Climate Change

Importance of characterising biodiversity of conventional animal food resources…

Dr Khanyisile Hadebe writes: The Importance of characterising the biodiversity of conventional animal food resources as well as animals that serve as alternative resources in the rural areas of South Africa.

Food security depends on the availability, accessibility and affordability of the animal or plant food resources (FAO, 2004) such as crops, vegetables and fruit, terrestrial and aquatic animals including birds.

Animal food resources can consist of the conventional animal resources such as cattle, goats, sheep, chickens and pigs as well as minority unconventional animal species such as rabbits, cane/reed rats, ducks, geese, guinea fowls, pigeons, giant plated lizards, flying termites, locusts and crickets, mopane worms and others depending on local practices.

Biodiversity characterisation has for decades focused its attention on the conventional animal resources and is biased towards specific ecotypes (i.e., Nguni, Pedi) and agro-ecological regions across South Africa. These studies have increased our knowledge of the existing morphological and physiological (including production profiles) traits of these animals.

More recently, we have seen an increased focus on the genetic profiles of animal food resources. These genetic profiles are essential anchors for effective improvement, sustainable utilization and conservation strategies especially with the threat posed by climate change.

On contrary, minority unconventional species have not received much attention despite their lifelong existence in rural communities as food security alternatives. The consumption of the minority species is specific to rural communities and may be related to nutritive, economic, cultural and ethnic norms as well as pressure imposed by poverty.

For instance, the consumption of the cane/reed rat is common in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal and is often hunted by young boys in the fields while herding livestock. The hunting skill associated with the cane/reed rats also holds a social standing and a high level of respect for the young boy as they move up the hierarchy to manhood within their community.

The consumption of mopane worms for many decades in Southern Africa is another example of local practices where they are seen as a delicacy or snack to the point of being sold in the street in large metropolitan areas like Pretoria and Johannesburg.

In addition, other animal species support households in various ways such as donkeys and horses (and mules) which are used to transport water from the river, scrap metal and garden refuse removal, human transport, selling of goods or as traction during the ploughing season. In other ethnic communities, horses are also used as part of the lobola payment to the bride’s father and their value is measured is in their phenotypic characteristics. Despite the cultural and socio-economic potential of these animals at the household and community levels, they represent the least researched and characterised animal species in South Africa.

Consequently, the country currently does not have active national improvement or conservation plans or initiatives for these animal species. In addition, information regarding the existing diversity and potential productivity is not prioritised or is either non-existent or incomplete.

The lack of information on the global and national data sources cannot be ignored and causes limitations in conservation efforts and disease surveillance. As a country, efforts to characterise and document information on all available genetic resources including their adaptive, economical and unique traits; cultural and historical values; and the status of endangerment to genetic erosion remain paramount.

In addition, capturing the indigenous knowledge of local people in the animal genetic resources, including indigenous uses, phenotypic descriptions is vital. This will better support conservation planning of all animal resources within the food chain and further preserve the indigenous knowledge.

Strategising to find solutions for improved food security and household income sustainability require successful collaborative efforts from various stakeholders. In South Africa, the animal census is done periodically and the need to develop inclusive tools for both phenotypic and genetic characterization of all animals in the food chain and other uses is important to prepare for the next census as it will allow for the allocation of government resources and can influence policy changes towards all animal resources.

References and sources:

Department of Statistics South Africa (STATS SA), Republic of South Africa. Accessed 06 January 2022 at

Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (DAD-IS). Accessed 06 January 2022 at

Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information System (DAGRIS). Accessed 06 January 2022 at

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 2004. The State of Food Insecurity in the World. Addressing food insecurity in protracted crises, p. 43. Rome, Italy: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

Dr. Khanyisile Hadebe (Mdladla) is a Senior Researcher: Genomics. Her research interests are characterizing biodiversity and the use of population and landscape genomics to investigate signatures of selection and adaptation in indigenous Animal Genetic Resources (AnGR). She is involved in developing sustainable improvement and conservation strategies, such as genomics-assisted community-based breeding programs (CBBP) to assist small scale rural farmers optimize production and environmental fitness of their livestock to help farmers overcome future challenges of climate change. She has published as lead author in Heredity, Animal ​Genetics, Small Ruminant Research, Tropical Animal Health and Production and Preventive Veterinary Medicine.

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