Editor’s note: Reprinted from Watusi World, winter 1985
What are Watusi cattle? Where did they suddenly appear from? What are they good for? How did they come to be? The following is an account of this breed of cattle. An attempt to answer these key questions.
The cattle industry is a huge industry in our country. There are many divisions to this industry and many varied needs to which end man is constantly striving. There are the Beef industry and the Dairy industry as the two main lines. These two main lines are then further broken down by desired traits which are selectively bred for.
In recent years cattle people have been introduced to many breeds of cattle which, though not new in the world, are new to our country. Each of these breeds possess certain beneficial traits that will enhance weaning weights, milk production, utilization of feed, calving ease, etc.
The Watusi breed of cattle have been present in the North American Continent since some time after World War II. Most of this time these magnificent, huge horned cattle of ancient Africa have been kept in Zoos. Only during the past few years have private individuals taken note of their fine qualities and good traits. The Watusi cattle are now owned by a number of private owners throughout the country as well as by zoos and game farms.
Watusi is the most common of a number of names given to several lines of very similar cattle that are propagated in eastern Africa. They are generally names for the tribes that own them. They are raised in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and parts of the Sudan, the Congo, and Tanzania. They are one of the most distinctive breeds of cattle in all Africa. Essentially they are a cattle of mountain grasslands. The Watusi cattle are kept by Watusi people on the foothills of the Virunga volcanoes. Here the cattle have developed a great degree of hardiness as temperature often reach 120º F by day and drop to 20º F at night. The Watusi cattle seen in southwestern Uganda along the Congo and Rwanda borders are surviving in spite of more than the usual handicaps to cattle raising in Africa, such as extreme overgrazing, stockwater shortage and infectious disease.
Huge uprising horns are the most noticeable characteristic of the Watusi cattle. They have been subject to selection for shape and size of horns in the past. Individual horns will frequently measure five feet in length, six feet tip to tip and 16-18 inches in circumference. These cattle are considered sacred by the tribesmen.
Watusi cattle are the product of nature’s selection for thousands of years. Man has had a hand in shaping them to the extent of also following nature’s instincts and propagating those with the longest, largest horns, etc. selectively. Nature selected the animals in this manner. A cow first must have large enough horns to protect herself and secondly be able to protect her calf. If this horn growth was not attained she could not keep predators such as hyenas at bay. One bite from a hyena will cause an infection to rise in the victim’s body and the hyena will then just follow close by for several days, or as long as it takes, until the victim weakens. Therefore those with inadequate horn growth would perish as well as their offspring – end of that bloodline. The same principal was also true to some extent in the development of disease resistance. Those lacking resistance did not survive.
Watusi calves are born especially alert and within a little time can run beside their mothers, much like a mare and foal. The calves instinctively travel in front of their mothers, within the horn’s reach. When frightened they will dive under the cow for further protection.
The Watusi cattle are known to “stick together” [Glum together is a term used by U.S. Watusi breeders to refer to this trait]. They do this by day or night. By day they are always near to one another and can thereby form a protective “horns out” circle if need be. They also sleep in circle formation, originally with calves in the center for protection. Along with the protective feature of their glumming together goes the fact that they appear to be a highly social breed and just plain enjoy and seek out each other’s company.
The Tsetse fly is an extreme disease carrying problem in Africa and to ward off them and other insects, these cattle have developed an unusually long, ropelike tail.
This breed of cattle can survive on feed and water of poorer quality and less quantity than most other breeds. Their digestive system has the ability to use every bit of moisture, hence a very dry manure.
Watusi cattle did not just suddenly appear – they have been in existence for thousands of years. They, like all domestic cattle, are descendants of the Aurochs, the prehistoric “Wild Ox” mentioned in the Bible. The Aurochs roamed Europe, northern Africa and parts of Asia, becoming completely extinct in 1627 when the last one dies near Warsaw, Poland. Watusi cattle were evidenced in drawings on cave walls and pictured on Egyptian monuments. It is known that they were introduced to western Uganda as early as A.D. 1200 by the Bahima, a pastoral people from the north. However, information on tomb drawings shows long-horned cattle had been domesticated in the Nile Valley by 4000 B.C., before historic times.
When the Bahima people arrived in the vicinity of Lake Victoria, one line moved further south, west of the lake, and then spread eastwards around its southern end and down the eastern border of Tanganyika, where there were pastures and freedom from the Tsetse-fly and other scourges.
Jurgen Schulz of the Catskill Game Farm, Catskill, New York, was able to provide the following information about the spread of the Watusi Cattle. Jurgen’s grandfather, Christoph Schulz, was an animal exporter who lived in Tanganyika [now Tanzania]. Christoph Schulz, along with his son Walter imported some of these cattle into Europe, mostly Germany, in the 1920’s and 1930’s. There they were kept in zoos. After World War II they were propagated more and spread further about Europe and some were brought to Canada. Some cattle from Sweden were imported into the United States. Jurgen and several other importers have in recent years imported some of the cattle from Sweden and England in the United States. Import laws are extremely tight with regard to bringing these cattle into our country. They are not allowed to come directly from Africa, but rather must be the offspring of cattle that have been living in countries such as Sweden or England. The stringent rules are a protective device against bringing disease into our country. Both Sweden and England are not “foot and mouth” disease countries, hence cattle born there are deemed safe for entrance to the United States.
