Fearless hunt for pasture cause a huge cattle invasion overwhelms iconic wildlife reserves

Cattle herders, wildlife conservancies and climate change are colliding on the beautiful Kenyan highlands of Laikipia with tragic consequences. Samburu, Pokot and Maasai tribesmen, driven by annually increasing drought and overstocking and abetted by politicians, are pushing tens of thousands of scrawny cattle across private and state reserves, commandeering waterholes and killing wildlife in their

path. Some exclusive tourist lodges have been surrounded and one was burned to the ground. By DON PINNOCK.

Photo: USAID/Kenya is backing Kenyans as they work to reforest the country, safeguard rivers, restore soil fertility, and protect threatened wildlife. Reforestation binds the soil, preventing erosion and protecting rivers essential to the Laikipia farmers’ cattle shown here.(USAID/Riccardo Gangale)

When the British arrived in Kenya, the Maasai were – in the words of the colonial administration – “probably the richest uncivilised race in the world”. By the time of Britain’s departure and during the post-colonial era, they became among the poorest.

Together with the spectacular Maasai Mara, Laikipia in the scenic White Highlands, is among the country’s wilderness jewels and a tourist magnet, but it has a dark history of Maasai dispossession, vast European farming concessions and broken treaties.

A week ago armed pastoralists burned down the main tourist lodge at the 44, 000-acre Suyian Ranch conservancy. Stores and garages were looted and international visitors staying there evacuated. The five anti-stock-theft policemen guarding the lodge were simply overwhelmed by hundreds of invaders.

Laikipia is made up of extensive community owned ranches, private farms and wildlife conservancies. It supports the second highest density of wildlife in Kenya and is one of the few places in Africa where wildlife numbers are on the increase. It protects many endangered species such as Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, Lelwel’s hartebeest and the patas monkey.

“We’d been talking to the local community for two months,” said Anne Powys, one of the owners of Suyian Ranch. “But the young warriors who were driving the cattle came and said: ‘We don’t want to speak to anyone, we’re coming to take the grass by force, so don’t get in our way.’ They burned the lodge. We realised it wasn’t them but local politics that had changed their minds.”

“The damage occurring with the large number of stock is catastrophic,” Laikipia wildlife manager Jamie Manual told the BBC. “The land will be overgrazed and degraded and this will turn to a situation where we have a disaster on our hands. A lot of wildlife will die through starvation from a lack of grass in the conservancy.”

As heavily armed herders drive around 130,000 cattle before them deeper and deeper across the plateau, concession owners and local police are fighting a losing battle in face of the sheer scale of the invasion. Government, with elections near at hand, seems paralysed by indecision or an unwillingness to add pastoralist wars to its problems.

“The number of cattle around Laikipia is probably 10 times what it was in colonial times,” said environmental investigator and Kenyan resident Karl Ammann. “Together with goats and sheep, especially with growing droughts, it’s not sustainable. This is compounded by politicians keeping cattle as a status symbol.

“Herdsmen say they’re working for a big shot and say: ‘You can’t tell me where I can go or not go.’ Samburu National Park and Buffalo Sprigs next to it are under threat from cattle invasion. They will move in at night so tourists don’t see them and in the morning the place is covered by cattle shit and the grass is gone. And you find fires being started on the mountains too.”

According to Ammann, owning cattle is a good way to launder illegal money – it’s an uncheckable bank account. “Nobody asks where your money comes from. When you find a herdsman with an AK47 you know he’s well connected to someone who can afford weaponry like that. A little guy with a few cows isn’t in that league.”

According to The Standard newspaper, the problem in Laikipia is not drought or hapless pastoralists, but land sharks in Nairobi exploiting the vulnerability of pastoralists in order to dispossess genuine owners. “This is a national catastrophe of new money gone rogue.”

Ammann noted politicians also don’t want to go up against the Samburu, Pokot or Maasai. “There’s an election coming up and they don’t want to lose votes. So they express concern but do nothing to stop the invasions. And lodge owners downplay the problem because they don’t want to frighten off tourists.”

While the stated reasons for the invasion remain muddied, there’s historical justification derived from the displacement of the Maasai by both the colonial British and the independent government.

In 2004, for the third time since 1912, the Maasai launched a campaign for the return of lands allegedly stolen from them during the colonial era. While the campaign’s broad objective was national land restitution, the focus was on the return of Laikipia. That campaign, as did the previous two, ended in bitter failure.

“The biggest landowners in Laikipia are descendants of British colonials and they’re sitting with 1,000-year leases,’ explained Ammann. “The Samburu are saying: ‘This is traditionally our land. When do we get it back? We were never paid compensation.’

‘There is a solution. When drought starts hitting the herds they should be bought and slaughtered for corned beef or something and herders could make money during droughts in that way. But Samburu and Pokot herders count wealth by cattle numbers, not shillings, so they herd them until they drop and rot. Then every drought becomes an emergency. How do we get away from pastoralists wanting to have cattle for the sake of having cattle? It doesn’t bring anything but desertification.

“There appears to be no planning, no policy to help the herders through hard times,” he said. “So they lift the fences and invade conservancies and national parks. Somebody should decide what the carrying capacity is, the sustainability level, and make plans against that.

“When you get cattle taking all the grazing, the result is the wildlife dies of starvation, first the herbivores then the carnivores. It’s February now and the rains only come in April. And climate change is making it worse. We’re not over the hump yet. It could get a lot worse.” DM

Mike Mwenda

I’m passionate about understanding humanity and the environment we live in. I want our generation to be known for something incredible. I graduated in journalism and public relations, I have a blog where I document and write about environmental issues affecting the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). I have had the privilege of visiting Scotland, Italy and South Africa. Because traveling to me is adventurous; especially making new friends. In addition to writing about arts, environment and culture, I also advocate for women’s rights and empowerment in the Southern part of Africa.

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