A ram the size of a small pony tosses its head inside a sumptuous pen illuminated by flashing disco lights, before lunging at some ewes half its size.
The skittish animal lives on a rooftop in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, alongside a dozen ewes in an enclosure featuring ceiling fans, faux chandeliers and multicolored lighting. The plush surroundings underscore the deep affection that owner Abdou Fatah Diop has for the breed of sheep known as Ladoum, which are native to the West African country.
“It’s a passion. I forget everything,” Diop said of his sheep, adding that he spends more money on them than on his family.
However, the sheep are still money-spinners: Businessman Diop, 40, sells lambs sired by his prize ram for the equivalent of thousands of US dollars to other Ladoum breeders who want to improve their herds.
Many are similarly enamored with sheep in the mostly Muslim nation of Senegal, where there are popular television programs dedicated to the animal.
The Ladoum is a smooth-haired breed with curled horns that can reach imposing heights of 1.2m or more at the shoulder.
Those of the wealthy elite pay small fortunes for magnificent Ladoum rams to sacrifice during the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha — also called Tabaski — which begins next week.
Senegalese breeders only developed the variety over the past 20 years, Diop said, to accentuate the sheep’s proportions and physical beauty.
Abou Kane, another top breeder, has dozens of Ladoum tethered under a white tent in the center of Dakar to sell for Tabaski.
His clients pay up to 2 million CFA francs (US$3,599) for a sacrificial animal.
“It’s an exceptional breed that you can find nowhere else,” he said, praising the sheep’s “splendor.”
Slaughtering flashy rams for Tabaski has become a marker of status in Senegal, but the prices are far out of reach for many in the country, where about 40 percent live on less than US$1.90 per day, the World Bank said.
However, there is still pressure to buy a good-looking sheep.
In Dakar’s largest sheep and goat market, herders in colorful robes stroll among thousands of bleating animals.
Traders from Mali and Mauritania have come ahead of Tabaski to serve the city’s clientele.
The market does a roaring trade over the festival period, clearing about US$177,000 per day in sales and supplying half of the 260,000 sheep consumed in Dakar, president Mamadou Talla said.
Talla, 61, said that competing for the nicest sheep is a uniquely Senegalese phenomenon and that customers are picky.
“Every Senegalese wants a big ram,” to “mystify” neighbors and make children happy, he said.
However, not all sheep are exorbitant.
For example, Talla said that many go for 60,000 CFA francs.
Several traders said that costs of upkeep and transport justified the seemingly high price of ordinary Tabaski sheep.
For the deluxe animals, breeder Abou Kane said that the rich have a religious obligation to choose the nicest animal.
“God demanded of us a sacrifice,” he said. “You really shouldn’t choose just anything.”
However, other Senegalese said that the pursuit of beauty in sheep had little to do with Tabaski.
El Hadji Mamadou Ndiaye, an imam at Dakar’s Great Mosque, said the religious regulations dictate that the sacrificial animal be of a certain age, among other measurements, but say nothing of an animal’s size or beauty.
Culture, as well as individual vanity, plays a role in the market for enormous Tabaski sheep, he said.
“If you’re not a crackpot, you just follow the criteria that are demanded,” Ndiaye said.
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