It is not through the keeping of animals per se, but rather the combination of rural peoples' knowledge of their environment and the way that they manage their livestock that maintains domestic animal diversity. This knowledge includes the recognition and evaluation of livestock characteristics and breeds or 'types'; the management of animal and plant genetic resources and how these interact in the production system; and ethnoveterinary knowledge. This rather extensive and complex knowledge system has not been adequately characterised and documented. Where documentation has been done, it has not been integrative enough to be applied in selection programmes although the indigenous knowledge on livestock from livestock keepers, especially the pastoralist, can be complex and may be even more sophisticated than generally believed (Wurzinger et al. 2005). This is primarily because 'experts' often do not appreciate the value of this knowledge. This is a direct result of 'Western training'. Definition of comprehensive breeding objectives has been and would be impossible without inclusion of indigenous knowledge. Ignoring such wealth of knowledge could partly be the reason why livestock genetic improvement programmes that are solely based on Western designs and structures have generally failed in many developing tropical countries.
Livestock keepers have bred the trypanotolerant N'Dama cattle of West Africa [CS 1.24 by Dempfle and Jaitner] and the helminth resistant Red Maasai sheep of East Africa for centuries. Many similar examples exist in Asia, especially among the indigenous goat, pig, camel and buffalo breeders. The livelihood-oriented producers in these production systems understand the concept of risk avoidance by maintaining domestic animal diversity. They identify and select their animals for a wide variety of characteristics, such as drought tolerance, longevity, diseases resistance, ability to survive on low quality feeds etc. In addition, many smallholder and backyard livestock keepers can adapt quickly to changing circumstances as has been shown in shifting domestic animal production to urban and peri-urban environments.
Domestic animal diversity is ecologically and culturally embedded. Therefore, the knowledge of local people extends beyond the breeds themselves to the complex web of interactions between the animals and the environments in which they are kept, including the beliefs and cultures of the communities that keep them. For example, because of the need to make best use of the erratic and unpredictable rains and to avoid inter-community hostilities (rustling) and disease-prone areas, pastoral management systems, where indigenous breeds dominate, are flexible and dynamic. The flexibility and dynamism enables the people to respond quickly to changing conditions and complex systems of reciprocal favours and obligations. It also provides equity-sharing instruments that characterise the management systems which are often sanctioned by elaborate rituals and ceremonies. This knowledge system is crucial, not only in understanding the history and nature of existing diversity in animal populations, but also as a basis for developing strategies for its continued maintenance and sustainable exploitation (e.g. niche markets) in a way that accommodates the lifestyles, aspirations and livelihoods of the keepers [CS 1.32 by Mensah and Okeyo]. This is the only way that characterisation information can lead to formulation of sustainable utilisation and in turn, conservation of indigenous AnGR.