YOU CAN COUNT on the fingers of one hand the domestic animals that produce virtually all of humankind's meat and milk -- a selection made more than 10,000 years ago by our Neolithic ancestors. Yet the earth teems with at least 1 million species of animals; why limit ourselves to cattle, pigs and sheep?

Given the world's shortages of energy and water and arable land, given the new dangers of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, why not try to domesticate wild animals? The effort would save many species from extinction, provide the world with more food, and introduce "gentle" farming to fragile environments.

These are precisely the goals of wild-animal domesticators now working on almost every continent. The recent domestication and demand for draft horses, alpacas and water buffalo already point to a changing world. The tools include harmless drugs and projectiles to capture the animals, helicopters and cargo planes to move them and artificial insemination to breed and crossbreed the most promising species.

The effort is not without difficulties. It requires complex studies of animal behavior, genetics, diseases, nutrition, management and marketing. Wild animals introduced to a new environment may endanger its native species, or fall victim to the diseases of domestic animals. Nor do people in most cultures easily accept new foods that seem radically different from their customary staples. Even so, the world's wild-animal developers are convinced that their work is essential, and they are proceeding in bold, innovative ways. t

The Sinai-desert goat's ability to go for days without water is second only to that of the camel. Its meat, though, tastes awful. The less hardy ibex, on the other hand, is a wild mountain goat that produces wonderful meat. The solution? Cross the two, of course, which is just what Professor Heinrich Mendelssohn of Israel's University of Tel Aviv has succeeded in doing.

He calls the hybrid the ya-ez, combining the Hebrew words for the two animals, and is studying a herd of 20 in the northern Negev. So far the Ya-ez seems able to endure extreme climates, makes optimal use of the poorest pasture and produces tasty steaks. Unlike some man-made hybrid animals, such as mules, the ya-ez is fertile and breeds with other ya-ezes, ibexes or goats.

The ya-ez is one of the many hybrids made possible with new techniques of artificial insemination. Since they have the same number of chromosomes, it is feasible to cross-breed camels with alpacas or vicunas, thereby creating large, exceptionally hardy animals with high-quality fleece. The American domestic goose might be greatly improved by being crossed with the nearly extinct Hawaiian nene, a warm-climate goose free of the domestic goose's body fat.

Meat is scarce in tropical countries; cattle, sheep and pigs are adapted to temperate climates. But food researchers may have a good substitute: a toad found only in Chile whose meat tastes like a cross between lobster and chicken. The shiny, olive-green toad (calyptocephalella caudiverbera) grows to be a foot long or more and lacks the toxic skin glands and warty appearance of other toads.

Because of their superb taste, wild toads have long been a Chilean delicacy. Now researchers at La Serena campus of the University of Chile are learning to farm them. In 1975, the university's Institute of Food Technology started farms large enough to produce 50,000 toads every year, making a feasible a supply of 10 to 15 tons of scallop-size toad legs to markets, restaurants and canneries.

In addition to the university's facilities, full-scale production ponds have been dug out of otherwise useless swampland. Farmers surround the ponds with flowers and shrubs to attract insects, placing boxes of rotten fruit nearby to draw fruit flies, which the toads capture with their sticky tongues. The toads require little attention, and in two years reach market size: 7 inches long and a half a pound. Delighted with the ease and cheapness of toad farming, Chilean farmers anticipate lucrative sales in the international frog-meat market.

In Nigeria, the Institute for Oil Palm Research is working to develop small animals that fit easily into village life and can be eaten at one meal to avoid the necessary refrigeration. The best candidate so far is the giant African land snail (Achatina species), which grows quickly and may weigh as much as a half a pond. It is eaten in West Arica and is immensely popular in parts of Nigeria and Ghana.

The meat has as much protein as beef, but contains considerably more of the important amino acids lysine and arginine than eggs. The institute has found the snails suitable for "farming" in tree-shaded enclosures on rubber, cocoa and oil-palm plantations. With proper proportions of males and females, each enclosure may produce as much as 150 pounds of snail meat each year.

