How pastoralism and biodiversity go together…and why we are mapping pastoralists !

Buffaloes and birdlife at Chillika Lake in Odisha (India)

On 22 May, the International Day of Biological Diversity, we must recall that food production is the world’s worst enemy of biodiversity. When we cultivate crops, we replace native plant assemblages with monocultures and, in order to protect them, usually apply rounds of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizer. This cocktail eliminates the micro-organisms and insects at the bottom of the food chain, depleting amphibia, reptiles, birds, and mammals, eventually leading to sterile landscapes.

Pastoralism is the only exception from this predominant model of fulfilling our nutritional needs: the natural plant cover is not removed and herd animals directly convert biodiversity into edibles, circumventing all the toxic and carbon-intensive steps involved in most crop production. It is based on natural biological processes and is powered by the sun. Because of the absence of un-natural inputs, pastoral areas are the original ‘lands of milk and honey’.

Raika sheep flock at the edge of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary

Areas where pastoralists roam are often picked for setting up wildlife sanctuaries or national parks. This is no accident.  In the absence of crop cultivation, biodiversity thrives.  “If you have pastoralists, you do not need a national park” emphasizes Jesus Garzon-Heydt, one of Spain’s most prominent conservationists.  He is one of the movers and shakers behind the revival of Spain’s transhumance and its ancient drove roads, the Cañadas.  In medieval Spain, a network of drove roads was established by royal decree that facilitated the semi-annual movement of five million sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and horses between their winter quarters in the southern and coastal lowlands to summer pastures in the mountainous areas of the north. The Cañadas were up to 75 meters wide, with a total length of around 125,000 km and covering a surface of more than 420,000 hectares of common property, equivalent to 1% of Spain’s total area. This pastureland buzzes with biodiversity in terms of plants, butterflies, and beetles. Vultures made a comeback when transhumance was revived[i].

Research on Spain’s transhumant sheep also led to another important ecological discovery: The role of migratory livestock as “seed taxis”. Sheep transport thousands of seeds over hundreds of kilometres in their fleece[ii]. With changing climates, this can be an important vehicle for plants to move into new areas that fit their requirements and thereby prevent their extinction. Besides seeds, sheep can also carry lizards, beetles and grasshoppers, aiding their movement to new biotopes and adaptation to a changing biome during climate change. In Germany sheep were found to redistribute up to 8500 seeds from 57 species[iii]. The monetary value of the seed transportation services of a flock of sheep amounted to some 4500 EURO for a 200 head flock.

It is important to document the relationship between pastoralists and biodiversity. ‘Community Protocols’ are a tool promoted by the Convention on Biological Diversity to do this. This guide can be downloaded here http://www.pastoralpeoples.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Community-protocols-web.pdf

Sheep don’t just do this by default and the nature of their wooliness, some herders make conscious efforts to disperse the seeds of preferred plants. Pastoralists in the Islamic Republic of Iran pack seeds in little bags and hang these around the necks of their sheep. During grazing the seeds drop out through little holes in the bags and are worked into to the ground by the sheep’s hooves[iv].

It is not just that livestock transport seeds, they also aid their germination through scarification. ‘Scarification’ has nothing to do with tattoos, but is a botanical term that refers to weakening the coat of a seed, so that it can break up and germinate. Many acacia trees, for instance, have very hard seed coats and their seeds need to pass through the stomach of a ruminant in order to be able to sprout. After they have scarified the seeds, livestock also conveniently trample them into the ground like a forest gardener.

‘Trampling’ has other ecological effects as well, mostly positive, although it all depends on the intensity and the context. The depressions left by hooves fill with water and become mini-habitats for insects and amphibians, which then provide food for all kinds of birds and mammals. And here we come to the general role of grazing animals at the bottom of the food chain. Their droppings are powerful incubators for a huge diversity of beetles and buzzing insects that not only feed populations of insectivorous birds, bats and reptiles, but also break down the manure into its constituents that feed soil bacteria and loosen up the soil. The presence or absence of grazing animals in a landscape makes a huge difference to its biodiversity.

Researchers in Germany have concluded that mechanical mowing of meadows has a disastrous effect on insects, killing up to 80% of cicadas, for instance.  They see it as a one of the major factors in the dramatic loss of insect, bird, amphibian and reptile populations.that the country has experienced.[v] This is one of the reasons why ‘grazing’ is the country’s most popular nature conservation strategy and shepherds make more of their income from conservation activities than the sale of products.

Why mapping pastoralism?

Yet, livestock has turned into a bogeyman and is blamed for .many of our planetary problems. Meat is projected as the world’s biggest environmental ill. There is truth in these accusations, but they do not pertain to pastoralism which works on different principles than intensive ways of livestock production. So it is crucial that we make the distinction clear and draw attention to the potential of pastoralism for the ‘nature positive production‘ that is so prominently envisioned in the context of the International Food System Summit. By mapping pastoralism we can visualize the extent of already existing ‘nature positive production’ and that we need to support these systems and communities if we want to put our planet on a more sustainable trajectory. On 25th May, at 2 p.m. CEST, there will be an introduction to this crowd-sourced mapping project for which you can still register here.

‘Mapping Pastoralists’ is a project of the League for Pastoral Peoples and its partners. It is very much work in progress that depends on help and information from the ground. Here is the link to the map: http://umap.openstreetmap.fr/de/map/pastoralists_563977#5/53.318/-7.053

[i] Pedro P. Oleaa,*, Patricia Mateo-Tomás . 2009. The role of traditional farming practices in ecosystem conservation: The case of transhumance and vultures. Biological Conservation 142 (2009) 1844–1853

[ii] P. Manzano and J. Malo, 2006. Extreme long‐distance seed dispersal via sheep. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4(5):244-248.

