A breed of cattle uniquely adapted to the rigors of life in Saudi Arabia is in danger of extinction, a new study reveals.

The disappearance of Hassawi cattle, which were once popular with small-scale farmers in eastern Saudi Arabia, started back in the 1970s, when more productive non-native breeds started to enter the picture. These exotic breeds quickly took the place of the traditional cows. In 1986 the Hassawi population was estimated at more than 10,000. Today that has plummeted to fewer than 200.

Why does the loss of an agricultural breed matter? Unlike the Brown Swiss and Holstein-Friesian cattle that have replaced them, the Hassawi cattle have incredible tolerance for Saudi Arabia’s heat and humidity and can even withstand drought conditions, says Raed M. Al-Atiyat, a professor of genetics and biotechnology at King Saud University and the lead author of the new study. They also have resistance to rinderpest, foot and mouth disease and femoral fever, some of the most dominant cattle diseases in the area.

That’s not all. Previous research has indicated that Hassawi cattle, which are much smaller than some other breeds, also eat less food and consume less water, making them more affordable and adaptable for livestock owners.

But their smaller size and lower milk production also worked against them. Larger, exotic breeds yield more meat and dairy products, so they are now more attractive to local farmers. Once they entered the picture, the Hassawi—which has been present in Saudi Arabia for centuries—all but vanished.

The situation is far from unique. A United Nations report earlier this year found that at least 17 percent of the world’s agricultural breeds are also disappearing. As they go extinct, local communities lose the important genetics that have developed over the years to allow breeds to exist in unique environmental conditions. This, the UN warned, could create potential food security issues, especially in the face of climate change.

As for the Hassawi cattle, the few that remain face an uncertain future. Al-Atiyat reports that in the time since they completed their research, at least one farmer has already replaced his Hassawi herd with exotic Brown Swiss. The breed now not only faces the threat of inbreeding due to its low population, but also a greater risk of being wiped out by a single catastrophe, such as a feed shortage or an epidemic disease.

Like most of the rest of the breeds on the UN report, there is no current conservation plan to protect the Hassawi and ensure that its unique genetics persist in Saudi Arabia. “We are working on that and hope concrete action will be taken,” Al-Atiyat says.

That can’t come soon enough. Al-Atiyat and his fellow researchers predict the extinction of the Hassawi breed in as little as 21 years—or even sooner if more farmers give up on their traditional livestock.