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Burundi Goat Rehabilitation Project

Alliance Burundaise pour la Coopération et le Développement &
Austrian Help Program

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. D. de Treville.  Forthcoming in: THE GOAT RANCHER MAGAZINE, Sarah, Mississippi.

What are the Origins of Pygmy Goats?

A variety of Urban Legends are sometimes proposed about pygmy goats.  Here are some facts, based on my own work in West Africa that has included both on-farm and research station work throughout Africa, as well as training courses conducted in southern Nigeria (humid-tropical) Northern Nigeria (Savannah), Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger (Sahel; Desert), Senegal (both Savannah and sub-tropical, and Northern Sudan (Sahel; Desert). 

The recognized name of the pygmy in West Africa is:  West African Dwarf (WAD).  There is no 'pygmy goat' breed .


West African Dwarf doe – Guinea strain.
- Zootechnie des régions chaudes

A West African Dwarf buck of the Guinea strain
- Zootechnie des régions chaudes

 There are both sheep and goat 'pygmy' breeds and these are predominantly found in tropical and sub-tropical areas.  The sheep variety is called West African Dwarf sheep.

There are various strains of  WAD goats found throughout West Africa  Overall, it is medium-short legged, stocky, and  short-haired.  It is not a 'miniature' goat; it is a goat with shorter legs.   

CAG Buck with Tharcisse
Central African Goats were brought to Burundi many hundreds of years ago from West Africa.  DNA studies show them to be most closely related to the Guinea strain of West African Dwarfs, and the similarity between the 2 breeds can be seen in these photos.

The WAD is basically a dual-purpose goat, providing both milk and meat, though it is particularly prized in West Africa for it's meat.

With the exception of leg length, WADs more closely resemble the Central African Goat and the Small East African goat breeds  that they do any of the 'pygmy' breeds that I've seen (in photos) that have been developed in North America.   Though, I've been told that the older breeds of American pygmy more closely resemble WADs than many of the current strains.

Argnier Olive Tree & Arborial black Goat-S.Morocco
This breed of black goats in S.W.  Morocco relies on olive trees for much of their diet and have suitably long legs and bodies for the task
- Zootechnie des régions chaudes

This small, indigenous goat that is native to Thailand, in S.E. Asia, also shows characteristics of dwarf breeds: shorter legs, but normal sized body.
- Ministry of Agriculture,Thailand

Sahelian Goat
 Breed Burkina Faso
Sahelian Goats of the Eastern Casamance (West Africa) live in more arid regions , must travel greater distances to find browse and reach into brush and trees, and thus and are longer legged- Zootechnie des régions chaudes

Kajang Dwarf Goats, an indigenous  Malaysian breed found in the humid tropics.
- Ministry of Agriculture & Extension, Malaysia


Does Small = One-Meal Goats?

Contrary to some popular thinking, WADs were not 'bred' to be 'one-meal goats'; all indigenous breeds in Africa - as indigenous breeds elsewhere - evolved in relation to the particular ecosystem in which they live.  The growth of an agro-industrial base in the 20th Century has facilitated the development of livestock production systems that are separated to a greater or lesser degree from the ecosystem in which they are being raised - possible because of heavy reliance on commercial inputs.  Some pasture, yes; but commercial feeds - medications - etc. make it possible to 'create' breeds for particular markets (whether it's for people who want 'cute goats' or for those who want 'meat goats' and so forth).  As mentioned above, the short legs may  be associated with their gradually, over generations, having adapted to tropical conditions near the equator.

When are Goats Eaten?

Goat, as other meat,  is often preserved in many parts of Africa - from Sahelian through tropical regions – generally by sun-drying but also by smoking or salting.  If a goat is slaughtered in rural areas it is almost always for a festival or celebration - NOT simply to 'feed a family'.  Goat (as other) meat has never constituted a central feature of farm diets in Africa (or in many other parts of the world).  Protein is primarily obtained from tubers, rice, beans, grains, etc - the combination depending on the geographical area.  This is not necessarily a function of poverty - it is a function of traditional diets.   On the whole, goats are too important an investment to be  slaughtered for day-to-day eating.


