Jallikattu as an Opportunity to Improve How India Conserves Its Indigenous Cattle Breeds

Between 1992 and 2012, indigenous cattle breed numbers fell by an average of 20% and that of exotic cross-bred cattle rose by more than 150%.

Jallikattu could play an important role in the conservation of India's indigenous cattle breeds if some other issues are mopped up. Credit: vinothchandar/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Jallikattu could play an important role in the conservation of India’s indigenous cattle breeds if some other issues are mopped up. Credit: vinothchandar/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The jallikattu events held at Dindigul and Avaniyapuram offered many lessons – the most vital of which was that, as a populace, we need to be sensitive and aware of the essence of the sport and its place in conserving native breeds of cattle. The excesses committed, the hysteria around the event and the scale at which the event was held – all these underscored the need for more planning in their conduct. A permanent solution would be to frame rules and regulations after accounting for the concerns of all stakeholders and and then institute a body to oversee it.

One of the core arguments of the pro-jallikattu activists is that it helps preserve indigenous breeds. The reasoning behind this statement are twofold. First, jallikattu becomes an incentive for rearing a breed – rather, it provides for an effective system of breeding. Second, the offsprings of the bull winning the jallikattu will be decidedly stronger.

This doesn’t hold much ground from a scientific point of view because it doesn’t seem invested in countering biases and errors. The argument less understood is that breed conservation is a story of numbers, where the numerical strength of cattle under the mission increases the odds of recognising the stronger individuals and improving the group’s genetic strength as a whole. This allows sports like jallikattu become incentives for our farmers to hold and maintain indigenous bulls.

Popular methods of breed conservation

But at the outset, the indigenous breeds of cattle in India aren’t well documented, undermining stakeholders’ ability to have constructive discussions. A herd book or breed registry should be maintained. It should also be mandatory for breeders to register their young cattle under the extant Central Herd Registration Scheme (CHRS), while the government should do a better job of ensuring that CHRS units are better distributed and accessible by breeders around the country. There are only four at this stage. Such data can then be used to asses cattle breeds better.

In India, the breeding value of milch breeds is calculated through progeny tests. However, it employs a random-sampling technique. These tests are known and preferred for their accuracy. It involves a continuous exercise spanning long periods of time and requires a high level of technical skill, infrastructure and funding. Outside India, on the other hand, two of the more successful methods practiced are the calculation of the expected progeny difference (EPD) and the evaluation of the breeding soundness (BSE) methods.

EPD is the expected difference in the performance of the calves from a bull compared to another bull’s calves that also has an EPD. It provides for a grading scale that tabulates vital parameters like birth weight, calving ease, maternal milk, etc. The tabulated values of a breed can then be compared with other breeds by introducing breed adjustment factors. EPD is often coupled with the BSE, which predicts the potential fertility of a bull. It is based on an examination that includes tests for physical soundness, testicular size, semen quality and, in some cases, libido and mating ability.

In most western countries, EPD is an essential element in determining the health of a bull – even to the extent of dictating its cost in the market. Because it relies on statistics, it is quite data-dependent and its accuracy is determined by the volume and veracity of information collected. Ideally, this responsibility must be borne by the government to ensure a fair and perpetually functional breeding system. One inference that can be made at this point is that we’re far from being capable of creating and managing an alternative system of breeding. Though EPD and BSE are very efficient and have been adopted successfully in the West, we have a way to go in terms of genetics and selective breeding.

Data quality in India

A scientific system of breeding is only as good as the data collected. In India, such data is available through the livestock census report (LCR) recorded by the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare. The first LCR was authorised in 1919-1920 for taxation. Post-independence reports were drawn up by the Directorate of Economics and Statistics of the respective state governments, under the overall supervision of its central counterpart in the agri ministry. Because of the time taken and a general lack of resources at the states level, the reports were incomplete and far from accurate.

In 2003, the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries started the 17th Livestock Census Report with 100% funding from the Centre. It was in this report that various breeds of cattle and buffaloes were introduced. However, a scientific identification of these breeds wasn’t introduced until almost a decade later, in 2012, in the 19th report. Additionally, in order to simplify the analysis as well as to better identify different breeds, a breed survey was conducted independently along with the 19th LCR. It also included stray cows and stray dogs for the first time.

According to all these reports, of the 150 million individual cattle, 110 million (73.3%) are classifiable as nondescript. This means that their phenotypic characteristics – an organism’s observable characteristics – are less than 50 % similar to any of the 40 breeds identified by the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR), Haryana.

This betrays an immense disparity between the indigenous breeds present in our country and those that are being documented overall. This can also be said about our buffalo breeds: nearly 50 million (45.4%) are listed as nondescript of the buffalo population of 110 million. And the fortieth cattle breed, Badri, was added only in June 2016, suggesting there’s a lot more we need to be doing to properly document indigenous breeds.

The poor maintenance of cattle breed data is complemented by an alarming rise in the number of foreign breeds. For instance, according to the 19th LCR Report, the population of indigenous cattle fell by 8.94% while that of exotic cross-bred cattle surged by 20.18% – both in the period 2007-2012. In fact, between 1992 and 2012, indigenous breed numbers fell by an average of 20% and that of exotic cross-bred cattle rose by more than 150%. A case in point here is that the number of individuals in a breed is a direct proxy for the naturally occurring genetic diversity in that breed. More individuals mean more combinations, and more combinations mean more variations in their phenotypic and genetic characteristics.

The bigger picture and jallikattu

The population of some of the indigenous cattle breeds of Tamil Nadu, such as pulikulam, umblachery, bargur etc., have dwindled to a few thousands. This is due to the lack of incentives to farmers, denial of grazing permits by forest officials, the introduction of tractors and the popularisation of exotic cross-breeds.

In addition, there is also the issue of bio-piracy, which raises the question of ownership and rights over a given breed. According to Vikas Vohra, a senior scientist at the NBAGR, “Documentation is vital to prevent bio-piracy and illegal export of germplasm to other countries without the knowledge of National Biodiversity Data Centre. We cannot make a claim under intellectual property rights until the animals are identified and defined.”

The official manual on progeny testing (an initiative of the National Dairy Plan in phase I) has categorically highlighted the need for a considerable increase in the number of bulls to meet the rising demands of potent semen for insemination. It also laments that there is no institutional selection programme for male cattle.

Jallikattu, at the outset, incentivises the holding of bulls across various districts (i.e., in different environments). With time, there will be a pool of bovines that are highly diverse, paving the way for extensive scientific studies to enhance conservation. Moreover, jallikattu is also an opportunity to better update and manage databases about participating bulls. Considering the fact that governmental financial allocations are focused more on the milch breeds, the sport could be tapped to address the issue of conservation from a different angle.

We as a society should be sensitive and conducive towards developing multiple alternatives that complement each other. At this juncture, owing to the amount of work that needs to be done in developing alternatives, banning an already existent and functional system like jallikattu over the excesses committed in the sport will do more harm than good. If the numbers of our bulls continue to deteriorate, and if jallikattu is banned because of isolated cases of animal cruelty, then it does little justice to the bigger picture of conservation of a breed in its entirety.

Vignesh Karthik K.R. is a research consultant at the office of Rajeev Gowda, M.P. (Rajya Sabha). Ajay Chandra Vasagam is an independent researcher.