The Andaman and Nicobar islands currently have approximately 64,000 goats and 45,000 cattle according to Dr Jai Sunder, Principal Scientist at Central Island Agricultural Research Institute (CIARI). "But Andaman and Nicobar not ideally suited for rearing either goats or cattle. The soil here is acidic - lacking in many important minerals like phosphorous and zinc. Cattle and goats that graze the grass growing in such soil therefore also face mineral deficiency that causes problems in growth and puberty and fertility and conception. In mainland India the diet of goats and cattle is supplemented by feed and fodder such as wheat, bajra, groundnut etc. But even those crops are not grown here in the islands so the cattle and goats here end up with a deficient diet. We have recommended to farmers or those who keep goats and cows in the islands to supplement the diet of these animals with a mineral mixture" Dr Jai Sunder said.
When asked about the capacity of farmers to afford additional inputs to supplement the diet of the goats and cattle Dr Jai Sunder said, "Currently the practice among most farmers is to let their cattle loose and allow them to graze freely until it is time to milk them when the farmers collect them and only then start feeding them supplements and inputs intensively. CIARI is a research institute. We can only discover what is happening. Policies are not formulated by us but it would help if the Administration would start subsidising feed and fodder similar to the way it subsidises fertilisers."
Since feed and fodder appears to be deficient, CIARI has taken up the initiative of genetically breeding meatier and healthier goats.
"Let us say the average weight of the specific goat found in Andaman is 10 kg. Sometimes you will have goats which weigh a lot more than the average, say 19-20 kgs. It is these goats you select for genetic breeding. These bucks are singled out and the rest of the sample or target population is castrated so only the chosen bucks can mate and reproduce offspring. It is a slow process. Say two bucks each weighing 10 kg give birth to a baby. Then the weight of this baby might be 12.5 kgs. Then maybe when this 12.5 kg baby matures and mates with another 12.5 kg adult it will give birth to an offspring that weighs 18.75 kg. Some three years ago we selected those goats which weighed more than 16 kg when they were 12 years old as bucks. It takes at least seven generation to achieve any amount of progress with genetic engineering, meaning it will be another 3-4 years at least till we manage to genetically produce the meatier goats we desire."
Genetically modified animals
In August of last year, the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources recognised the Teressa goat as a unique breed of goats indigenous to the Nicobar. The ancestors of these Teressa goats were brought over by the Danish when they occupied those islands. Dr Jai Sunder believes that the black goats commonly seen around the Andaman might also be a unique breed, descendants of goats brought by the British from the coast of Orissa and West Bengal. Given that some 100-150 generations of goats would have lived and died since the British arrived in Andaman, Dr Jai Sunder believes that the common Andaman goat might have diverged sufficiently from its mainland Indian ancestors to warrant distinction as a unique breed. "We are currently studying this goat to see if it has any unique characters and phenotype that would mark it as a unique breed."
In admiration of goats Dr Jai Sunder added, "Goats are one of the oldest animals to have been domesticated by man, some 11,000 years ago in the Neolithic era. All goats we see today are descendants of that one wild goat domesticated back in the Neolithic era somewhere in the Iranian plateau. Seals have been found in Mohenjodaro with goat like animals depicted on them. Goats are marvellous creatures. I think apart from arctic climate they are found in all manner of conditions, they are very hardy. In India they are found in both Rajasthan and Leh Ladakh. And so they have flourished here even in Andaman and Nicobar. But the net effect of their survival strategy has perhaps rendered them leaner."
Earlier this month the National Bureau of Genetic Resources awarded the Car Nicobar Tribal Council and CIARI a breed conservation award for the Nicobari pig which is also an indigenous breed of pig unique to Nicobar. A meatier goat, genetically produced will likely be immensely beneficial to not only those who raise goats and cattle but to all islanders, most of whom consume meat.
Previously, back in 2006, scientists at CIARI had managed to cross-breed an Andaman goat species with a South African Boer goat for higher quality meat. CIARI scientists used frozen semen samples of the Boer goat to boost the meat yield of some native Andaman goats following large scale loss of livestock after the 2004 Tsunami.
(This article was published in Andaman Chronicle.)