Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — Nibbling, ambling, contemplating, dragging plows, hauling carts, carrying loads, lying in the nearest pool of shade, foraging through refuse. . . . Africa's hardy cattle and oxen, small sheep, long-eared goats, haughty camels, and donkeys with burdens are among the continent's commonest sights.
But in time of famine, how important are they? Why feed cows when people are starving for grain? Why spend scarce aid-research funds on them?
``Because,'' says Peter J. Brumby, riffling through a pile of charts and scientific findings, ``livestock means cash to the small farmer -- milk, meat, status.
``The more animals a subsistence farmer owns, the more he can earn. The more reserve capital he has. The more land he can cultivate. The more fertilizer he has on hand. The better his cultivation methods. The more able he is to use new seeds. . . .''
Dr. Brumby, a soft-spoken New Zealander with a shock of white hair, is director general of the International Livestock Center for Africa (ILCA), one of a chain of 13 research centers around the world supported by governments, international organizations, and private agencies.
Late one recent afternoon at the center's world headquarters here, he nailed down his central points:
1. Animals greatly help to produce food. They pull plows for farming and provide meat and milk. In the 10 years up to 1981, ILCA research shows, Ethiopians with the fastest-growing cattle herds also showed the greatest increase in cereal crop production.
2. Better management of livestock is a ``logical starting point for overcoming Africa's food crisis.''
These are ideas either doubted or overlooked as world headlines tell of African drought and famine. The immediate need is for famine-relief grain in east, central, and Sahelian Africa south of the Sahara.
ILCA itself has been criticized in the past for not coming up with enough scientific ideas to improve herds. A World Bank study on sub-Saharan Africa late last year concluded that ``major research'' was still needed. `Science alone is not going to change Africa'
Other critics think ILCA must still dig deeper into how Africans handle their animals before trying to suggest outside ideas. ``Science alone is not going to change Africa,'' one British critic comments.
Drought has taken a heavy toll on livestock in Ethiopia, Sudan, northern Kenya, and across the seven mainland countries of the Sahel region which run from from Mauritania to Chad. Any blueprint for Africa's future faces the issue, however: How can animals be helped when people themselves are suffering so much?
Recently, ILCA has been working on blueprints of its own. Progress is slow. Funds are short. African governments, beset with immediate problems, are not always responsive to long-term ideas. Yet:
A plan developed by ILCA and the World Bank in Ethiopia in 1977 includes new catchment ponds in areas without wells, access roads to let animals move more easily, and better veterinary services.
According to Jean-Claude Bill'e, a French ecologist with ILCA in Addis Ababa, the plan is behind schedule because of the war with Somalia over the Ogaden region, and now the drought. Yet Dr. Bill'e sees some grounds for expecting progress. Some grounds for expecting progress
``We have devised a small scoop, the size of two or three wheelbarrows, which oxen can pull straight through a silted-up pond to clear it out,'' he said in an interview. ``Half a dozen have been used experimentally in Sidamo Province. People there like them.''
Pastoralists in a number of African areas live on the milk their animals produce. If they take too much, calves die. To keep calves alive so as to build up herds, ILCA is attempting to cut down milk consumption by promoting grain and other crops.
To improve fodder, ILCA is promoting new nitrogen-rich legume plants such as leucaena and gliricidia in Addis and on the grounds of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria.
``We're interested in the plant leucaena, and in another from Australia called stylo, bright green like lucerne [alfalfa],'' Bill'e said.
``So far,'' he confessed, ``Ethiopians haven't taken to stylo, but we haven't given up. . . .''
Under improved management, livestock living to the north of the tsetse-fly zone in southwestern Africa is more productive than previously thought. Research efforts are making some headway to reduce the tsetse fly to the south. Also, if animals can be bred to resist the tsetse fly, milk, meat, and hide production will rise. ILCA is studying dwarf breeds of cattle, sheep, and goats which appear to be resistant to the fly.
Cross-breeding dairy cows is showing milk yields four times as high as local breeds.
In a plea to donors who support ILCA, and 12 other worldwide research institutes under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research in Washington, D.C., Dr. Brumby adds:
``Africa needs the best that international science can offer: biotechnology, embryo transfer and tissue culture, recombinant DNA technology, genetic mapping, computer analysis, and satellite imagery.''
He and other researchers say flatly that unless donors and Africans join in a much bigger and sustained commitment to provide the latest in scientific techniques, suffering will continue to grow.