Rediscovering the beast of burden

by Henrylito D. Tacio

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has listed tamaraw under Appendix I, which means that “the trade of species of subspecies” of the animal is “strictly prohibited” except for educational, scientific or research and study purposes.

After the tamaraw, what Philippine animal is most likely to make it to the CITES list? The carabao, that’s what. The Filipino’s beast of burden, forced out from the farm by mechanized farming, is now being pushed to extinction.

The carabao population has steadily dropped since 1988. Statistics compiled by the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD) showed that there were 2.95 million of carabaos in the country in 1988. This figure dwindled to 2.48 million by 1992. The trend is continuing even today. “Unless we do something now, we might wake up one day an agricultural country without a carabao to speak of,” warns a farming expert.

The Philippine carabao is just one of the many breeds of the water buffalo, sometimes known as an “Asian animal” since the region is home to some 95 percent of the world’s stock. The buffalo was first domesticated about 4,500 years ago, in China or the Indus Valley – perhaps at the same time – and a “buffalo culture” spread gradually throughout Asia.

There are two types of water buffaloes: the river type and the swamp type. The river type is exemplified by the Indian and sub-continent breeds. It is considered under the dairy category because it possesses high genetic capacity for milk production.

On the other hand, the swamp type – to which the Philippine carabao belongs – is distinguished by its preference for swamps or marshlands. This type of buffalo is primarily utilized for farm work. “About 98 percent of the total available agricultural power in Asia is derived from animals – mainly from the water buffalo,” noted Dr. Abercio V. Rotor, one of the country’s carabao experts.

In the Philippines, the carabao is put to continuous work from the age of four years up to 15 years or beyond. Some studies have shown that three females can perform the work of two male carabaos. As a draft animal, the carabao is most remarkable. It pulls plows, harrows, and carts with loads of several tons, forging through mud up to its belly.

There’s more to water buffalo than just a draft animal. W. Ross Cockrill, author of The Husbandry and Health of the Domestic Buffalo, said that in Brazil, buffaloes are credited for almost everything good.

Cockrill narrated the story of an Amazonian cowboy, well into his 70s, who had 20 children, ranging from middle-aged men and women to babes in arms. Despite a vigorous life, the aging gentleman looked the picture of health. Asked how he did it, he replied: “You have to drink lots of buffalo milk and eat lots of buffalo beef. There’s nothing better to keep you fit and in your proper manhood.”

Livestock specialists claim a “caracow” or a crossbreed carabao and cow, with nursing calf can produce 300 to 380 kilograms of milk during a lactation period of about 180 days. According to the Laguna-based Dairy Training and Research Institute (DTRI), the carabao’s milk contains five percent protein. In comparison, cow’s milk has a protein content of less than four percent.

The only bad thing about carabao’s milk is that it is higher in fat than cow’s milk. But then, carabao’s milk is also higher in total solids and protein and has more energy value compared with cow’s milk. “Its mineral content is nearly the same as cow’s milk, except that it has twice more phosphorus,” said PCARRD’s Anna Marie Alo.

Currently, carabao’s milk is being processed into premium ice cream, specialized cheese varieties, yoghurt, and “pastilles,” all in high demand in the markets.

The carabao also offers big opportunities for the meat industry. In South American countries like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, the demand for “carabeef” (carabao meat) is growing. This has resulted in the astounding growth of the carabao population in these countries: 14 to 18 percent each year. In the United States, the price of carabeef has doubled in recent years.

This current demand of carabeef is due to the recent studies which show that buffaloes are the better source of quality meat than cattle. Based on data released by the United States Department of Agriculture, carabeef has 41% less cholesterol, 92% less fat and 56% fewer calories than beef. Recent studies regarding the chemical composition of carabeef show that fresh carabeef obtained higher crude protein than pork and beef.

Ground carabeef has an exquisite flavor and texture,” said a fact sheet disseminated by the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC). “Buffalo meat is tender. It has little or no marbling or outside fat, so only a small amount of juice is lost when it is cooked.”

Another good thing about carabeef: the meat is produced with fewer hormones or antibiotics. “Carabaos are not raised in mass and are not fed in feedlot such as that done in cattle. Carabaos are raised mainly out of nature’s fodder and grain,” the PCC explains.

Another plus factor: “Carabeef is nutrient-dense or concentrated,” said Alo. “It does not shrink in cooking and only a little of it is needed to satisfy a person. This quality makes it a suitable ingredient in locally produced corned beef and comminuted products such as ‘longanisa,’ hotdogs, bologna and ‘chorizos.’”

Carabao is equally important for its hide. In the Philippines, people consume a lot of chicharon made of carabao hide, kare-kare, which is partly skin of the animal, and a favorite pulutan, softened thin slices of hide spiced heavily with ginger, onion and red pepper.

Carabao manure is also of economic importance. It’s a good organic fertilizer, containing 18.5 percent nitrogen, 43.7 percent phosphoric acid, and 9.6 percent potash. It’s also a good source of fuel either as dried dung, or in generating biogas or methane. When mixed with clay, the dung serves as building material or as plaster on the ground where palay is threshed.

The carabao is considered a national symbol of the Philippines. In fact, a national daily newspaper is using the carabao as its mascot. Also in May, a festival is observed in honor of this animal. At the Carabao Festival, the animals are washed and decorated with ribbons and flowers. After the carabao race, the animals are paraded in front of the local church, where they are made to kneel down to be blessed.

In 1992, the carabao finally gets the respect it deserves when the Philippine Carabao Act was enacted. The RA 7307, which was authored by then senator Joseph Estrada, was implemented in 1993. The law created Philippine Carabao Center (PCC), which is mandated to conserve, propagate, and promote the carabaos as a source of draft power, meat, milk and hide for the benefit of small farmers.

Since its establishment in April 1993 as an agency attached to the Department of Agriculture, the PCC has vigorously pursued buffalo sector development, promoting genetic improvement not only for draft animals but more importantly for milk and meat,” said PCC head Libertado C. Cruz. “These efforts should lead to the establishment of a buffalo-based enterprise that would have significant implications for improving the income and nutrition of the majority of rural farming families in the Philippines.” — ###

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