Native carabaos are forever

Not a few animal experts have expressed the fear of losing the blood lines of the native carabaos.

Their fear is not totally baseless, though. The heightened efforts on improving the breed of native carabaos, by way of artificial insemination and the fielding of quality bulls of the imported breed, are on-going and thousands of carabao farmer-owners are responding favorably.

Complementing the efforts on producing more crossbreds is the distribution of modules of carabaos of the dairy breed, which, of course, are also multiplying fast. And, in the face of these developments, some apprehension have been expressed that attention to the breed of the native carabaos as well as their continual development may wane and eventually cause detrimental effects on the welfare or survival of this animal.

Will it happen?

“It will not happen,” officials of the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC) assured.

“There are parallel efforts to conserve and use the native carabaos,” they added.

These parallel efforts are as intense and developments indicate that the breed of the native carabaos will forever be in the agricultural scene in the country. In fact, institutions and private groups as well as individuals driven by the necessity of maintaining breeds of native carabaos are making sure that their animals are not mixed with the blood of the foreign breed.

Native carabaos

Accounts about this beloved of animals on the agricultural scene tell us that it is not indigenous or native to the country. Known worldwide as the water buffalo, having two types, which are the riverine and swamp types, it was the latter that was brought to the country by the migrants.

The swamp-type buffalo, known locally as carabao, was like manna from heaven as it has soon become the farmers’ friendly ally in myriads of agricultural works. Being a very reliable and sturdy animal, which has a docile temperament, it was also harnessed for several uses – like, among others, being a power for some transport facilities, for trudging difficult and perilous terrains, as players in cultural and sporting events, center of attention in festivals, for food, as a ready bank in case of unexpected need for some financial travails, and others.

Over time, however, despite its importance to humans, particularly in the countryside, the carabao suffered neglect in terms of its breed, proper nutrition and care. It dwindled in size and weight. It also suffered decimation of its population due to the onslaught of diseases, indiscriminate slaughtering, and even massacre during the war on suspicion that they were being used by the enemies in transporting armaments and provisions.

This undeserved fate that befell on this animal prevailed for a long time. Thus, many of these animals appeared to be a far cry from the big and robust animal that they used to be. Until some positive steps were undertaken by persons or authorities concerned, that is, although a little bit late in coming.

In the early 1970’s, research and development works on the carabao became the seed that eventually became the impetus for more beneficial things to come the way of this animal. Then funding from the UNDP-FAO, with counterpart funding from the national government, the strengthening of the carabao research and development project, which included upgrading of its breed, was carried out for several years. And, eventually, the Philippine Carabao Act of 1992 was enacted.

Among others, the law provides 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 to increase the carabao population and its productivity, undertake reproduction, breeding, nutrition and animal health activities, and conduct researches to ensure economic viability and acceptance of the technologies for the farmers.

Thus, while the upgrading of the native carabaos take 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.

Current practices and efforts indicate that this is true.

Conservation and use in Batanes

There’s a place called “Marlboro Country” in Batanes. It is in the southern part of municipality of Mahatao, in the middle section of the Batan Island, comprising 167.93 hectares which is one-third of the total land area of the town. They call the place as “Racuh a Payaman”, a declared Communal Pasture Land Parcel 1, encompassed by 23 sitios belonging to either 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. Also managed by another association, its 32 members composed of farmers and fishermen have 135 native carabaos.

Each of the members, who own an average of six carabaos each, is given specific areas to tend his animals. He pays P60 per head annually, on top of his payment of P500 as lifetime member of the association, which amounts are used for the upkeep of the area and for the 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,” he added.

Alejandro Camacho Jr., OIC municipal agriculturist of Mahatao said the association is making sure that only native carabaos are maintained by the farmers in the pasture land.

“We can say that their carabaos are ‘organic’. They are not vaccinated nor injected with medicine and they don’t practice deworming,” Camacho Jr. said.

He said the mortality rate is almost negligible as the members take home and confine their carabaos in their backyard when they 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 collector and others,” the OIC municipal agriculturist said. “We also see to it that the set rules and regulations of the association are adhered to,” he added.

Joenard Carzon, the association’s vice chair, said the members follow strictly the rules that they themselves have 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,” he said. “They are also on strict orders to make sure that their animals are confined only in the respective areas assigned to them. These must be done by fencing their respective areas,” he added.

He said there is a team assigned to check if the perimeter fences are in order. For a carabao that is found to have gone astray, the owner is fined P200.

“Our set time for the visit of the farmers of their native carabaos is from five o’clock to seven o’clock in the morning and three in the afternoon every Sunday,” Carzon said. “But they are also allowed to visit their animal anytime provided they get the necessary permission,” he added.

The farmers normally take the animals out of the communal ranch for their work in the field from December to March for the planting of palay and root crops.

“The members are constrained to sell their animals fit for slaughtering when they need money to finance the studies of their children. They sell it for P20,000 to P25,000 each regardless of whether it is male or female,” Carzon said.

The members declared they will continuously maintain their herd of native carabaos, saying that the animals are very useful for their works in the field and as serve as ready cash when they are in dire need for money.

Conservation and traits improvement

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

“We have individual records for these animals,” Rubina R. Piñera, training specialist III of the PCC at Cagayan State University, said. “Their records are in a data base, which is also given to our Genetic Improvement Program (GIP) office in the PCC national headquarters,” she revealed.

