Native Carabaos are Forever

Not a few animal experts have expressed fears that the bloodlines of native carabaos may be lost in the light of heightened efforts to improve the breed of native carabaos by way of artificial insemination and the fielding of quality bulls of imported breeds.

BY Anselmo S. Roque, Ma. Cecilia C. Irang & Chrissalyn S. Marcelo

Thousands of carabao farmer-owners are responding favorably to these efforts to produce more crossbreds; these efforts are complemented by the distribution of modules for carabaos of the dairy breed, which have likewise been multiplying quickly. In the face of these developments, some apprehension has been expressed that attention to native carabao breed as well as its continual development may wane, and that this will eventually cause detrimental effects to the welfare or survival of this animal.

“It will not happen,” officials of the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC) assured stakeholders, adding, “There are parallel efforts to conserve and use…native carabaos.” These parallel efforts are as intense as the crossbreeding initiatives, and developments indicate that the native carabaobreed will always be in the agricultural scene of the country. In fact, institutions and private groups as well as individuals driven by the necessity for maintaining breeds of native carabaos are making sure that their animals are not interbred with foreign breeds.

Native Carabaos

Interestingly, the native carabao was not originally indigenous or native to the country. Known worldwide as the water buffalo, it has two types: the riverine and swamp types.

The latter was brought to the country by migrants; now known locally as the carabao, it became an indispensable part of Philippine farms. Docile, sturdy, and powerful, it was harnessed for several uses, including transport, as a food source, as players for for sporting and cultural  events, and even as assets for farmers who ran into financial trouble.

Over time, however, despite its importance, the carabao suffered neglect in terms of its breed, proper nutrition, and care. It dwindled in size and weight, and its population was decimated by diseases, indiscriminate slaughtering, and even massacres during wartime. As a result, many examples of the current animal appear to be a far cry from the big and robust animal depicted in old art and writing.

In the early 1970s, research and development work on the carabao began. Funding from the United Nations Development Program-Food and Agriculture Organization (UNDPFAO), with counterpart funding from the national government, helped strengthen the carabao research and development project, which included the upgrading of its breed. In 1992, the Philippine Carabao Act of 1992 was enacted; among others, it aims to “conserve, propagate, and promote the Philippine carabao as a source of draft animal power, meat, milk and hide.”

Then, as provided by law, the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC) was created with the assigned priorities of increasing the native carabao population; improving its productivity; undertaking reproduction, breeding, nutrition, and animal health activities; and conducting research to ensure the economic viability and acceptance of relevant technologies for farmers.

Thus, while the upgrading of the native carabao takes place through the introduction of the blood of the riverine type by way of crossbreeding and backcrossing, the cause of conserving and utilizing the breed of the native carabao is not forgotten.

Conservation and Use in Batanes

There’s a place called “Marlboro Country” in Batanes, in the southern part of the municipality of Mahatao, in the middle section of Batan Island, comprised of 167.93 hectares—a third of the town’s total land area. It is also called “Racuh a Payaman,” and has been a declared Communal Pasture Land Parcel 1, encompassed by 23 sitios belonging to one of the four barangays of Hanib, Panatayan, Kaumbakan, and Uvoy.

The larger part of this area is occupied by the Cattle Raisers Association of Communal Pastureland No. 1, the oldest and most intact group in Batanes. Among others, the association, as spelled out in its management objectives, “…ensures equitable access of individuals, associations and communities to benefits derived from grazing lands through co-production sharing scheme.” The entire area is provided with a perimeter fence.

In a separate place within the communal pasture land area, in Barangay Uvoy, about 116 hectares are devoted for the raising and use of native carabaos. Managed by another association, its 32 members composed of farmers and fishermen have 135 native carabaos.

Members, who own an average of six carabaos each, are given specific areas to tend their animals. They pay R60 per head annually, on top of a payment of R500 as a lifetime member of the association. These amounts are used for the upkeep of the area and for needed support for improvements.

“We bought breeder carabao bulls which we loaned out to the association to improve the genetic quality of their carabaos,” said Dr. Alberto Tabile, provincial veterinarian. “Their carabaos weigh from 300 to 400 kilograms each.”

Alejandro Camacho Jr., officer-in-charge of the municipal agriculturist office of Mahatao, said the association is making sure that only native carabaos are maintained by the farmers in the pastureland.“We can say that their carabaos are ‘organic’. They are not vaccinated nor injected  with medicine and they don’t practice deworming,” Camacho said.

