- India honoured veterinary professor and celebrated animal conservationist Sosamma Iype this year by awarding Padma Shri for her pioneering efforts in protecting the native Vechur cow breed, which once faced forcible extinction because of an official policy to promote high milk yielding crossbreeds.
- Iype and her team faced allegations of biopiracy and gene robbery for initiating conservation of the Vechur cow. But the investigations eventually absolved her from the charges in the following years.
- The Vechur experiment prompted veterinary experts and institutions across the country to conserve 28 native breeds which were on the verge of extinction, and they include Sikkim’s small and short-legged Siri cow and the Tharparkar of Rajasthan’s Thar desert.
Now in her early eighties, retired veterinary professor and celebrated animal conservationist Sosamma Iype still remembers an incident from over four decades ago. It was after midnight when her student Anil Zachariah jumped the compound wall of her residence at Mannuthy in Kerala’s Thrissur district and knocked on the door. He had news – the discovery of the now-famous Vechur dwarf cow which was officially extinct that time.
“There was heavy rain, and the gate was locked from inside. Because of the power outage, the doorbell was not working. So, he jumped the compound wall and knocked on the door to share the much-awaited discovery,” said Iype, who received Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India, this year, for the pioneering efforts to conserve the native cow breed. The smallest of cow breeds in the world, the Vechur dwarf cow faced extinction because of the then governmental policy to promote high milk-yielding crossbreeds.
Iype hails from Niranam village near Vechur in Kottayam district, where the dwarf cow also comes from. In her classes at the Kerala Agricultural University’s veterinary college (now an independent veterinary university), where she was head of the department of genetics and breeding, Iype shared her memories of relishing the milk of the extinct Vechur cow. “Typically, 90 cm tall and one-metre-long, Vechur cows demanded very little food and no special care. The milk was rich in fat, and the variety was tolerant to heat and resistant to most diseases, including the foot-and-mouth disease,” Iype would tell her students.
When she shared her dream to trace the surviving Vechur cows and conserve them scientifically, twelve of her students took it as a challenge to scout Vechur and villages close by for any surviving Vechur cows.
The students conducted their search over several months from house to house. Finally, Zachariah found a surviving original Vechur cow at a farm in Ullala near Vechur.
Inspired by that discovery, Iype and her students intensified their search. Within six months, they were able to find 29 cows of the native breed. These were privately owned cows and the students engaged in long term interactions with the owners about the importance of conserving the animals. The cows were brought in to the cowshed of the Genetic and Breeding Department of the veterinary college and the owners were monetarily compensated.
After bringing the cows to the breeding department, their authenticity was checked to ascertain if any were cross breeds. The team had also spotted some Vechur bulls. Using them, the team facilitated breeding.
According to Zachariah, the conservation team collected the cows from the geographical area surrounding Vechur village based on their history and phenotype (appearance). He said his team adopted the same practices followed by animal breeders across the globe.
Now almost four decades after the pioneering effort, the Vechur cows have become icons of India’s native cow conservation movement, and more than 6,000 such dwarf cows support the milk and cow dung needs of people across the country. Across India, many farms and native breed protectors are rearing Vechur cows. The university facilitates supply of calves to interested buyers across the country.
Allegations, rivalry and other challenges
The Padma Shri awarded to Iype marks the nation’s acknowledgement and regard to those who initiated the native breeds conservation movement across the country. While her journey has resulted the award and praise for her achievements, the process was riddled with challenges such as professional rivalry, counter campaigns, and concerted efforts for character assassination.
Though Iype started the conservation efforts as a silent mission, she and the cows created international headlines in September 1997 for the wrong reasons. A prominent environmental activist had written an article in a national journal accusing Iype of engaging in gene robbery under the guise of conserving the native breed. According to the activist, Iype helped Roslin Institute in Edinburgh in the United Kingdom to patent genes from the Vechur cattle. She faced numerous investigations and large-scale media trials over the allegation. Even her relatives and friends suspected her integrity. But the investigations eventually absolved her from the charges in the following years.
Nobody has the patent of the Vechur cow, and the controversy was part of an organised lie, said Iype, who prompted farmers across the nation to buy and rear Vechur cows along with all other native breeds.
“The fat globules in the milk of Vechur cows are easily digestible for children and convalescents. Other than the biopiracy controversy, internal feuds in the veterinary college had also resulted in the killing of some of the Vechur cows we took to the college under mysterious circumstances. At least a dozen Vechur cows were found dead in the cowsheds in 1993, presumably because of poisoning,” recalled Iype.
“Without conducting proper post-mortem, the university authorities just said the cows died because of snake bite. They even ignored our requests to conduct post-mortem in veterinary hospitals outside the ambit of the university. Such was the intensity of the attacks against the conservation initiative in the beginning,” said Iype, who said she saved herself and the remaining cows from vicious attacks because of the appreciation from the scientific community and general people to the conservation effort.