[iii] Fischer, S., Poschlod, P., & Beinlich, B. (1996). Experimental Studies on the Dispersal of Plants and Animals on Sheep in Calcareous Grasslands. Journal of Applied Ecology, 33(5), 1206-1222. doi:10.2307/2404699

[iv] Koocheki,  A. 1992. Herders care for their land. ILEIA Newsletter, 8(3): 3

[v] Nickel H 2017. Evolution im Naturschutz: Von der Weide zur Wiese und zurück? https://www.bfn.de/fileadmin/BfN/ina/Dokumente/Tagungsdoku/2017/02_Nickel_Wiese_oder_Weide.pdf

Community Protocols: “Giving livestock back its soul”

Workshop participants visit a flock of Red Maasai sheep and learn about the problems that their lady owner faces.

Recently I had the pleasure and privilege to participate in, and co-moderate, with my old friend Dr. Jacob Wanyama a workshop entitled “Making Access and Benefit-Sharing work for Africa’s Animal Genetic Resources”. It was organized by the African Union’s Interregional Bureau of Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) in Kenya and attended by about 40 participants drawn from three different groups:  National Coordinators for Animal Genetic Resources, National Focal Points for Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS) and leaders of breeders’ organizations.

The purpose of the workshop was to develop a roadmap for establishing Biocultural Community Protocols for six African transboundary breeds, Red Maasai sheep, Dorper sheep, Muturu cattle, Azawak cattle, Kuri cattle, and the D’Man sheep.

An important part of the workshop was to inform about the rationale for Livestock Keepers’ Rights, a concept developed by civil society in the run up to the First International Conference on Animal Genetic Resources held in Interlaken in 2007, more than 10 years ago.

The second major aim was to learn how to develop Community Protocols, also known as Biocultural Protocols (BCPs). Community Protocols are a tool enshrined in the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to ensure that benefits from genetic resources trickle down to the communities who have created and steward themThey are supposed to reflect and put on record the perceptions, traditional knowlede and preferences of the community in its own words. Therefore they are entirely different from the “breed descriptors” that AnGR experts are familiar with. To get this deviation from the “scientific” approach across is not that easy, but I was extremely gratified when a lady herder from Tchad expressed her takeaway as “Community protocols are about putting the soul back into livestock”. I think that was beautifully put!

The table below spells out some of the differences between a Community Protocol and a Breed Descriptor.

Difference between Community Protocol and Breed Descriptor

Breed Descriptor Community Protocol
What is documented ? A breed A biodiverse production system, including people/culture, livestock, environment
Focus is on Physical and production characteristics Traditional knowledge about breeding and biological diversity of feed/forage and medicinal plants
Type of documentation Measurements of body parts and production outputs, usually under controlled (research institute or government farm) conditions Perceptions about special characteristics of the breed, its value compared to other breeds, folklore, local stories
Who documents? Scientist/Geneticist Community, possibly facilitated by NGO
Purpose To obtain scientific description and record of a country’s animal genetic resources To claim community ownership over a breed and identify/put on record the pressures on a breed and the prerequisites for its conservation and continued sustainable use.
Relevance to Access and Benefit-Sharing none yes
Description of threats and opportunities no yes
Information about conservation needs no yes

Keeping livestock these days is a challenging task that requires passion in order to hang on to it instead of looking for an alternative livelihood. That was again beautifully illustrated on the last day of the workshop when we went on a fieldtrip to visit a Maasai lady keeping a flock of several hundred almost totally pure Red Maasai sheep. She shared her trials and tribulations with us. Her biggest problem was theft: sometimes gangs would drive up in SUVs and stuff as many sheep as they could into them. Another threat was from leopards who would sometimes go on a rampage among the flock. But throughout the dialogue with her what really shone through was her love and passion for her animals. Each of them had a name. Like all good pastoralists she knew exactly how each animal was related to any other in the flock. This was incomprehensible to some of the scientists who urged her to keep written records.

All in all, it is encouraging that AU-IBAR has adopted the BCP idea. So glad that Africa is taking the global lead in this! But Argentina is also gearing up, as you will see in an upcoming interview with Dra Maria Rosa Lanari who is the agrobiodiversity coordinator of INTA, Argentina’s agricultural research institute.

Animal genetic resources: the theme of the hour!

Raika community members taking the stage at a side-event during CBD COP 11

The outgoing chair of the Intergovernmental Technical Working Group on Animal Genetic Resources (ITWG_AnGR), Francois Pythoud from Switzerland started his speech with the remark that animal genetic resources really had hogged the limelight during the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Hyderabad, India, earlier this month. He was impressed by the number of side-events on the subject that had taken place, as well as an exhibition of India’s indigenous breeds at the side-lines of the event.

With Access and Benefit-Sharing being on the agenda here in Rome, things are heating up. African countries are promoting Biocultural Community protocols, but its still a new subject for many others. The above picture from the LIFE Network’s side-event in Hyderabad was graciously shared by Polish animal scientist Dr. Ela Martyniuk, and it symbolizes for me how far we have come in the last decade. At the beginning of the new millenium, livestock keepers were not even considered as stakeholders in the conservation of animal genetic resources, but now there is probably consensus that they are the key-actors!