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Mora Valley buffalypso to be slaughtered?

By SHEREEN ANN ALI. Published in UWI Today, July 2018 issue. University archives link: https://sta.uwi.edu/uwitoday/archive/july_2018/article6.asp

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International experts urge that we test all buffalypso regularly, preserve healthy animals, and actively manage all herds, vaccinating and interbreeding healthy stock with productive foreign breeds to produce better quality animals for future food security (especially in the lucrative dairy products sector). But the TT Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries wants to get out of the buffalypso business.

The agriculture ministry’s long-standing ‘test and slaughter’ policy for brucellosis-infected buffalypso evades the fundamental need to actively manage herds all the time for any healthy, long-term water buffalo food industry to develop – something the ministry, under many different governments, has spectacularly failed to do.

Local stakeholders want to prevent eradication of local buffalypso, preserve valuable genetic stock, and are seeking collaborative initiatives to assess, heal, finance and build a TT buffalypso industry to help supply good local sources of protein.

Who will pay for this, though? The current agriculture ministry leadership says it will not, because, it says, the ministry lacks the skills, efficiencies, money and desire to do it. 

The tragic plight and immense promise of T&T buffalypso were two driving themes of a recent UWI conference on June 1 and 2, 2018, called: “Revitalizing the buffalypso: Our national treasure.” A unique collaboration between the UWI School of Veterinary Medicine (Faculty of Medical Sciences) and the Faculty of Food and Agriculture, the conference was a lively mix of current academic research, veterinary medical insights and successful water buffalo farming experiences grounded in practical, real world, very profitable water buffalo industries being run in many other nations right now.

Respected experts from both Italy and Venezuela came to share their own experiences of successful water buffalo farming. They spoke of the need to routinely minimize the brucellosis disease through active, continual herd management, and the many delicious and profitable spin-off food industries that can arise from water buffalo farming, urging Trinidad to not squander a great opportunity.

Film documentary arts were also part of the mix as an early version of the film “The Last Stand” educated conference participants about our valuable buffalypso heritage, the food security role it can play, and the problems facing buffalypso in T&T today. A work in progress, the short film is being directed by Vishal Rangersammy and Akilah Stewart, with Stewart also writing the screenplay and producing the documentary.

Conference participants expressed grave concerns about the future of the Mora Valley buffalypso herd at Guayaguayare Road, Rio Claro. Some were also troubled that a long history of State neglect might lead to decline of even the small numbers of healthy buffalypso kept at Aripo, and urged that we conserve and expand the healthy stock.

Leela Rastogi, who has studied animal science, breeding and genetics at McGill University, said at the conference that T&T currently has 2,200 head of buffalypso, down from 3,600 in 2009. The largest herd is in Mora Valley, numbering an estimated 800 to 900-plus animals deemed to be brucellosis-infected and roaming freely through the beautiful green Mora Valley. But none have been recently tested, so we don’t really know their status. The last time some of them were tested was in 2013 by agriculture ministry workers for a project which subsequently never got the necessary staff or resources to carry through to meaningful results. So Mora Valley buffalypsoes have been virtually abandoned by any systematic agricultural policy to manage them well or encourage good health. State-controlled buffalypsoes are supposed to be managed by the Ministry of Agriculture which inherited the herd after the demise of Caroni (1975) Ltd in 2003.

From innovation to State neglect: Dr Steve Bennett’s legacy ignored

TT veterinarian Dr Steve Bennett, a former jockey and dedicated believer in local food security (he died in 2011 at the age of 89), is the person whose vision, passion and talent developed our unique buffalypso breed through innovative selective breeding of several hardy and productive imported Indian water buffalo breeds during his time working at Caroni Limited in the late 1950s and 1960s. Through his own selected breeding and his improvement of their living, feeding, and health conditions, Dr Bennett succeeded in creating a healthy, well-maintained herd of unique buffalypso cows, calves and bulls by 1967, a great starting point for a flourishing local food sector.

But flash forward to today, some 60 years later, and you can see the descendants of Steve Bennett’s once-thriving buffalypso herd looking depleted and sadly neglected, while other countries have made great strides with buffalypsoes they imported from T&T decades ago. How did it come to this?

As Vaneisa Baksh reported in the April 2018 issue of UWI Today, some local buffalypsos contracted brucellosis and this was detected in 1998. We don’t know for sure where the disease came from; perhaps from infected cattle imported from the US in the late 90s, or perhaps, as veterinarian and livestock consultant Mahfouz Aziz suggested at the conference, brucellosis came to these shores much earlier, from infected cows imported via Carriacou.

Baksh quoted an April 2017 status report on the buffalypso industry published in Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad), which used 2012 data and said: “A test and slaughter brucellosis eradication programme, instituted by the Government, resulted in the three large WB (water buffalo) producers selling their stock and closing their WB production operations. Based on annual reports, 3,255 WB were slaughtered due to a positive brucellosis status from 1998 to 2008.”

