Ankole‑Watusi cattle, with their large, extensive horns, are among the most striking members of the bovine kingdom. Herds resemble slow-moving, multicolored forests of bare trees as their horns sway with every step. The Ankole‑Watusi breed is part of the Sanga family of African cattle breeds, which originated over 2,000 years ago from a combination of the Egyptian Longhorn cattle and the Zebu Longhorns originally from India.
Sanga cattle spread throughout eastern Africa, and many distinct breeds evolved. Cattle have traditionally been valued in Africa as ceremonial animals and as symbols of wealth and power. Their ownership established one’s position in society, and the beauty of one’s herd – especially the shape and size of the animals’ horns – was significant.
Natural selection also played a role in creating cattle that were both hardy and efficient grazers able to thrive on rough forage. The horns are part of adaptation to a hot climate by allowing dispersal of excess body heat. This unusual combination of selection pressures has resulted in a resilient breed of great beauty. Particularly remarkable are the cattle of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. In Uganda, the Nkole tribe’s variety is called the Ankole, while in Rwanda and Burundi, the Tutsi tribe’s variety is called the Watusi. When the cattle were exported from the region to Europe and later to America, these strains were combined.
The Ankole‑Watusi is medium-sized and elegant in appearance. Cows weigh 900 to 1,200 pounds and bulls 1,000 to 1,600 pounds. The most noticeable feature of the breed is its horns, which have a large base and great length. Crescent or lyre-shaped horns are the most desired in Africa, but American breeders have also selected for a lateral horn conformation that increases the length from tip to tip. Cattle may be solid-colored or spotted. Dark red predominates, although dun and black also occur. Some unusual spotting patterns are found in the breed, including one in which color runs across the top of the animal with white on the lower body. Many types of speckling are also seen.
Unlike the purposeful importations of many breeds, the path of the Ankole‑Watusi to the United States was indirect if not accidental. The cattle were initially exported from East Africa to Europe during the early 1900s for use as exhibition animals in zoos. U.S. zoos and individual breeders then imported Ankole‑Watusi cattle from Europe during the 1920s and 1930s.
In the last few decades, most zoos have dispersed their collections, putting the majority of the cattle in the hands of private breeders. The Ankole-Watusi International Registry was formed in 1983 to promote the breed in North America. Founding members shared a commitment to the Ankole-Watusi, though they’ve had different priorities for the breed. Some emphasized its exotic appearance and others its commercial qualities.
While sometimes dismissed as a novelty, the Ankole-Watusi has much to offer the U.S. beef industry. Adaptation to harsh environments, excellent maternal abilities, high butterfat milk, and lean beef are among its assets. Approximately 1,500 Ankole-Watusi cattle are found outside of Africa, and about 80% of these are in the U.S. The population of cattle in the breed’s home region of Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda has been numerous. The population has experienced dramatic declines due to civil war, economic upheaval, and government-supported crossbreeding schemes. Recent reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates the Ugandan population to be roughly 2.9 million head.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.