Kenya is finalizing plans of setting up a livestock gene bank, the first of its kind in the world meant to protect the biodiversity of threatened breeds while promoting livestock research at a time when reports indicate that Kenya has over 100 species that are listed as threatened.
East Africa is regarded as one of the cradles of livestock diversity. However trade has fueled the entry of many exotic breeds which find it hard to adapt to local climate. And in a a world threatened by climate change, breeds that are resistant to drought, extreme heat or tropical diseases have been termed as every farmer's silver bullet.
Collecting genetic samples of species into genebanks is not new ? it has been done for many years with crops. But the importance of preserving the genetic diversity of livestock has been underestimated until now, according to Jimmy Smith, the Director general of International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) the institution pursuing the establishment of the gene bank.
"If in the short term the main benefit would be to prevent biodiversity reduction, in the long term it could make a precious resource: by searching within the samples, we could isolate species that are resistant to particular diseases or can easily adapt to climate change," says Smith.
The researchers plan to use two different preserving techniques, cryopreservation, which would involve freezing animal cells at low temperatures using liquid nitrogen, and in vivo preservation, an experimentation done in live isolated cells rather than in a whole organism.
The genebank would preserve breeds from across the world. Some of the most threatened species include the Grevy’s zebra which has undergone one of the most substantial reductions of range of African mammals, and is found today in only two range states: Kenya and Ethiopia. Historically, the species was also found in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia, and Sudan. The species has undergone significant decline, from an estimated 15,000 individuals in the late 1970s to a present-day estimate of 2,400 individuals, an 85 percent decline.
The hirola and bongo antelopes are equally under threat. Hirola for example has had a restricted range in recent history, although fossil records indicate it had once a pan-African distribution. The species range in Kenya has declined from about 17,900 kilometers squared in the 1960s to approximately 7,600 km2 by 2010, and the population has declined from roughly 14,000 animals in the 1970s to between 600 and 2,000 today. A national census held in January 2011 sighted 245 individuals in the natural range. The species is classified as a critically endangered.
Globally, an estimated 22 percent of the world's livestock breeds are still classified as being at risk of extinction, although breed population figures are often unreported or out of date, making the true state of livestock diversity difficult to estimate.
The livestock genebank if successful could parallel the the National Gene Bank of Kenya, a repository that houses over 49,000 seed samples, both local and international, for long term seed conservation and safe keeping, making it the largest in Sub Saharan Africa.
Since the gene bank became operational in 1988, a total of 49,000 seed samples representing 165 plant families and 1,725 species have been assembled through both in-country collection missions and donations from within and outside Kenya. Over 60 per cent of the samples conserved are from Kenya, while the rest have come from more than 137 countries, including the UK, Asia and other African countries, with forage and cereal seed samples forming the bulk.