Also known as Tanganyika sheep, Red Maasai sheep are so named because they have traditionally been raised by the Maasai people of East Africa. They can be found in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania and parts of Uganda, in the arid and semi-arid regions along the Great Rift Valley.
They are found currently especially in Kajiado District of Kenya and the surrounding area, but before the 20th century they were kept in a much larger areas including the wetter parts of the Kenyan plateaus, the upper eastern cliffs of the Great Rift Valley, and the once swampy south central highlands.
The breed, which is distinct for having hair instead of wool, is used primarily for meat. The most preferred (and therefore most common) color is red, but sheep are also seen in brown and occasionally pied coats. They have a relatively large body size, and are short (73 centimeters tall at the withers for males, and 62 centimeters for females), fat-tailed, and slightly fat-rumped. Males average 45 kilograms, with females averaging 35 kilograms at maturity. Notably, they are also heartily resistant to the Haemonchus contortus parasite and other local diseases, which makes them an excellent pastoral breed.
The Maasai eat mature sheep of 12 months old or older. The meat is either roasted or boiled and eaten throughout the year, but also during ceremonies like marriages and initiations. With their pest and drought-resistant qualities, Red Maasai sheep are an important indigenous breed that can go a long way toward improving the food security of communities.
It is a traditional belief that the Rain God entrusted livestock to the Maasai when the earth and the sky split, and according to legend the Red Maasai sheep was the first animal kept by the Maasai.
However, a reduction of available land for herding due to increased subdivision has forced some Maasai people to turn instead to cultivation of crops for subsistence. This has led to reduced number of animals per household and reduced food production, as well as a decreased ability to trade livestock for cash, other animals, or products like milk.
Additionally, the Red Maasai sheep has not been raised in large numbers internationally due to its small stature and because it grows hair on its body rather than wool.
The Red Maasai was the predominant sheep breed among the Maasai and other tribes in Kenya until the 1970s, when subsidies began to support crossbreeding with Dorper and other imported sheep. Today crossbreeds are the majority, and pure Red Maasai sheep are less common, making the future of the breed uncertain. Saving the Red Maasai sheep is fundamental to safeguarding the remaining genetic resources.
Photos —Archive Slow Food