MBABANE, 20 September 2012 (IRIN) - Cold and wet weather, coupled with overgrazing and poor animal husbandry, has been blamed for the deaths of about 10,000 cattle in Swaziland in the past month - and has increased fears of health risks as people scavenge carcasses for food.
"This is the highest number of cattle deaths in the country's [modern] history," Zolani Dlamini, the director of the government's livestock and veterinary services, told local media.
Since the rinderpest outbreak in the 1890s, which killed about 90 percent of all stock animals in Swaziland, farming practices have barely evolved in the landlocked country. Cattle are highly valued culturally and represent the only means of financial security for the two-thirds of the country's 1.2 million people who reside on communal Swazi Nation Land (SNL).
Prior to the mass deaths, Swaziland's national herd was estimated at about 750,000 head of cattle, but the agricultural ministry estimates the optimum number of cattle for the country's pastures - depending on the weather conditions - is between 400,000 and 600,000. While the mass deaths may be seen as mitigating some of the cattle overpopulation, the losses are difficult for impoverished farmers to manage.
Agricultural Minister Clement Dlamini said in a statement, "This is a huge blow to many Swazis, and in monetary terms, they have [experienced] a huge loss [from] which they will never recover anytime soon."
Poor animal husbandry
Despite a European Union trade export agreement with Swaziland [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report/80917/SWAZILAND-A-cow-in-the-field-is-worth-two-in-the-EU ], the country consistently fails to fulfil its hormone-free beef quota, attributed to poor animal husbandry and a reluctance by farmers to sell cattle because of their high social capital. The average herd size for cattle-owning rural households is estimated at between four and six head of cattle.
"Animal husbandry has not changed since the time of the rinderpest. Cattle are still confined in dirt branch kraals that turn to mud when it rains. Cattle become stuck in the mud, either in the kraal or in the fields," Amos Fakudze, a veterinarian, told IRIN.
Of the recent deaths, Agricultural Minister Dlamini said, "The cattle did not have any layer of body fat [due to malnourishment] to shield them from the cold and to use as energy to generate heat."
An animal rights activist, who declined to be named, told IRIN, "There is a real gap between the love Swazis have for their cattle and their treatment of their cattle. Swazis even name their cows like pets, but they allow them to wander half-starved to forage on weeds and get killed by trucks on the highway or die of exposure during storms."
The agricultural ministry has broadcast radio bulletins warning of the health risks associated with eating the carcasses littering the countryside, but for an estimated 69 percent of the population living in chronic poverty, it is a temptation difficult to resist.
"People are using unconventional 'coping mechanisms' to survive, some by foraging for whatever they can find in the forests. The dead cattle provide an opportunity for food that famished people really cannot resist, despite the health warnings," Fakudze said.
He expects a recurrence of the mass cattle deaths in coming years, as the country has been increasingly experiencing cycles of dry spells and intense storms. "Modern cattle-raising methods must be introduced, but this is impossible as long as Swazis remain landless peasants with no capital or means of acquiring animal feed and materials to construct proper cattle shelters."