Where's the doomsday animal vault?

Ankole-Holstein hybrid taken by Sarah McCans in Uganda, 18 July 2006, via Flickr.

In the NY Times article “A Dying Breed,” some people fear that African Ankole cattle will disappear, to be replaced by Holsteins.  The hardy Ankole can endure heat and drought, have tasty lean meat, but produce little milk. Holsteins can be rather fragile, but are milk factories. Who can blame some African farmers for trying to increase milk production by breeding the two together, producing hybrid Ankole-Holsteins? With careful breeding strategies, the goal can be a stronger cow that can produce a lot of milk on a diet of grass. I think it would be in the interest of all farmers to get some Ankole blood into their herds, with the possibility of warming temperatures looming.

All over the world, farmers are trading in their traditional herds for modern breeds that produce more bigger faster. It is good, in a way, because it helps the people feed their families and even make a little profit. The problem comes when the lines are lost forever. As the Times article states: “The Food and Agriculture Organization, an agency of the United Nations, recently reported that at least 20 percent of the world’s estimated 7,600 livestock breeds are in danger of extinction. Experts are warning of a potential ‘meltdown’ in global genetic diversity.”

Despite the threat of a genetic diversity meltdown, I don’t think we can ethically expect poor farmers to stay poor with their well-adapted but slow-producing herds and flocks. So, I propose a Doomsday Animal Vault (see the Svalbard Global Seed Vault). Of course, it’s a bit more difficult than keeping seeds, but eggs and sperm from many animals can be frozen, while a number of government or UN sponsored locations keep breeding herds in a number of various climates. Population and quantitative geneticists can calculate exactly how many animals are needed in the starting population and the best crosses to keep the highest levels of genetic diversity in a herd. At least part of the operating costs could be paid by people who want to buy sperm for their herds.

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