In Central and South America, capybaras look like gigantic guinea pigs. Reportedly, they possess considerable intelligence and are shy and inoffensive, living quietly in family groups of up to 20 on the edges of ponds, lakes, rivers and swamps. But capybaras are the world's largest rodents and are being "farmed" by the thousands in Venezuela as an alternative to rare and expensive beef.

Capybaras can be as big as pigs and weigh upward of 110 pounds; they eat only plants, preferring course swamp grasses and pestilential weeds such as water hyacinth. Researchers in Venezuela have recently found that the Capybaras digests food three and a half times more efficiently than cattle do. cCapybaras outperform cattle in reproduction, too, producing six times more young in a year.

The meat of the capybara is white and tastes more like fish than meat. Usually salted and dried, it is not universally liked. Nevertheless, the wild stocks over much of South America have been wiped out. Venezuela Catholics can eat capybara meat on traditionally meatless days because the church considers it an amphibious animal. Although they move nimbly, capybaras are easily caught, easily handled and easily raised in captivity. Their leather commands high prices and is sought after by glove makers because it stretches in one direction only. For hot and humid tropical regions, the capybara might prove an ideal food animal.

The biggest industry involving worms that most of us can imagine is the local Tom Sawyer with his fishing-season hustle: Worms -- 75 cents a can. But consider Hugh Carter of Plains, Ga., a first cousin of President Carter. He and several other entrepreneurs are worm millionaires, selling earthworms and their castings -- one of the best soil conditioners known -- in hundreds of retail stores across the United States and Canada.

Worms eat almost any organic waste: Manure, sewage sludge, cannery and food wastes, municipal garbage -- waste that we spend millions of dollars annually to bury, burn or barge away. It is estimated that an earthworm can grind up, ingest and excrete its weight in food each day. A ton of worms, therefore, can process a ton of organic garbage a day into useful products.

In the first commercialization of this feat, a worm farm in Ontario, Canada, has been processing 75 tons of supermarket refuse a week for the last 10 years. More recently, worm speculators have organized similar projects in Florida, California, Nebraska, Maryland and Ohio.

The humble water buffalo, long considered fir only for toil in Asian rice paddies, is finding a new career on farm fields in Florida and Missouri. The first herd imported for commercial farming arrived in Florida in 1978, airfreighted from Guam by Tony Leonards, a Louisianan with a flair for adventure. The 52 buffalo had run wild on Guam and were captured by Jeep-borne hunters firing tranquilizing guns.

Leonards had to overcome a lot of skepticism. It is widely assumed, for instance, that water-buffalo meat is tough and less desirable than beef. Actually, it is lean and tender. In addition to meat, water buffalo produces smooth, rich milk with twice the butterfat content of dairy cows' milk. Italian mozzarella cheese is made from the milk of 100,000 water buffalo farmed in the lowlands outside Naples.

The alpaca seems an ideal animal for farming on dry rangeland and in the rarefied atmosphere above the timberline in many countries. A miniature cousin of the camel, the alpaca can extract food energy from even poor-grade forage -- more efficiently than sheep or cattle. It needs water only once a week, and thrives equally well in the searing heat of desert lands and the vicious cold of its native Andes Mountains.

Gentle and playful, the alpaca grows as big as a Shetland pony. Masses of long hair hang from its sides, breast and rump. The fiber -- black, brown or white -- is soft and flexible, with a sheen that gives a silky luster to alpaca cloth. The fiber is prized by the textile industry, which pays two or three times the price of sheep's wool for alpaca, because it is lighter and warmer than other wools.

Since the 1830s, attempts have been made to get flocks of alpacas out of Peru for breeding elsewhere, but Peruvian governments have always blocked export. Thoughtful researchers hope the time will soon be ripe for global cooperation in alpaca development.