The history of the Ankole-Watusi breed is long and distinguished. Its lineage can be traced to 4000 B.C., before the first pharaohs ruled Egypt, when a breed known as the Hamitic Longhorn lived along the Nile. Over the next 2,000 years, those Egyptian cattle found their way south through Ethiopia and into Southern Africa. Around 2000 B.C., Zebu cattle migrated to Africa from the Indian subcontinent and bred with the indigenous Egyptian Longhorns.
That interbreeding resulted in the Sanga, a breed that spread throughout the eastern regions of Africa into areas that encompass the Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. The Sanga became the ancestor of many of the breeds that are now found throughout Africa. When it first appeared, the Sanga retained the features characteristic of its Zebu heritage, including upturned horns, neck hump and pendulous dewlap, but different local breeding practices have led to significant variety among its descendants.
Among the indigenous breeds, the Ankole-Watusi cattle, developed in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, are truly distinctive. They are known around the world for majestic horns that can grow to six feet in length in flat, circular or lyre shapes. Those horns not only provide formidable defense against predators, but blood circulating through them provides an efficient mechanism to cool the animal in a notoriously hot climate.
The Ankole-Watusi are medium-sized cattle, with bulls weighing up to 1,600 pounds and cows up to 1,200 pounds, standing approximately six feet tall at the shoulder. Calves rarely weigh more than 50 pounds at birth and grow relatively slowly, reaching sexual maturity at 18 months of age. The breed can cope with a scarcity of forage and is unusually social. A herd spends the night in a group, with calves in the center of a ring of protecting adults. Traditionally, the Ankole-Watusi served almost exclusively as milk animals and were rarely used for meat, since wealth was measured in living head of cattle. The breed was regarded in some areas as sacred, with those animals with the longest horns reserved for royalty.
Despite its historic use for milk production, the breed is not a prolific producer. Traditional herdsmen would put the cattle out to graze for the day and bring in the herd when evening fell. Calves were allowed to suckle so that milk was let down, but feeding was then interrupted and the cow milked by hand, whereupon the calf was allowed to continue. A typical cow produces only two pints of milk per day, however, and the survival rate of calves raised in this traditional manner is quite low.
The breed does offer some advantages despite its low milk production. The milk itself has a relatively high content of ten per cent butterfat and breeders have introduced Ankole-Watusi blood to herds in order to improve this characteristic. The breed's low birth weight means that an Ankole-Watusi sire is sometimes preferred for heifers who have not yet calved.
In 1929, Christoph Schulz and his son Walter brought the first Ankole-Watusi to Europe, where they were exhibited in a Leipzig zoo, and further shipments followed through the 1930s. The breed made its first appearance in the United States in 1960, when the Copenhagen Zoo sent three bulls to the Catskill Game Farm in New York, followed in 1963 by the first cow.
While the Ankole-Watusi have been endangered in the past, their numbers have grown through the efforts of private breeders and, especially in Uganda, a degree of government assistance. Their ultimate fate in their native land is uncertain, however, as local farmers turn to breeds like the Holstein that can yield 25 times the milk of an Ankole-Watusi each day. For a subsistence farmer in Africa, the breed's cultural resonance and its adaptation to local conditions can be a difficult trade-off against the immediate returns offered by foreign imports.
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