Despite large scale counter campaigns, the project received complete support from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). ICAR was convinced by Iype’s stand that the Roslin Institute had no programme to preserve germplasm either from the U.K. or from foreign breeds.
“Our students used to go to the institute for training. I never visited the institute, as alleged by the activist. I am happy now that the nation recognises my efforts, and the Vechur experiment prompted veterinary experts and institutions to conserve 28 native breeds which were on the verge of extinction,” said Iype, who travels around the country inspiring farmers who rear the native breeds and prompting institutions to focus more on the subject.
Conserving native cow breeds
According to Zachariah, who is now a celebrity veterinarian in Kerala, the milk revolution of the 1950s accompanied by a crossbreeding whip from the government, had started wiping out native cow breeds. In Kerala, a livestock improvement act was passed in 1961, and it declared possession of native breeds of cows as illegal.
Across the state, Vechur cows were extensively inseminated with exotic bulls. The surviving pure breed Vechur cows represent the courageous stand of some farmers who believed in native breeds despite the strict implementation of the ban.
From the beginning of Iype’s conservation initiative, her rivals campaigned that the cows brought to Mannuthy were not pure Vechur cows and might be crossbred. However, she and her students continued the mission saying the native breeds hold a future. “Each native breed is adapted to the local climatic conditions, so they are disease-free. Each breed of each animal has adapted to the respective conditions. They may not be as productive as some exotic foreign breeds, but their resistant power is high. They need little food, so the maintenance is easy. Across India, you can see similar native breeds, including Sikkim’s small and short-legged Siri cow and the Tharparkar of Rajasthan’s Thar desert. They easily survive in adverse climates,” said Zachariah.
“In Kottayam, Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta districts of Kerala, there was a tradition of gifting Vechur cows as marriage gifts to daughters to address nutrition needs during their pregnancy and address staple food requirements of their new-borns. Then agricultural university vice-chancellors E. G. Sailas and K. N. Syamasundaran Nair stood solidly with our project and we were able to begin it amidst all obstacles. In 1989, I gave a project proposal worth Rs. 25,000 for the project. However, Sailas increased the amount to Rs. 65,000 and prompted me to concentrate fully on the conservation. It was a big amount that time,” recalls Iype.
K. Chandran, a retired schoolteacher inspired by Iype, rears 24 Vechur cows on his farm at Vemballur in Thrissur. He said he never had to consult any veterinarian as these cows were never affected by any disease.
A prominent farmer of Vechur cows, Chandran, said state and central governments are needed to incentivise small farmers to promote native breeds as they constitute a vital part of the livestock economy. “The government must provide guidance and marketing support, and it must be turned into a mass movement,” he said.
“It is the duty of veterinary universities and the government to supply the best and original breeds to farmers. Farmers may not be able to select the right variety,” says Iype. According to her, crossbreeds are causing high liability to farmers because of diseases and high maintenance costs. Though retired from the college in 2002, Iype is still active in conservation efforts through the Vechur Conservation Trust formed in 1998.
Kerala’s livestock minister J. Chinjurani, told Mongabay-India that Iype had created a landmark in biodiversity conservation years ago, and her example has prompted the government now to undertake a similar attempt on other native cow breeds of the state such as the Kuttampuzha dwarf, high range dwarf, Kasargod dwarf and Vadakara dwarf.
“Lack of patronage by the government, scientific community and officials is the major stumbling block faced by the farmers. A sizable portion of farmers prefer crossbreed varieties as they give more milk. But if the government prioritises organic milk production, the number of native cow breeders would increase manifolds in little time,” says Iype.
According to her, mixed animals had more genetic commonness and less genetic variety. Because of Kerala’s overemphasis on crossbreeding, more than 45 percent of cattle in Kerala are of the crossbreed variety. That has resulted in a substantial loss in terms of the genetic wealth of domestic animals. Now, scientists treat endangered native cattle like Vechur as part of an invaluable genetic pool.
According to Chandran, high-yielding crossbred cows and sophisticated management alone would not help states like Kerala achieve milk self-sufficiency. “In Kerala, milk production is at the rate of 30 lakh tonnes a year and native breeds can contribute at least a share of it. Native breeds like the Vechur cow may be attractive only to small scale farmers who cannot afford sophisticated management but want to be self-sufficient in the case of milk for household needs. Such small farmers must be identified and promoted,’’ said Chandran, who demands a nationwide movement in support of native cattle varieties.
“We are not against crossbreed cows. But protection of the genetic pool is equally important. Ignoring native breeds and undermining their contributions will not take us anywhere. We require a balanced approach,” said Iype.
Banner image: Padma Shri Sosamma Iype with a Vechur cow. Photo by KK Najeeb.