Project background

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Project background

Food security poses real challenges in most parts of Africa. These challenges are particularly significant when quantity and quality of animal-source foods are concerned. All over Africa, general food supply remains very low compared to an increasing demand due to growing populations, rising urbanization as well as, partly, increasing wealth. Regular supply of small quantities of animal protein, on the other hand, has been shown to be crucial for adequate physical and cognitive development of children (Grillenberger et al. 2006; Neumann et al. 2007).

In the southern forest areas of Cameroon, bushmeat contributes for a significant amount of meat supply. This threatens the sustainability of fragile ecosystems and encourages poaching that provides substantial amount of animal proteins in large towns (Ngoufo and Bassalang, 2009, unpublished). Since 2001, the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries in Cameroon has targeted short cycle livestock species in order to meet the national demand for animal proteins (MINEPIA-Cameroon, 2010 unpublished). The goal was to double national production by 2015 through a diversification policy. So to enhance poverty alleviation strategies in rural zones, mini-livestock1 is increasingly receiving greater attention and concern through the creation of a dedicated program. Domestic cavy or ‘guinea pig’ (Cavia porcellus L.) occurs more widely in Africa than generally known because it is usually not included in livestock statistics. Despite their reported distribution over a belt from West Africa (Senegal) to East Africa (Tanzania, Ngou-Ngoupayou et al. 1995), domestic cavies have consistently been ignored in research and development for better production. We chose to work in Cameroon and eastern DRC, as these countries hold considerable cavy populations, part of which have recently been documented; however, the deployment of their cavy culture is in different stages, which offers us complementing opportunities for research and development.

Domestic cavies are widely reared and consumed by people in many parts of Cameroon (Manjeli et al. 1998; Ngou-Ngoupayou et al. 1995), largely also in peri-urban areas (Meutchieye 2006). They are a secondary source of income and their breeding does not require significant capital. Cavies also play a similar role in Southwest Tanzania (Mwalukasa 2009; Matthiesen 2011; Matthiesen et al. 2011) and the Kivu province of eastern DRC (Maass et al. 2010; Zozo et al. 2010; Metre 2011), however, it is much less documented in the latter two regions.

As a mini-livestock species, domestic cavies have great potential to contribute to addressing food security challenges in developing countries (Lammers et al. 2009). This is especially so under the insecurity due to wars and armed conflicts like in Côte d’Ivoire and in the Kivu provinces of DRC (Rossi et al. 2005), where cavies have helped rural people to not completely lose their livestock populations in pillage; and they have also served for some cash income; finally, they were most valuable for paying school fees (Metre 2005). Hence, domestic cavy is a livestock species very suitable for smallholders for a number of advantages, also over rabbits that may escape and, thus, become feral (Lammers et al. 2009). Cavies, like village poultry, most likely serve as the first step for their owners to ascend on the ‘livestock ladder’, leading to larger livestock species such as goats and cattle (Perry et al. 2002).

It is not known, where, when and how often cavies have been introduced to Africa and only speculations exist; Blench (2000), for example, assumes that they have only been introduced by Christian missionaries and colonial agricultural officers. Whereas Morales (1995) suggests that the misnomer ‘Guinea pig’ may have inferred from the European assumption that cavies came from the West African coast of Guinea after being imported from South America via the Guinea slave trade ships. Therefore, genetically very different populations may be present in the two chosen countries. Morphologically, however, animals appear fairly similar among several countries if their uniform tri-colored coat pattern is considered (Nuwanyakpa et al. 1997). Performance is much below the modern possibilities shown in the Andean countries of South America (e.g., Chauca de Zaldívar 1995; Valle-Zárate 1996a). It is highly likely that the traditional system with indiscriminate mating has led to even further narrow the genetic diversity available due to the prevalence of inbreeding, which is reported by various authors (Ngou-Ngoupayou et al. 1995; Bindelle et al. 2009).

Nevertheless, it seems that improved feeding can have a major impact on cavy production, largely by reducing mortality of new-born kids (Chauca de Zaldívar 1997). The first three important measures for improving husbandry have been named as (i) separating pregnant females from the herd; (ii) early weaning of kids; and (iii) adjusting feeding regimes according to age, sex and reproductive status (Charbonneau 1988; Fonteh et al. 2005). Traditionally, animals are fed with household scraps, harvest wastes and, sometimes, supplemented with vegetables and forages (Manjeli et al. 1998). Fresh leaves are collected from backyards, along roads or nearby rivers, and their selection appears to depend more on forage availability and its palatability to cavy than on animal requirements or plant nutritive values (Bindelle et al. 2007, 2009; Meutchieye 2007, unpublished). There are some results related to the utilization of local forages and minerals in cavy culture (Ngou-Ngoupayou 1994; Tchoumboue et al. 2001). Little is known about acceptability and usefulness of improved tropical forages to cavies as nearly all animal feed research has been performed in the Andean highlands, using temperate forage species. Similarly, there is no information available on the effects of manure on sustaining soil fertility and crop production of smallholders, although South American and African farmers often praise the effect of cavy manure (e.g., Matthiesen 2011), sometimes even used for smallholder aquaculture (T. Metre, 2010, pers. comm.).

Scientific rationale: Advances in understanding both available pools of genetic diversity and the domestication process of domestic cavy have been made recently by applying a variety of modern techniques, including the use of molecular markers. Generally, molecular diversity of domestic cavies is high among different Andean ‘creole’ breeds (Spotorno et al. 2004; Campos and Ruiz-García 2008). Relationships with wild Cavia spp. have also been established (Spotorno et al. 2004, 2006; Trillmich et al. 2004; Kanitz 2009; Kanitz et al. 2009; Dunnum and Salazar- Bravo 2010). However, no animals from Africa have ever been included in genomic studies. Molecular markers should be readily available as the Broad Institute3 has sequenced the domesticated cavy to full (7X) coverage as part of the Mammalian Genome Project, and continues to work in a SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) discovery project to improve the understanding of cavy diversity. After breeding domestic cavy over several decades in Peru, impressive progress has been achieved by Chauca de Zaldívar (1995) and collaborators. Improvement programs have similarly been undertaken in Ecuador (Archetti 1997) and Bolivia (Valle-Zárate 1996a,b; Rico-Numbela and Rivas-Valencia 2003). Especially in Bolivia, however, Valle-Zárate (1996a,b) emphasized the sustainable use of local genetic resources over merely introducing improved breeds from Peru. It is highly likely that, by employing available molecular markers to study genetic diversity among African domestic cavy populations, a breeding program can be established more effectively; with subsequent marker-assisted selection, breeding progress should also be achieved relatively faster in African breeds than by traditional breeding.

The project goal is to improve food and nutrition security as well as cash income of rural and peri-urban poor in Cameroon and eastern DR Congo. The project purpose is to foster cavy culture and access to information about it as one of the strategies of the targeted population groups, especially women and children, for increasing meat supply.

The project has four outputs:

  1. Map, document and investigate production systems of rural and peri-urban cavy-keeping people as part of livelihood analysis, and develop improvement strategies in a participatory manner via Innovation Platforms;
  2. Understand genetic diversity within and between domestic cavy populations from West and East Africa and performance of these populations, as a basis for establishing a rational breeding program;
  3. Enhance cavy feeding by employing improved tropical forages integrated into existing cropping systems;
  4. Capacity building and information sharing on sustainable cavy production.