Tales of the TailsWatusi is What You Get

August 18, 2020

You may already be aware of our Dexter cows that live in the ZooFarm, but did you know the Virginia Zoo is also home to another herd of domestic cattle – one that is native to Africa? Let’s moove right into educating you on everything you should know about watusi cattle.

Known by some farmers as watusi for short, this cattle breed (Bos taurus taurus watusi) is originally from the grasslands and meadows of central Africa in countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The name watusi is derived from a tribe in Africa known as the Tutsi, whose traditions include spectacular dances.

Watusi are easy to recognize thanks to some very big physical features: both males and females have large, heavy horns that can span up to eight feet in length and will continue to grow throughout their entire life! These horns protrude laterally from the watusi’s head, and can be up to 30 inches round. To help support the weight of the head and their long horns, they have a large muscle on the top of their shoulder.

These massive horns serve one major purpose, and no, they’re not solely for fighting. They are mostly hollow, but have a plethora of blood vessels circulating through them that help in dispersing heat. Watusi can live in harsh climates, so having your own AC (in a sense) is beneficial for survival.

Apart from their horns, watusi cattle have another unique physical feature: a flap of skin called a dewlap located underneath their head on the lower neck. This breed of cattle is typically solid reddish-brown in color, but some individuals can have white spots or specks on their coat. They can stand over six feet tall and weigh just under 1600 pounds.

Watusi are not evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of species that are threatened by extinction due to the domestication and abundance of the species’ population. In their native habitat, individuals are preyed upon by leopards and lions, and this cattle breed is widely used for both milk and meat production by humans.

Gamba

The three watusi steer found at the Virginia Zoo serve a completely different purpose: they are educational ambassadors for their species. The oldest and largest in the herd is Gamba. He is eight years old and celebrates his birthday on August 18. In 2014, Gamba came to the Zoo from a farm in North Carolina. He interacts daily with Keepers and is currently training to step onto a scale so Keepers can get his weight, to “back up” so they can set down his food bowl and he is already target trained so that Keepers can look him over and make sure he is healthy.

Kamau

As a reward for voluntarily participating in training sessions, Gamba is offered romaine lettuce and carrots. He is also fond of apples and will receive them as a special treat! All of the watusi also recieve grain, Timothy hay, and tree browse such as mimosa and mulberry as part of their recommended diet.

Kamau is four years old and was born on June 5, 2016 at the same farm as Gamba. He came to the Zoo in 2017. Pronounced “ka-moo” by Keepers, this younger watusi appears to enjoy participating in training sessions and hanging out with Gamba and Khari, the third steer in the herd.

Kamau (left) + Khari (right)

Khari arrived at the Virginia Zoo from the same farm and at the same time as Kamau, but is only three years old. His birthday is on October 18. He can be distinguished from Kamau by his white markings on his chest. Khari also appears to enjoy participating in training sessions and can frequently be seen following around Gamba with Kamau.

Gamba likes to moo incessantly when he wants something and Kamau and Khari are always right by Gamba’s side to imitate him. Keepers say the three of them make quite the “moosical trio” and can often be heard all around the Zoo! You can spot – or hear – them in a shared exhibit with the Hartmann’s mountain zebra in the Africa – Okavango Delta on your next socially-distant visit to the Zoo.