He added that the mortality rate is almost negligible as the members take home and confine their carabaos in their backyard when these are about to give birth. The calves are reared for two to three months before they are brought to the communal pasture area.

“Our municipal government provides some assistance to the members of the association in terms of the forage materials, [rain collectors], and others,” Camacho explained. “We also see to it that the set rules and regulations of the association are [observed].”

Joenard Carzon, the association’svice chairperson, said the members strictly follow the rules they themselves set. “They are not allowed to take out their carabaos from their assigned grazing area without the permission of the chairman of the board or president of the association. They are also [under] strict orders to make sure that their animals are confined only in the respective areas assigned to them [and this is achieved] by fencing their respective areas,” he said.

Carzon added that a team is assigned to check if the perimeter fences are in order. If a carabao is found to have gone astray, the owner is fined R200.“Our set time for [farmers to visit their] native carabaos is from five o’clock to seven o’clock in the morning and three in the afternoon every Sunday. But they are also allowed to visit their animal anytime, provided they get the necessary permission.”

The farmers normally take the animals out of the communal ranch to assist in the planting of palay and root crops in their respective fields from December to March.

Carzon noted that the animals are sold for about R20,000-R25,000 when farmers need money to finance their children’s studies. However, members declared they will continuously maintain their herd of native carabaos, saying that the animals are very useful for field work.

Conservation and Trait Improvement

In the town of Peñablanca in Cagayan, a total of 92 native carabaos, 67 of which are females, are lodged in a secure area for conservation. The place has been designated as the national conservation site for native carabaos.

“We have individual records for these animals,” said Rubina R. Piñera, training specialist III of the PCC at Cagayan State University. “Their records are in a database, which is also given to our Genetic Improvement Program (GIP) office in the PCC national headquarters.” The growth rate and reproductive performance of each native carabaois monitored and recorded.

The best bulls in the herd have been sent to the PCC national bullfarm in Barangay Joson in Carranglan, Nueva Ecija to serve as  semen donors. “Whenever we need frozen semen for…AI service [to] the breedable native carabaos in the conservation site, we get it from Digdig,” Piñera said. Digdig was the former name of Barangay Joson, and is what PCC personnel call the national bull farm.

Some of the frozen semen is distributed to interested farmers elsewhere for the propagation of their native carabaos. Most of it is cryo-banked for conservation purposes. “Part of the plan for… conservation efforts [for] the native carabao is the development of frozen embryos, which will be used when needed,” Piñera said.

The calving interval of the dam is reported to be good. The conserved animals weigh, on the average,a satisfactory 350 kg each when they are 24 months of age.

“As part of the master plan for the conservation of our native carabaos, improvement of the carcass traits of the animals is studied. We are following the same plan under the GIP [as to] what kinds of native carabaos—taking into account their traits, performance and other attributes—we should develop. The outstanding animals in our conservation site will be distributed to cooperatives or farmer-cooperators who are keen on raising native carabaos for their intended purposes,” Piñera explained.

A Native Carabao Sanctuary in the Visayas

In the island-town of Pres. Carlos P. Garcia (CPG) in Bohol, it is considered taboo to bring in live carabaos or the frozen semen of carabaos of foreign breeds. CPG boasts of having some 300 native carabaos in the care of its farmers. Some of these animals weigh more than 500 kg. The municipality’s aim of preserving native carabaos was given a boost through a memorandum of agreement (MOA) regarding the carabao development program (CDP)with the PCC at Ubay Stock Farm (PCC at USF), signed in 2010 and focusing on the conservation, improvement, and use of native carabaos on the island.

CPG is the only island-town in the country dedicated to the 30 VOLUME XX MARCH 2016 AGRICULTURE MONTHLY conservation of the native carabao; given that it is named after former President Carlos P. Garcia, renowned for implementing and popularizing the “Filipino First Policy,” the town carries on his ideals of preferring, conserving, and cherishing the nation’s own. “That is what I want, to conserve our native carabaos and to cherish what is really ours,” CPG mayor Tesalonica Boyboy said.

The town has enacted a local ordinance prohibiting the slaughtering of female carabaos in order to preserve the local breed.

The Work of PCC at ASF

In accordance with its mission to promote and provide direction for the development of the carabao industry, the PCC implements—alongside its other mandates—the conservation and utilization of Philippine native buffaloes as well as the dissemination of appropriate carabao-based technologies.