The Watusi people, also known as Tutsi or Batutsi are cattle raisers and warriors. These people are descendants of an invading group. They generally stand in a position of social and economic superiority with respect to the other peoples of the area. The Watusi brought cattle to Burundi and used them to conquer the numerous Hutu population. The Hutu farmers became subjects of the Watusi be receiving cows and protection in exchange for their services.
In Burundi political and economic power was in the hands of the GANWA class, a restricted hereditary political elite – very small number of the Watusi people. Provincial chiefs, as well as the King or MWAMI, belonged to this class.
The Sanga Watusi cattle of Rwanda and Burundi and the north shore of Lake Kivu are a local sub-type of the cattle bred by the Watusi people. The sacred cattle [Inyambo] of the King of Rwanda are of this type. In the Inyambo strain the horns are huge. Horns can reach a tip to tip span of 90+ inches or about eight feet. Horn shape varies. Most common are U shaped or Lyre shaped. They have been obtained by selective breeding and possibly training the horns of young animals.
In Rwanda and Burundi some wealthy tribal chiefs keep giant horned herds of cattle – each chief’s cattle a certain color. One herd red, one white, one spotted, etc. This custom is traceable to an origin in Ethiopia.
The Watusi is usually dark red, but they can be every ordinary color among cattle, including red, black, white, gray, brown, yellow, and dun. A whole dark red is preferred or dark red with small spots or large white splashes.
Times are changing in African livestock raising, just a they do all over the world. Past customs are being forced to give way to better management and the demand for more productivity. In the past tribesmen of the Ankole District of Uganda have been semi-nomadic. They had established homes in areas to which they periodically returned. Cattle raising was their only occupation. Ankole Tribesmen have followed the custom of killing male calves at birth unless they were wanted for breeding. This custom is still followed to some extent. In spite of this poor-seeming practice, the tribes people are warmly attached to their cattle. The owners pet the cattle and talk to them. Cows answer to their names, pushing through the herd when called at milking time.
Milk is a very important part of the diet of the East African people. The Watusi cattle produce high butterfat milk. Some of the peoples traditionally let blood from their cattle which is mixed with the milk to make a high protein food.
There is no refrigeration to keep food as we are used to. The milk is stored in gourds raised by the agriculturalists. The gourds vary much in size from vary small ones for a baby to suck on to large storage vessels. The gourds are opened at the top and the inside cleaned out by scraping and then putting in a burning stick to burn the membranes and char the inside of the gourd. The milk stored in these gourds takes on a smokey char type flavor. It soon begins to sour into a clabbered milk called Moursik. Moursik is a main staple of these people. Babied to old folks thrive on it as it is very nutritious and aids digestion. A Mission Field worker, Gordon Itrich, now of Belfield, North Dakota, tells that this smokey char flavor becomes an acquired taste that is very desirable and one begins to enjoy the smokey odor that permeates the very air about the living quarters.
In the past the cattle totally affected the lives of their owners in many aspects. The people who inter-marry could then inter-breed their cattle and by doing so a unique and yet simple breeding program was maintained. At the time of marrying, a man must be old enough and have enough cattle to be able to make a gift of cattle to the family of the prospective bride. These are unrelated cattle as he is unrelated to his new bride. Also, cattle were commonly considered to be a symbol of status, wealth, and for a long period they have been a medium of exchange.
For a Watusi tribesman to sell his long horned cattle without a good reason would be scandalous and the man who did so would be punished.
Their philosophy that a man owning cattle always has a good [in hand] asset in time of emergency will get him what he wants may not be all bad. The civilized world had held many problems with runaway inflation in the money economy.
From the picture on the Egyptian monuments to their present day surfacing in the mainstream of North American cattle breeding programs the Watusi cattle have proven to be survivors.
Watusi cattle enthusiasts are now banding together through the World Watusi Association to present these multi-faceted cattle to the public. They are gaining acceptance among cattle breeders foe a number of important reasons. First, because it is most noticeable, is the novelty aspect – there is status involved in breeding Watusi carrel. Second, they promise to make an excellent contribution to the Rodeo industry in the form of roping calves, roping steers and eventually bucking bulls. Third, when crossed with beef breeds the offspring show a hybrid vigor capable of producing beef animals of the lean, cholesterol free type that modern day shoppers demand. Fourth, there is an “opportunity” to get involved in a cross breeding program using existing females of any horned breed and having a registerable product in their female offspring, starting at “half bloods” and working on up to Purebreds at seven-eighths bloods. This is the same type of breeding program commonly used in a number of European breeds.