There are a number of theories about the origin of the spectacular Ankole Watusi. Some propose they are descendants of the humped Zebu of Pakistan and India. Others suggest a relation to the African buffalo. Still others point to the art of Ancient Egypt as a clue to the breed’s origin.
While the ancestors of the Ankole Watusi are uncertain, the history of the breed itself is better known, as it was long an important piece of the culture of the various African tribes from the Lake Victoria region. Interestingly, the Ankole Watusi was bred for form rather than function. Cattle symbolized wealth in the primitive culture of the African tribes, and horn length indicated the social status of the owner. The cattle with the longest horns were only to be found in the hands of the tribal chiefs; hence the breed’s nickname: the Cattle of Kings.
Of course, the cattle were useful for more than just showing off wealth and prestige. Cows were milked daily, usually at the expense of the calf. On rare occasions, Watusi cattle might also be used as draft oxen. But because of their symbolic importance, they were butchered only on special occasions, and they were never sold except in cases of dire necessity.
The Ankole Watusi came to the rest of the world primarily for the purpose of creating interesting zoo exhibits. The first 21 arrived in Leipzig in 1929 through the efforts of wildlife collector Christoph Schulz. Evidently the novel cattle exhibit was a success, as more Watusi arrived in Europe throughout the 1930s.
The breed first came to the United States as a gift from the Copenhagen Zoo to the Catskill Game Farm in New York. Three bulls were sent over in 1960, followed by the first cow in 1963. More imports arrived from Britain and Sweden throughout the ’60s, most of them finding homes in zoos and game parks.
However, American zoos were beginning to change their focus. Instead of creating displays of eye-catching animals, they were starting to make efforts to preserve truly endangered wildlife. Therefore, the Ankole Watusi cattle were sold to private breeders to make room for rarer species.
Only a few generations of breeding were necessary to demonstrate that the limited gene pool was going to be a severe handicap. Therefore, extensive upgrading was carried out to prevent inbreeding. The original animals were designated as Foundation Pure and crossed to Texas Longhorns. The female offspring of these crosses were then bred back to Foundation Pure cattle, and the upgrading process continued. 7/8 pure females and 15/16 pure males were designated as Native Pure.
The results of the upgrading program have proved to be satisfactory. This is fortunate for those interested in preserving the breed, since Ankole Watusi numbers have declined drastically in Africa in recent years as native farmers have turned to the Holstein for milk. Although not as adapted to the hot, buggy African climate, the Holstein unquestionably produces more milk, albeit of a lower quality.
The Ankole Watusi was historically kept as a dairy animal, although it is not an outstanding producer. However, it can be used in upgrading programs to raise the butterfat content of the milk of other breeds.
In America, the breed shows more promise as a beef animal. When crossed to other beef breeds, the Ankole Watusi improves calving ease and imparts impressive amounts of hybrid vigor to its offspring.
At this point, however, the Ankole Watusi is mostly a novelty breed, making a fine addition to petting zoos. Skulls and horns are often used as decorations.
Even though those horns can be intimidating, Ankole Watusi cattle are docile, even trainable. They are also alert for predators, sticking closely together for protection. The breed is noted for its strong social instinct.
Now that inbreeding problems have been eliminated, the Ankole Watusi’s hardy constitution has come to light. No major health issues exist in this breed.
- Resistance to insects, drought, intense sunlight, and extremes of temperature (African temperatures can range from 20° to 120°F).
- Ability to thrive on rough forage.
- Ability to walk long distances to find food and water.
- Horns for protection from predators.
- High fertility.
- Calving ease.
- Vigorous calves.
- Strong mothering instincts.
- Rich milk.
- Healthy, tender meat, claimed by breeders to be low in cholesterol.
- Expensive to purchase.
- Logistical issues with chutes and trailers due to long horns.
- Late maturity, 18 months of age.
- Only two pints of milk a day.