Watusi, domestic cattle with enormous horns!

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An African cousin of our European domestic cow, the watusi is distinguished by its immense horns, which can exceed 2m in wingspan. Considered the cattle of kings by many East African tribes, the bovine symbolizes wealth and power. It is given as a wedding gift or exchanged to resolve a conflict between villages. Let’s get to know the watusi, an animal perfectly adapted to regions plagued by drought.

Who is the watusi?

The watusi (Bos taurus primigenius) is a domestic bovine native to central and eastern Africa where it is considered a sacred animal, a symbol of social prestige. It belongs to the order Artiodactyls and the family Bovidae. Also called ankole-watusi, its name comes from “watutsi”, the Swahili plural of the word tutsi (cattle herders). Its ancestor the aurochs (Bos primigenius) already had long horns, as evidenced by several works of rock art (those in the Lascaux caves, for example). The aurochs, a wild bovid that appeared in India around 2 million years ago, then spread across Eurasia. At the same time, it diverged into 3 subspecies:

European and Middle Eastern aurochs (Bos primigenius primigenius) gave rise to humpless domestic livestock, which includes the European cow (Bos taurus taurus); The Asian or Indian aurochs (Bos primigenius namadicus) were descended from domestic cattle with humps, such as the zebu (Bos taurus indicus); North African aurochs (Bos primigenius africanus). Where does the watusi live?

The watusi lives in the savannahs and steppes of central and eastern Africa, particularly in the Great Lakes region. The countries where its breeding is most widespread are Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. These cattle have also been imported to other parts of the world (North America, Europe, Australia, etc.), where they are causing a sensation in tourist facilities. In France, it can be admired in several zoos such as Thoiry (78), Maubeuge (59), Boissière du Doré (44), the Safari de Peaugres (07) or the Sigean African Reserve ( 60). The presence of watusi outside Africa, however, remains very marginal.

What does watusi look like?

The watusi measures approximately 1.70m at the withers and weighs from 500kg to 1 ton. The animal has a robust and muscular morphology, an elongated head with medium-sized ears and a generally broad muzzle. Sexual dimorphism is quite pronounced: males are larger, their horns are larger and they have a hump (fat reserve) at shoulder level. The short, smooth coat of the watusi has a red tone, often accompanied by more or less significant white spots. We also encounter individuals with a black coat, dotted with white spots (magpie).

What are the horns of the watusi made of?

The first distinctive sign of the watusi is its enormous horns which can reach a wingspan of 2.40m and weigh around 15kg. Like those of all cattle, they are composed of keratin, a fibrous protein found in the horny tissues of animals, including hooves and nails. The horns of this bovine are lyre-shaped, curving outwards then rising upwards. Fortunately for the watusi, the interior is partially hollow, otherwise it would not be able to support the weight of its head. The imposing size of its horns allows the mammal to regulate its body temperature by dissipating heat but also to defend itself against predators. They are proudly displayed at cattle shows and competitions, making the watusi a particularly prized breed for its beauty and impressive appearance.

For what purposes is watusi raised?

The watusi has a docile and very sociable temperament which makes it easy to raise. Even if it does not provide a lot of milk, its production makes it possible to make cheese while its meat is sometimes consumed during ceremonies. Its dung is dried to then make the walls of houses or serve as fuel. Its skin is transformed into leather to make clothes, carpets and bed linen. In places, its urine is used to disinfect kitchen utensils. The watusi is also used as a beast of burden during agricultural work. The animal is appreciated by local populations because in addition to being resistant to heat and various diseases, it adapts to the poor quality of fodder and the lack of water caused by drought.

Why is watusi sacred?

In addition to its economic interest, the watusi has strong symbolism among certain African tribes. The animal being both sacred and useful, owning a herd is a sign of power and wealth for a family. The status of an individual depends on the importance and beauty of his livestock. When livestock is the property of a village, exchanges of heads can seal the signing of alliance treaties, to strengthen friendship and resolve conflicts. It is not uncommon for watusis to be offered as a dowry at a wedding. Outside of the ceremonial context, its meat is not consumed and the animal is not killed. However, a slight cut can be made on the thigh of the animal in order to collect its blood and drink it hot, in order to gain strength and vigor, as tradition dictates.

What does the watusi feed on?

The watusi follows a herbivorous diet. As a ruminant, it quickly ingests a large quantity of plants which it stores in its rumen (the first stomach of cattle located in the abdomen). The animal then regurgitates part of the contents in the form of a food bolus which it chews and ingests again. This gregarious species which lives in large herds tends to overgraze, to the detriment of other vegetarian animals such as antelopes, zebras or wildebeest. As indicated above, the watusi is distinguished by its ability to adapt to arid regions and can survive when food is meager and water scarce.

How does the watusi reproduce?

The female estrous cycle usually repeats every 21 days. Males detect when cows are in heat through chemical and behavioral signals. Unlike other mammals, the rut does not give rise to fierce fights between rivals for the right to mate. After fertilization, the female begins a gestation of 9 to 10 months during which the fetus develops in her uterus. Most of the time, the litter consists of only one calf which weighs between 14 and 23 kg at birth. Within the herd, an aunt (guardian cow) is responsible for monitoring and protecting the young ones all day long. At night, the young sleep in the center of the herd, surrounded by adults who do not hesitate to use their horns to defend them against predators. Weaning occurs after 6 months and sexual maturity is reached around the age of 2 years. The life expectancy of the watusi is approximately 25 years.

Is the watusi an endangered species?

Generally speaking, domestic animals are not threatened with extinction because they are protected by humans. However, the watusi needs large spaces and the increase in population – among other factors – leads to the reduction of available pastures (a source of conflict in the villages). Small farmers may thus encounter difficulties in feeding their livestock and abandon the breeding of this breed in favor of others which are less greedy and produce more milk. However, these animals are not more profitable because, less resistant to drought and disease, they force breeders to resort to costly antibiotic and antiparasitic treatments. Not knowing what to do, many farmers are now turning to agriculture. If this trend continues, it could lead to the extinction of the indigenous race and the traditions that accompany it, in any case, this is the fear of certain East African tribes.

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