As one moves northwards (from tropical and sub-tropical West Africa, into the Sahel and arid regions), both goat and sheep breeds are longer legged and leaner.  In other words, WADs are found primarily in tropical and sub-tropical regions - not in the Sahel and in arid regions where goats kept by nomadic and semi-nomadic groups are longer legged, longer bodied and longer muscled – allowing them to cover long distances and reach forage that is often high up in the trees

There have been discussions about what adaptive advantages short legs would have for sheep and goats in tropical and sub-tropical ecosystems.  Based on the adjoining two photos, of an indigenous dwarf  goat breed found in tropical Malaysia and Thailand (S.E. Asia), there does seem to be a correlation between dwarfism and tropical climates.  It is certainly the case that given density of forage close to the ground in humid and subhumid climates, the long legs, body and neck of goats found in arid and semi-arid regions are not needed.

Dot-Goat Meat Kitchen
Project staff in Burundi preparing goat meat over wood fires for  a large celebration. Omer, cook and para-vet, is on  the left, and on the right is the primary school teacher of his youngest daughter, invited to participate in the fete.

Project herders hang the Christmas goat high up in a tree for the day prior to cooking

Why Are Goats the Most Popular Livestock Breed, Globally?

Indigenous goats in most of Africa (as well as in many other developing areas) are not raised by smalllholders for specific markets (meat - pets - show - etc.).  They are raised for a bundle of very practical reasons:

    1. As an investment ('savings bank on the hoof')
    2. As quick cash during emergencies - a       primary reason for keeping goats
    3. Use of manure/urine as fertilizer
    4. Slaughtered for celebrations and for gifts
    5. To gain prestige

Nor are goats raised to clear bush perform in shows, or as a pet.  Their keeping is related to particular functions attached to them - some cultural but most economic (above).


Goats are kept by small farmers instead of cattle because:

    1. Easier for women and children to raise and handle (they're often the primary 'goat keepers')

    2. Less investment per animal & so easier to buy  & maintain plus, if the animal dies, less loss that as with a cow

    3. Faster turn-around time in breeding - great if there's been large loss of stock due to raids, drought, etc.

    4. Less investment lost when slaughtering for a festival or celebration than with cattle

    5. Easier to move and/or hide in serious cases of insecurity, or drought-diseases-etc.

    6.  As browsers, eat a much wider variety of plant species than either cattle or sheep and do not compete with cattle.


Senegalese Doe & Triplets

Local breed of goat in the Senegal that is related to dwarf breeds
- Zootechnie des régions chaudes

Small Ruminant Origins

The domestication of goats began approximately 10,000 years ago in semi-arid and steppe regions of central Asia and the Middle East.  As a breed, they evolved as movers and grazers, not intended to be confined on small farms & in humid climates.  One reason goats have less tolerance to worms (i.e.,  higher worm burdens) than most other domestic animals appears to have resulted from their having evolved in  nomadic and semi-nomadic environments for so many millennia that natural selection for increased worm-tolerance in enclosed environments simply hasn't taken place.  


Exceptions include the West African Dwarf and other breeds found in the humid tropics, which has some genetic resistance to parasites and several vector-born diseases, as well as many other sub-Saharan breeds that have had several thousands of years to adapt to more enclosed, humid conditions:  Natural selection, wherein the most vulnerable die off has resulted in these more genetically resistant breeds – a process that continues today.


Origins of goats & sheep in the Middle East & Central Asia, showing their spread and domination over arid and semi arid regions of the area- Mackenzie, Goat Husbandry.  1967

A final observation:  Africa has a population of over 205 million sheep and 174 million goats representing more than 17% and 31% of the world total, respectively (FAO 1990).  Most livestock owners in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, whether smallholders, nomadic or semi-nomadic, raise goats and sheep.  Just the opposite is found in most developed countries, where cattle are the preferred meat animal.

Does in the Compound

A herd of purebred Central African Goats [CAG] &  F1 – F3 Alpine/CAG crosses in the Project compound prior to being taken out to browse/graze in the nearby scrub commonlands along Lake Tanganyika.

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