Scientist bets on jungle chicken to produce better breeds

A livestock scientist who has worked in Kenya for over a decade is the lead researcher in a global project that is studying a nervous red jungle fowl which has superior health and breeding qualities, in a bid to breed better chicken to benefit the rural poor at a time when industry players are pushing for adoption of chicken farming as land for farming dwindles as a result of population pressure.

Olivier Hanotte a livestock geneticist now at the University of Nottingham who formerly spent 13 years at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) who initially helped to unravel the origins of a second domestication of cattle, in Africa is now melding genetics and archaeology to close in on the origin of the world’s most common bird—and potentially help protect a major source of animal protein.

The findings could be welcome news to Kenyan farmers who have struggled with chicken diseases chief among them Newcastle that has been responsible for over 30 percent of chicken diseases in the country and Coccidiosis which is equally fatal.

Vaccination interventions havent helped either as most of them require refrigeration and with majority of the poultry farmers in Kenya concentrated in rural areas the vaccines are impotent by the time they reach to them. “The problem is with the local breed which is weak.

A discovery like the one my friend Olivier has made would be big news here where more people are now preferring chicken farming due to the diminishing farming land,”said Dr. Marion Were a livestock geneticist from the University of Nairobi.

The red jungle fowl, Gallus gallus whose origin is Himalaya Mountains and rarely found in East Africa is touted to be the chicken of the future due to its superior qualities to withstand harsh weather conditions and its immunity against major chicken diseases like Newcastle and Coccidiosis. “It would be my joy to see the chicken actively adopted by many Kenyan farmers because I have seen how much the smallholder farmers there value poultry farming and this could be the solution to food problems there,”said Olivier Hanotte.

Unlike modern-day chickens, all roosters sport elaborate plumage, the females lack a comb, and both genders have thin, dark legs and can fly considerable distances.  The fowl is also generally half the size of a White Leghorn domesticated chicken, but it can produce fertile offspring with domestic chickens. Identifying the chicken’s wild cousins and preserving their genetic diversity may one day prove critical for improving the stock, some researchers say.

Genes from wild birds may help breed birds resistant to avian influenza and other illnesses, for example. “The chicken, which grows quickly and is the most intensely bred of domestic animals, provides an intriguing model for understanding those issues,” said Olivier.