As indicated in the covering MOA, CPG residents will only raise native carabaos, and the town will not allow the application of intensified AI services that use Murrah buffalo semen.

As the town is isolated from the Bohol mainland, it is an ideal area for the conservation and utilization of the native carabaos. Its surrounding areas—mostly rolling in nature with lush vegetation—are very conducive to carabao production.

In order to accelerate the development and improvement of native carabaos, the PCC at USF and the CPG LGU agreed to launch and implement a program that allows qualified cooperators access to good quality animals and technical support for carabao production and marketing activities for native carabaos. The PCC at USF released 11 quality native carabao bulls to service the 533 female carabaos owned by local farmers. “We are selecting the best bulls to continuously breed and improve the quality of the native carabaos. These bulls will be used for semen extraction and subsequent insemination,” Dr. Caro Salces, PCC at USF center director, said.

He added that the other males will be considered for the carabao meat industry.

Another goal of CPG and the PCC is to develop the native carabaos for dairy production, specifically for cheese processing as native carabao milk has a lot of solids and contains high fat levels. The cheese made out of it is deemed very saleable.

At present, the PCC at USF has 101 head of native carabaos in their institutional facility.

Philippine Carabao Genes are Safe Despite Continuous Carabao Upgrading

Dr. Sarabia added that the implementation of PCC’s program for carabao upgrading can be considered a “…‘speck in a bottle’… because the number of crossbreds was fewer compared to the number of native carabaos. However, the PCC’s efforts [to upgrade the carabao] are creating a big impact in the country as farmers’ benefits from the program and milk production in the country are continuously increasing.”

Beyond that, the PCC also ensures that the breed of native carabaos will not be lost in the frenzy to upgrade local carabaos. The agency is confident of this because of their conservation and cryopreservation efforts. According to Dr. Arnel N. Del Barrio, PCC acting executive director, PCC’s conservation efforts is best seen through its established in-situ gene pool for native carabaos. Dr. Del Barrio said that the agency has a gene pool of native carabaos in PCC at CSU and native herds in PCC at USF in Peñablanca, Cagayan Valley and Ubay, Bohol, respectively.

The PCC at CSU serves as the national site of native carabaos in the Philippine, he added.

Cryopreservation Efforts

In addition to its conservation efforts, the PCC also cryopreserves the genes of the Philippine carabao. Cryopreservation is a process wherein cells, whole tissues, or any other substances susceptible to damage caused by chemical reactivity or time are preserved by cooling to sub-zero temperatures.In the PCC, cryopreservation is done by subjecting germplasm or biological samples (which include semen, oocytes, embryos, blood, and somatic cells of livestock species)to temperatures of -196 degrees Celsius, or the boiling point of liquid nitrogen.

According to Lilian P. Villamor, head of the cryobanking facility, cryobanking at PCC began in 2012 under then-PCC executive director Dr. Libertado C. Cruz. “Now, the facility, which is located inside the Livestock Innovations and Biotechnology (LIB) complex of the PCC national headquarters and gene pool in the Science City of Muñoz in Nueva Ecija, is deemed as the national cryobank in the country. At present, the facility banks germplasms of cattle, goats, and carabao.”

Villamor added that there have been initial efforts to bank germplasm of other livestock specie —including native species of pigs, chicken, and ducks—but arrangements for these with the concerned agencies are still ongoing.

The main purpose for cryobanking is to address the following concerns: climate change preparedness, sustainability of genetic materials, and saving the genes of threatened wild livestock species. “Cryobanking can support the establishment of PCC’s in-situ gene pool of buffaloes. It is also a way [through which] we can ‘back up’ [the germplasm] of our animals with good genetic merit for future use,” Villamor explained.

“Being prepared [for climate change] means [that], whatever happens to our live animals—whether it dies or [some other calamity occurs]—we can be sure that we…still have the genes of these animals in the future.” She added, “[We can also] sustain [a] supply of genetic materials through cryobanking [to help us] preserve…indigenous species of livestock, especially the animals [threatened in the wild], like the tamaraw. Cryobanking can be a tool to preserve the genetic diversity of animals so that we can preserve the ecological balance.”

Villamor said that the collection of germplasm, specifically for the native carabaos, has just started. Through close coordination with Dr. Ester Flores, they are planning to bank more germplasm from other native animals for future use.“We just bank [the] germplasm of animals with high genetic merit here in the cryobank facility.”

For more information, visit Philippine Carabao Center (PCC). 

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s March 2016 issue.

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