COW (History)

The Ankole cow Breed history

Ankole-Watusi cattle are the show-stoppers of the bovine kingdom. Medium-sized animals, with long, large-diameter horns, they attract attention wherever they appear. These regal animals can easily trace their ancestry back more than 6,000 years and have often been referred to as “cattle of kings.” Excavations at early Holocene sites in Egypt’s Western Desert also support the second view, that indigenous cattle may have been present in the Western Sahara as early as 8000 BC. Yet, as early as even 12,500 BC, there existed a special relationship between human and cattle in the Nile Valley. In Egyptian Nubia at Tushka, the horn cores of wild cattle were discovered directly over two human burials and a horn core was also found near the skull of a third burial.

I now know and appreciate that there are still a few people in this country, located in what is called cattle corridor, who still treat the cow sacredly up to this day.

Ankole Herdsman
Ankole Herdsman

Conventional knowledge regards this kind of devotion to the cow as “primitive conservative culture.” Of course, the Banyankore cattle keepers’ devotion to the cow is primitive in the context that it is traditional, ancient, unique and not predisposed. They have raised the Ankole cow for over 2000 years as a result of crossbreeding the long horned Auroch and the brown short horned breed that is said to have originated in India according to the Ankole-Watusi International Registry (AWIR). The so-called primitive practices of cattle keeping that this traditionally nomad pastoralist people possesses is what we want to do as activists for self sufficiency and conservancy in Uganda. The Ankole keepers subsisted exclusively on raw whole milk, water and assorted wild fruits. Naturally, they “processed” milk into several products: yogurt, curd, and butter. The raw whole milk they also consumed in different forms such as amashununu (raw milk as soon as it was milked), omusiibe (that which stayed and taken later in the day), obugoro* and omurara (that which stayed and was taken in the early morning, some hours before milking in morning). They also took colostrums (new milk), cow dung (kashumba) and cow urine (especially directly and warm) as medicinal products. Cow urine was also used as a detergent for milk utensils, et cetera. Depending thus on nature (for pastures for their cows and the wild fruits) for the survival of their dear cows and consequently for their own continued survival, the people were able to preserve the natural the Ankole cow and the integrity of the natural environment for thousands of years until modern man moved by curiosity to create changes is degrading the natural resources that have served as a dependable foundation for the present civilization.

Ancient History of The Ankole Cow

Ankole-Watusi cattle are the most impressive looking of the bovine kingdom. Medium-sized animals, with long, large-diameter horns, they attract attention wherever they appear. These regal animals can easily trace their ancestry back more than 6,000 years and are referred to as the “cattle of kings.” These long-horned, humpless domestic cattle were well established in the Nile Valley by 4000 B.C. These cows, known as the Egyptian or Hamitic Longhorn appears in pictographs in the great Egyptian pyramids.

Over twenty centuries that followed (2,000 years ago), Egyptian long horned cows were migrated by their owners from the Nile to Ethiopia, and then down to the southern reaches of Africa. However, by 2000 BC., humped cattle (short horn Zebu) from Pakistan and India reached Africa. When this Zebu reached the region now known as Ethiopia and Somalia, they were interbred with the Egyptian Longhorn. The admixture thus produced — the Sanga – who later spread to the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and other parts of eastern Africa, and became the base stock of many of the indigenous African breeds. The Sanga demonstrated most of the typical Zebu characteristics, such as pendulous dewlap and sheath, upturned horns, and a neck hump of variable size. Modern descendants of the Sanga, however, vary greatly in size, conformation, and horns, due to differing selection pressures by different tribes. Particularly remarkable are the cattle found in Uganda’s cattle corridor, Rwanda, and Burundi. In Uganda, a Banyankore subgroup known as the Abahima or Bahima have a Sanga variety known as the Ankole or Ankole cow. In Rwanda and Burundi, the Tutsi tribe’s Sanga variety is called the Watusi. The Rwanda common strain of Watusi is called the Inkuku while the giant-horned strain, owned by the Tutsi kings and chiefs is known as the Inyambo. This type is probably extinct already. Rwanda shared boarder with the Karagwe people of the Kagera Region, the Banyambo, who probably kept the Inyambo strain also.