Baksh reported that in 1999, the Animal Health Division tried limited vaccination with the brucella abortus vaccine strain RB51, which had been very effective in cattle; but it did not seem to work on local buffalypso. So the animals believed to be infected were confined to the Mora Valley Estate in Rio Claro in 2003 and left to run wild. And not much more was done after that.

The importance of herd management

The apparent failure of RB51 vaccination, however, is not surprising if that is all that is done, according to one expert. Valerie Ragan is Director of the Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine at the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. In a contribution to the UWI buffalypso conference booklet, she says: “Vaccination alone will not rid this herd of brucellosis, but may be an additional tool to interrupt transmission. Herd management will play the most important role.”

That means a whole range of measures, including vaccination. A regular testing schedule for all the animals; facilities for cows to calve individually or in small groups (brucellosis is spread at time of abortion or calving, so pregnant animals should be carefully managed); removal and slaughter of animals that test positive for brucellosis; separation and testing of very young animals before sexual maturity; and setting up a cleaning and disinfection plan are all measures she mentions.

One can also set up positive and negative farms for gradual depopulation and repopulation, she says. The negative herd would be the seed stock to repopulate the herd, ideally relocated to another location, vaccinated with RB51, with heifers and calving intensely managed, regular tests, and prompt removal/slaughter of any animals found to be incubating brucellosis before they can spread it. When breeds of buffalo herds are managed with plans like this, the incidence of brucellosis can be dramatically reduced.

None of these measures are revelations. It’s just that TT hasn’t done them. The neglect of buffalypso reflects the decline of the country’s entire agricultural sector, which no TT government has done much to remedy. “If we were to do an agricultural census now, we would see that production in every area has declined by maybe 60-70 percent, with the exception of poultry production,” noted Leela Rastogi after Minister Rambharat’s speech on June 1.

Two years ago (in 2016), workers at Mora Valley Farm complained of bad working conditions there, and alleged there was even a lack of enough food for the struggling buffalypso herd, especially during the dry season when there is not enough grass. There are now fears the current Ministry of Agriculture may slaughter all Mora Valley buffalypso without prior testing or considering other (admittedly much more expensive) options.

Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat stated to writer Vaneisa Baksh in an April 2018 UWI Today article that “We cannot develop buffalypso without addressing the high level of brucellosis positives in the largest herd [at Mora Valley]. So the Ministry will cull the herd while at the same time preserving the brucellosis-free genetic material we have at Aripo.”

State says no to financial support

On June 1 at the UWI buffalypso conference, Rambharat made it clear the State no longer wants to be directly involved in the buffalypso industry, and said financial support for the industry “will not happen under my watch.”

He admitted his ministry has never had the capacity to manage any buffalypso herd properly, and said that “no modern Government” should be in the business of “minding livestock” or “selling milk”, which he believed should be left to farmers with the interest and passion for producing food. He said: “Maybe a differently shaped ministry, in particular, livestock, will make those (State buffalypso) farms available to the private sector for participation.” He said he would welcome news of any private sector investors today willing to invest in T&T buffalypso, and said that any committee planning to revitalize the local buffalypso industry should have financial planners on it.

He conceded that there may be local prospects for a buffalypso industry, but seemed to prefer locally-grown chicken as the main protein source, because he said “chicken currently creates 12,000 direct jobs.” And he noted that any country except Brazil can send meat to T&T for sale. A conference participant later noted that any outbreak of bird flu in T&T could wipe out all our chickens, so investing in other protein sources (like buffalypso) still makes a lot of sense.

Unlike the current Agriculture Minister, Professor Brinsley Samaroo is a passionate advocate for investing in buffalypso to help us feed ourselves. He reminds us that Trinidad exported buffalypso in the 1970s and 1980s to many countries including Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Miami, Mexico and Italy. He states: “By 2004 buffalypso milk was being used for the making of yoghurt, ice cream, ghee, and cheeses such as mozzarella, queso blanco and queso de mano. In the countries to which the animal has been exported, there are thriving herds, gene banks, profitable meat, milk and hide industries, all attesting to the genetic engineering pioneered by Steve Bennett.”

Indeed, according to figures collated by Leela Rastogi, Argentina currently has 100,000 head of water buffalo; Brazil has 3,500,000; Cuba has 67,300, Venezuela has 350,000, Mexico has 10,000, Colombia has 400,000 while T&T has 2,200. In those other countries, there are now thriving buffalo and related food industries.

Meanwhile, what has Trinidad done to advance its own buffalypso sector? Nothing at all.

That may change if buffalypso industry stakeholders and interested entrepreneurs figure out some ways forward after the in-depth sharing at the June 1 and 2 UWI buffalypso conference. Conference organizers are inviting all interested parties to contact them at buffalypso.tnt@gmail.com to share information and ideas to preserve the buffalypso and develop the industry in T&T.

As Leela Rastogi put it: “At the end of the day, we say: we cannot drink oil and smell gas. We have to feed ourselves. Can’t we?”