MY ongoing integrated bovine veterinary epidemiology research in Zimbabwe since 2015 resulted in the series of articles ‘Cattle: A custodial heritage of Zimbabwe’, which deals with, among other topics, the long and close association, culture and history the Shona people have shared with their cattle since time immemorial – the Mashona cattle breed.  

Today, this indigenous Zimbabwean heirloom breed is facing near extinction in the land of its origins — Zimbabwe — where it has been bred and reared from the 5th Century to date. 

Originating from the Sanga cattle breed, the MaShona breed boasts an heirship of over 800 years and MaDzimbahwe is its birthplace.  

The loss of three million head of cattle (or 65,9 percent of the indigenous here) in a space of five years (since 2016) and even longer in some rural areas should be of national concern. 

From my great-grandfather Chikambi Zvimba, I learnt that livestock production in Zimbabwe was historically informed by a common indigenous ideology which can be traced back to MaDzimbahwe Iron Age veterinary practices – ancient knowledge which kept the herds alive for centuries.   

Here, the good pastures of sweet savannah grasses of the Lowveld facilitated the cultivation of crops and livestock breeding, thus making permanent settlements possible.  

Today, besides lack of chemicals and financial resources, the demise of our uniquely Zimbabwean Mashona cattle breed is mainly due to a dearth of the necessary technical knowledge of pasture management and conservation as well as lack of primary disease control measures.

Consecutive droughts, errant dipping, unregulated breeding, in-breeding, poor pasture management and a plethora of tick-borne and soil-borne diseases have not only decimated much of our communal herds, but have created stunted and underweight cattle.  

As a result, our famed MaShona cattle breed has shrunk in size and stature in the last two decades.

As expounded in my article, ‘MaShona cattle breed: Zimbabwe’s dynastic Sanga breed’, once the cattle breed of choice for kings and emperors, “… the origins of the MaShona cattle breed stretches from the Great Lakes of East Africa to The Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe and beyond the Limpopo River of Southern Africa; … Archaeology, indigenous economic history and traditional orature give evidence to the age-old dynastic Zimbabwean MaShona cattle breed. 

Raised since the 5th Century, as evidenced on numerous archaeological sites in Zimbabwe, the international reputation of the breeds’ strength and resilience comes from many centuries of skilled traditional animal husbandry and select breeding. 

At Great Zimbabwe and related contemporary Iron Age sites are found faunal remains of cattle in these settlements that reveal that between 1411 and 1550, an elite Shona ruling class kept abundant herds of cattle in the Hill Complex and Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe”

A cytogenetic study (the branch of animal genetics that correlates the structure of chromosomes with heredity and variation elements) reveals that locally, the MaShona cattle have shrunk in weight from an average of 450 kg in 1999, to a maximum of 350 kg in 2019; a loss of 100 kg in 10 years.  

Currently, the average weight of a full adult MaShona carcass is as low as 100 kg to 90 kg.

Archaeozoology studies at MaDzimbahwe settlements recorded by Dr Carolyn Thorp reveal that at the height of the Great Zimbabwe civilisation, between 1250-1450 AD, the prototype adult MaShona cattle at 24-30 months, weighed in excess of 498 kg (live weight), while juvenile cattle (between 15-18 months) weighed over 180 kg.  

Today, in 2021, an adult MaShona beast in the various rural areas of Zimbabwe weighs between 120 kg-150 kg – less than a juvenile beast in the year 1450 AD!

Have we shrunk our MaShona cattle?

These celebrated medium-sized cattle, under ideal conditions, can average 500 kg (cows) and 950 kg (bulls) in Austin, Texas, where I undertook Cattle Health Management at the University of Austin, named after the father of Texas Stephen N. Austin.  

It is also the home of Michael Dell of Dell computers, established in 1984. 

Austin is one of the States in the US where the hardy MaShona cattle is now being reared for its well-known advantageous traits such as its intuitive survival traits, longevity, adaptability, in-built resistance, heightened herd instinct, high fertility, exceptional ease of calving, calves gain weight and mature quickly, resistance to disease, thriving, sustainability on rough grazing, placid temperament and vigorous grazing capacity.  

A maternal breed, MaShona breed cows make great mothers. 

According to Dr Michelina Andreucci, a renowned researcher and expert on post-colonial African land reclamation, agricultural and heritage policy: “The MaShona cattle breed is Zimbabwe’s pillar of strength in livestock husbandry – It is the only indigenous cattle breed in the world that instinctively responds and returns to its owners – dzino dzokera kune mwene wadzo, a homing trait also found on Italian retriever cattle breeds, English dogs, homing pigeons and Zimbabwe’s MaShona cattle and MaShona goats.”

Undoubtedly one of the most adaptive and resilient African cattle breeds south of the Sahara, the famed MaShona cattle breed is also much-coveted in other occidental cattle breeding societies where conditions are suitable for its survival.  

Mashona cattle are able to grow a thick winter coat and thus can thrive in very cold climates. 

Today, in the age of genetically modified foods, as a commercial breed, this distinguished uniquely Zimbabwean MaShona cattle breed embodies all the profitable commercial and veterinary advantages, qualities and breeding values sought after by cattle producers, excellent beef conformity; excellent naturally marbled beef and low-cholesterol fat make it a special gourmet beef to be reckoned with and in demand since the days of MaDzimbahwe.

According to reports from OIE and FAO, the loss of notable heirloom breeds has become a global cause for concern and many efforts are being made internationally to spur global Government policies to revive, conserve and protect heirloom indigenous species.  

Zimbabwe should be seized with the fact that our eminent unique MaShona cattle breed is not only dying from an array of diseases, negligence and disregard for animal health regulations, but also shrinking in size and stature. 

Zimbabwean cattle producers and relative authorities today lack focus on the agro-economic, dietary and health implications of poor national animal husbandry.  Judicious livestock management and stringent, regulated disease control is vital for a nation that prides itself on a rich indigenous cattle culture. 

Dr Tony Monda is currently conducting veterinary epidemiology, agronomy and food security and agro-economic research in Zimbabwe. He also holds a PhD. and a DBA in Post-Colonial Heritage Studies.

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