The growth rate and reproductive performance of each of the native carabaos are monitored and recorded, she added.

The best of the bulls in the herd have been sent to the PCC national bull farm in Barangay Joson in Carranglan, Nueva Ecija as semen donors.

“Whenever we need frozen semen for the AI service of the breedable native carabaos in the conservation site, we get it from Digdig,” Piñera said. Digdig, the former name of Barangay Joson, is what PCC personnel call the national bull farm.

Some of the frozen semen are distributed to interested farmers elsewhere for the propagation of their native carabaos. The others are cryo-banked for conservation.

“Part of the plan for the conservation efforts of 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 body weight of the conserved animals appeared to be good also as they weigh at an average of 350 kilograms each at 24 months in 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 on what kinds of native carabaos—taking into account their traits, performance and other attributes—that we should develop,” Piñera said.

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, she added.

Native carabaos sanctuary in the Visayas

In the island-town of Pres. Carlos P. Garcia (CPG) in Bohol, it is a “no-no” to bring in live carabaos or frozen semen of carabaos of foreign breed.

The island-town, which is about 15 minutes by boat from the port of Ubay, Bohol, now boasts of some 300 native carabaos in the hands of the farmers. Some of these animals hulk to more than 500 kilograms each.

The municipality’s pursuit in preserving the native carabaos was given a necessary push through a memorandum of agreement (MOA) on the carabao development program (CDP) with the PCC at Ubay Stock Farm (PCC at USF) signed in 2010. The MOA is focused on the conservation, improvement and use of the native carabaos in the island.

CPG is the only island-town in the country dedicated for the conservation of the native carabao, and it is but befitting, for the town is named after former President Carlos P. Garcia renowned for implementing and popularizing the “Filipino First Policy”—preferring, conserving and cherishing what the nation owns.

“That is what I want, to conserve our native carabaos and to cherish what is really ours,” CPG Mayor Tesalonica Boyboy said.

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

Tie-up with PCC at USF

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

As indicated in the covering MOA ), the CPG residents will raise only native carabaos. It will not allow the application of the intensified artificial insemination services using Murrah buffalo semen.

As the town is isolated from the Bohol mainland, it is the most 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 the 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 of the native carabaos.

The PCC at USF released 11 quality native carabao bulls to service the 533 female carabaos owned by the 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 the CPG town and the PCC is to develop the native carabaos for dairy production, specifically for cheese processing as the native carabao’s milk has a lot of solids and contains high fat. 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.

PC gene is safe over continuous carabao upgrading

In a survey conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) last January 2015, it showed that the country has a 2.85M carabao population. From these, the PCC stated that there were an estimated 43,000 head of milking animals, comprising Bulgarian and Brazilian murrah buffaloes, Italian Mediterranean breed, and the crossbreds.

“From 43,000 head of animals, we actually have 10,000 head of our imported breeds while about 29,700 are crossbreds,” Dr. Annabelle S. Sarabia, PCC’s chief of operations said.

She added that the implementation of PCC’s program in carabao upgrading can be considered as a “speck in a bottle. “This is because the number of crossbreds was fewer compared to the number of native carabaos,” she added.

“However, the PCC’s efforts in carabao upgrading are creating a big impact in the country as farmers benefits’ from the program and milk production in the country are continuously increasing,” she emphasized.

Beyond that, of course, the PCC also ensures everyone that the breed of native carabaos would not be lost in the frenzy of carabao upgrading. The agency is confident because of their conservation and cryopreservation efforts.

According to Dr. Arnel N. Del Barrio, PCC acting executive director, PCC’s conservation efforts can be simply seen through its established in-situ gene pool of native carabaos.

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

Aside from conservation efforts, PCC also cryopreserves the genes of the Philippine Carabao.

Cryopreservation, as defined by scientist and experts, 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 germplasms or biological samples (which include semen, oocytes, embryos, blood and somatic cells of livestock species) to -196 degrees celsius for the boiling point of liquid nitrogen.

According to Lilian P. Villamor, head of the cryobanking facility, cryobanking at PCC was already started in 2012 when Dr. Libertado C. Cruz was still the PCC executive director.

“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 as the national cryobank in the country,” she said.

“At present, the facility banks germplasms of cattle, goats and carabao,” she stated.

She added that there have been initial efforts to bank germplasm of others livestock species that include native species of pigs, chicken and ducks, but, arrangements with various entities are still in process.

Villamor mentioned that the main reason of 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 where we can back-up germplasms of our animals with good genetic merit for future use,” Villamor said.

She further explained that:

“Being prepared in the changing climate means, whatever happens to our live animals, whether it dies or something, we can be sure that we can still have the genes of these animals in the future.”

“Another is that, we can sustain supply of genetic materials through cryobanking and this effort can help us to preserve the indigenous species of livestock, especially the wild threatened animals like the tamaraw.”

“Cryobanking can be a tool to preserve the genetic diversity of animals so that we can preserve the ecological balance,” she further said.

Villamor mentioned that the collection of germplasms, specifically for the native carabaos, has just started. Though, she added that, in close coordination with Dr. Ester Flores, PCC national GIP coordinator, they are planning to bank many germplasms of native animals too for future use.

“We just bank germplasms of animals with high genetic merit here in the cryobank facility,” she further said.