would be good breeders. A third is to breed animals that provide good growth to progeny so that the market value of calves is higher. Breeding strategies are also structured to develop new breed lines. Show animals and animals used for sport need special selective breeding strategies.

While it is perfectly natural and desirable to be proud of our native fauna, it is also necessary to supplement, enhance, and improve their viability over generations. Careful cross-breeding improves hybrid vigour and long-term viability of desirable indigenous traits. U.S. servicemen stationed in Italy during World War II discovered that the Italian Chianina was excellent for draught and beef. In 1971, Chianina genetics was introduced in the U.S. with semen import.

Breeders of indigenous varieties should also explore other commercial possibilities like intellectual property rights. Tamil Nadu is yet to explore the lucrative possibilities of protecting livestock-based GIs, as Serbia has done with their Uzicka govedja prsuta (smoked beef ham) and are seeking to do with Kraljevacki kajmak, a milk product.

Enhancement of native breeds

Indian or South Asian breeds of cattle have led to enhancement of native breeds across the world. The American Brahman, the first beef cattle breed developed in the U.S., was bred from a nucleus of approximately 266 bulls and 22 females of four different Bos Indicus varieties: Gir (Gyr), Gujarat (Kankrej), Ongole (Nellore) and Krishna Valley, imported into the U.S. between 1854 and 1926. The Brahman cattle tolerates heat, is resistant to insects, and produces calves even at the age of 15. The Brahman is a root breed for many commercially valuable cattle breeds including the Brangus, created by cross-breeding Brahman and Angus, in the 1950s. The cross-breeding of Brahman bulls with European cows is a popular cross-breeding practice in the U.S.

African Zebu breeds evolved in parallel with Indian variants. It is determined that Zebu were first introduced in around 1,500 BC, crossed with longhorn humpless varieties to produce the Sangas. The Sanga later spread into central and southern Africa. Later around 670 AD, short-horned zebu cattle were introduced via Ethiopia and Somalia. They evolved into stable indigenous breeds like the Red Fulani, White Fulani, Boran and Ankole-Watusi. Zebu have been strengthened with genes from the Gujarat, Ongole and Gir lines.

The Nelore (known as Ongole in India) first arrived in Brazil in 1868. Ten years later, a couple were imported from Hamburg Zoo. In 1938, the Nelore Herd Book was created defining the breed standards. Between 1890 and 1921, it is estimated that over 5,000 Indian specimens were exported to Brazil. In 1960, 20 animals were imported, and in 1962 another 84. These became founders of important Brazilian breeding lines like Godahvari, Karvadi and Taj Mahal. Today, Brazil is also the possessor of 5 million registered pure-bred Nelore.

Science has enhanced the value and strength of Indian native breeds across the globe. For example, sales of Brazilian Nelore semen represent 65 per cent of the artificial insemination market of all beef breeds in Brazil. The leading Nelore sire there produced and sold 34,000 straws of semen in 1995, followed by another Nelore that sold 30,000, which means that both sires must have bred more than 20,000 cows.

While private players Genus ABS India Private Limited and Hanu Reddy Ongoles are developing gene banks and animal resources, it is also important to improve our national data banks. Further, national data banks ought also to hold samples and data of animals around the world. The National Animal Germplasm Program of the U.S. government is a multinational effort in collaboration with Canada and Brazil. They preserve samples from about 25,000 animals around the world — frozen semen, embryos, ovaries, and tissue which can be used to reconstitute livestock populations or simply lend a useful gene to an animal.

Neither chauvinism nor mere goodwill is an alternative to science. Only science can ensure commercial viability and enduring pride in our native breeds.

Swapna Sundar is the founder of IP Dome: IP Strategy Advisors, Chennai.

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