Anthropological veterinary medicine: the need for indigenizing the curriculum

Paper presented at the 9th AITVM Conference in Harare, 14th-18th September, 1998
by Ilse Köhler-Rollefson and Juliane Bräunig


This paper was presented in the workshop/session on "Reorientation of th veterinary curriculum" at the Ninth International Conference of Institutions of Tropical Vetereinary Medicine, held in Harare, Zimbabwe from 14-18th September, 1998. The chairman of the conference was Prof. M.J. Obowolo from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Zimbabwe (P.O. Box MP 167, Harare).

The Association of Institutions of Tropical Veterinary Medicine (AITVM) is composed of institutions which are specifically engaged in education in tropical animal health and production, in research and in the promotion of livestock development. It holds major conferences in three-year intervals.

The theme of the 1998 Conference was "animal health and production for development" with particular reference to needs for regional integrated animal disease control, domestic animal and wildlife resource management, increasing efficiency of public and private livestock health delivery systems, veterinary public health and food safety, and reorientation of the veterinary curriculum. Rural development, community participation and the environment were also important topics discussed in the plenary sessions and workshops.


The League for Pastoral People (L.P.P.) is a German based technical support and advocacy organization for pastoralists, i.e. livestock breeding people dependent on common property resources. Among technical support strategies, the provision of animal health services is an important issue. In the implementation of a support project for camel pastoralists in Rajasthan/India, one of the major challenges for L.P.P. and its partner-NGO has been to act as an interface between pastoralists on the one side and project staff with academic backgrounds in animal science and veterinary medicine on the other. We have observed that, due to a lack of reference points and concepts, communication between them is very problematic.

Furthermore, in the same area, a small, but presumably representative, survey among local livestock owners about preferred animal health providers revealed that they practically never avail themselves of the service provided by government veterinarians. Although an extensive network of veterinary hospitals exists, where consultations are available for free, animal herders either treated animals themselves, consulted a local healer, or visit a spirit medium (Rathore et al., 1997).

From our perspective as mediators it appears that the observed lack of articulation between veterinarians and pastoralists is due to the fact that they essentially represent totally different cultural contexts. Based on these experiences, we feel that in those countries where traditional animal husbandry systems still exist, the delivery of animal health services could be substantially improved, if veterinarians were systematically prepared for the likelihood that they might be operating in a different cultural environment should they opt for a career in rural area.


1. Indigenous practices of animal husbandry

In large parts of the South, animals are still kept under traditional conditions. Nomadic systems of animal husbandry remain the characteristic production system of many arid, semi-arid, and mountainous areas, i.e. the Sahelian zone, extensive areas of Southwest Asia, and Central Asia. Typically, animals are kept on natural graze and not on fodder or formulated feed; they spend their nights in a pen or in an open field and are not kept in a stable. Herd management is not directed towards maximum performance and short-term economic gain, but instead geared towards minimizing risks and ensuring long-term survival. Most importantly, animals represent not just a production factor, but form a part of the cultural identity of a pastoral group. Livestock may have ritual and religious meaning and often figure as important items in social exchange and relationships. As in such traditional systems, survival of humans and animals is still closely interlinked, animals may almost be regarded as family members. This situation is in stark contrast to the West where a dichotomy exists between pets fulfilling emotional needs and farm animals regarded solely as a source of food.

This fundamental difference in animal production between industrialized and traditional societies is not spelled out in textbooks which are based on contemporary western concepts of animal husbandry in which the animal represent a production factor defined by parameters such as milk yield, fat content, daily weight gains, etc., where feed rations are carefully calculated, stables built according to sophisticated calculations of space requirement for optimum performance, and culling of low production animals.