Traditionally, the Ankole-Watusi was considered sacred. It so significant that the kraal is locally known as eka y’ente (cows home). Actually, for these traditional cow keepers, one is thought of having no home if one has no cows. In any case whose home would that be? Because cow supplied milk to the keepers, she was never slaughter for meat.


Under traditional management, the Ankole cow grazed all day, and was brought home in the evening to give milk to her young calf to her keeper. The young calf was allowed to suckle (feed on her mother’s teats/udder) first and when it was satisfied, milking was done by the herdsman. The calf continued suckling after the hand-milking process was finished. Thereafter, the calf was separated from the mother to the calves hut (ekihongore) for protection from the cold and difficult circumstances exclusive to full-grown cows. The milking process was repeated every evening and morning.

During very wet seasons, morning rains known as emujumbi, came very often. It is not conductive to do milking under heavy rain drops. Moreover, these experienced cow keepers and lovers could not tolerate the scene of seeing the cows hit by rain in the kraal. Thus, the cows were led to the pastures to graze. If the rain was heavy, the cows preferred to stand under heavy trees to shield themselves from heavy rain drops. But if the rain was low, the cows were kept grazing as long as the rain did not stop. This went on and on until it was midday sometimes.

Meanwhile, the cows udders (milk bags) were filled with milk and milk began to flow involuntarily onto the grass. The milk cows mooed a lot at that time wanting to be united with their young ones to feed them with the flowing milk. The scene was so moving that the herdsmen were moved. But it is useless taking the cows back home before the rain subsided. Back at the kraal, the calves are very hungry. They are calling for the mothers also. Young children and the women are close watch over the ebihongore (the calves’ huts) so that the calves do not break loose to meet their mothers. If they did, it became drama. Children ran after them, and actually the adults intervened. When finally the mother cows are brought home, fire was lit for them first, using the grass which was expired as bedding for the calves, capable of producing lots of white astringent smoke. The smoke chased flies that would otherwise sting the cows. Moreover, the children, the women and everyone broke fresh branches (twigs) of shrubs to use to wag away the flies from the cows during the milking, while the head herdsman massaged the cows using a special brush known as enkuyo. The calves took a lot of milk as well as the owners on such days. It was like a milk feast day.

Better feeding of the calves was preferred. Properly regulated nourishment of the calves resulted in healthy, strong and good looking heifers at weaning with high rates of reproductive statistics. A healthy heifer received a bull at one or at one and a half years from the time of weaning, which was usually 6-9 months.

Milk production was not high with the Ankole in only one strict comparison with the modern dairy production. The lactation period was also short. A typical cow produced at least 5 litres of milk daily, although an exceptional one could manage up to 8 litres. Over the last 15 years, the national government has encouraged the breeding of cows which produce more milk and for better meat production. Sociopolitical instability and the slow adoption of the government policy by the cow keepers in favor of the traditional practices has slowed that process of change, otherwise a blessing or else the Ankole would be no more by now.

Ankole Cattle Outside of Africa

This Sanga variety of East Africa was collectively called the Ankole, or Ankole-Watusi by the Europeans, and they were thus treated as a single breed. Because of their striking appearance, and the resulting ability to attract paying customers, the Ankole cows were imported from Africa by European zoos during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Zoos and game parks in Germany, Sweden, and England were among the breeders of these cows outside Africa. American zoos and other tourist businesses imported the Ankole-Watusi cows from European zoos in the 1920s and 1930s. In time European zoos began to change their emphasis from visually-exciting animals to wild animal species purported to be in desperate need of preservation (whether “eye-catching” or not). Thus, more Ankole-Watusi cows became available for sale to private individuals. Consequently several private herds were begun.


In January, 1983, North Americans interested in the Ankole-Watusi cows breed met in Denver, Colorado, and formed the Ankole Watusi International Registry (AWIR). Many of these people had been raising Ankole since before 1978. Now they felt that it was time to begin a breed registry which would collect and maintain the pedigree information while conserving it. Within five months, the Registry had 74 members nationwide. AWIR members shared strong commitment to the breed. Nevertheless, they had different priorities for the breed. While some few wanted to concentrate solely on the preservation of the breed, may selected for their utility in the production of superior cross-bred roping animals and others championed the low-fat/ low-cholesterol meat values. It should be noted however that the Ankole in those countries lost its closeness with its traditional keepers and the personal care they received on a daily basis.