Since in countries of the South, animal husbandry and management outside the peri-urban sector do not fulfill the standards of Western animal production systems, they are often judged as backward and undeveloped. Such assessment does not do justice to their important role in sustainable utilization of harsh environments. Pastoral production systems, which earlier were deplored for their inefficiency, have undergone substantial reevaluation in recent decades. Range ecologists and anthropologists have shown them to be the most efficient way of exploiting certain types of eco-systems. We should also be aware that from the perspective of animal welfare, pastoral systems score infinitely higher than industrial animal production according to the Western model. Pastoralists keep animals under more or less natural conditions without substantial impingement on their behavioral patterns. One other circumstance for which hardly any awareness has developed, is the fact that they make an important contribution to the maintenance of agrobiodiversity, since many of the most resilient, disease resistant and even productive livestock breeds will not survive outside pastoral contexts (Köhler-Rollefson, 1992).

The inherent values and ecological appropriateness of many traditional animal husbandry systems and strategies need to be explicitly acknowledged during veterinary training. For this, Western animal health production with its many problems in regard to the environment and animal welfare implications must stop being used as the yard-stick for animal husbandry world-wide.

 2. Awareness about non-western traditions of animal health care

The training in veterinary colleges is usually based on the models of veterinary education that have been developed in the West. Most African institutions go back to colonial times or were founded in the 1950s and 1960s (Froehner, 1968, Masiga, 1996). They were initially financed as part of aid programs and partly staffed with Western lecturers; faculty members continue to receive post-graduate training in Europe. The appropriateness of this is not denied and it is borne out by the success of Western interventions in controlling major epidemic diseases. Nevertheless, both one-sided orientation towards Western veterinary science and emulation of Western veterinary colleges obscure the fact that there are also many non-Western traditions of veterinary medicine, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine in China, Tibetan veterinary medicine, Ayurveda in India, etc. Besides these major cultural traditions for whom written records go back thousands of years, many folk traditions also exist and especially many pastoral societies have developed large bodies of indigenous knowledge in regards to animal health and management (Mc Corkle et al., 1992). The significance of ethnoveterinary medicine is gaining increased recognition even among representatives of mainstream animal science (Schwartz and Dioli, 1992) and was recently highlighted at an international conference.


3. Awareness of the existence of traditional structures for animal health care

In many countries, indigenous systems of animal health care are still extant and traditional healers continue to serve rural animal owners. These have been there long before the arrival of government veterinary services (Schwabe, 1984). By scientific standards, the traditional interventions are a mixed bag that cannot compete with modern veterinary medicine. Nevertheless, these healers can probably cope with a reasonable spectrum of ordinary every-day diseases, such as diarrhea, coughing, birthing problems and others. In addition to treatment with self-prepared herbal medicines, bone setting, application of the red-hot iron, etc., they do not charge money for their services, although they may be rewarded in kind. The biggest benefit for them is prestige and obligation. Thus the village animal healer is an integral and institutionalized component of the village social system in this part of the world, and may be in many others. Such traditional structures deserve to be respected for what they are: institutions that are embedded deeply in society. Dismissing them as quackery, as is common practice, does not do them justice.


If sufficient attention is paid to these circumstances during veterinary training, this may go a long way towards preparing students for practice and preventing their disillusionment. These facts need to be explicitly addressed during veterinary education to prevent a bitter disappointment and to foster an attitude of cultural plurality and diversity.

In the 1980s the term „Veterinary Anthropology" was coined for a particular approach to animal health care, characterized by „Using the basic repertoire of anthropology's research skills and techniques, including observation, interview and participation" (Sollod et al., 1984). But what we also need is „anthropological veterinary medicine". This we define as the recognition and utilization of the fact that there are many cultural traditions of striving for and achieving animal health. The scientific Western way is only one alternative among many. As veterinarians our chief concern must be the provision of animal health, or arguably, even animal welfare. In order to achieve this, we also have to abandon purely Western ways and standards of thinking. We must also take note of the fact that in order to reach the animal we cannot circumvent the owner, and therefore cannot afford to stick to our own cultural concepts of veterinary medicine, but have to identify the most appropriate solution for specific contexts, especially if we want to meet the challenges posed by traditional animal husbandry systems in unpredictable environments.


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