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Pastoralists of Kenya


Pastoralism in Kenya

By Peyton Fleming

Pastoralism provides much of the milk and protein consumed in Kenya, but it faces a perilous future especially from climate change but also a lack of infrastructure and land rights. Recent droughts have exacerbated the challenges, leading to conflict between pastoralist communities struggling to find enough forage and water for livestock. Fresh ideas and new programs are arising to help ease the situation in areas of northern Kenya, from where this dispatch originates. This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

‘Wabi-sabi’ is a world view about finding beauty in nature’s imperfections. It perfectly describes pastoralism in northern Kenya – where nomadic livestock herders scrape out a living by moving their animals from place to place in search of water and grass in a dry and unforgiving landscape. For at least 10,000 years, this migratory lifestyle has supported more than a half-million Samburu, Turkana and Rendille communities scattered across this vast region dotted with thorn trees, dwarf shrubs and little else. It stretches from the dusty town of Isiolo in the south to the Ethiopia and Somalia borders in the north and east. Livestock, mostly goats, cattle and camels, are the primary food and income source for pastoralists living on these collectively owned and arid lands.

But pastoralism faces perilous threats today from climate change, population growth, land pressures, and tribal conflicts. Warmer temperatures and more extreme droughts are increasing the number of livestock raids among tribes across the region. Land encroachment from agriculture interests and wildlife-focused conservancies in the south are also shrinking traditional grazing territories. “Our biggest problem is climate change,” said Christopher Ogom, a Samburu pastoralist and local leader in the village of Gatab, who lost most of his goats and cattle during a devastating four-year drought that ended in April. “Food security is a big problem due to the loss of animals. Many people are still depending on relief (assistance).”

Ndurra Tarakino, a Rendille pastoralist with some of his camels at the Civicon borehole, a key water source for herders near Mount Kulal in northern Kenya. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

And it isn’t just Indigenous tribes with their deep cultural knowledge who are threatened by these trends. Pastoralism plays a critical role in conserving open landscapes that support elephants and giraffes which drive tourism. It protects biodiversity and provides carbon sinks, sequestering up to 5 million tons of carbon per acre per year. Pastoralism also provides much of the milk and meat consumed in Kenya.

I recently spent 10 days traveling to remote settlements, watering holes and villages across northern Kenya. I witnessed the challenges pastoralists are facing and the solutions that are giving them hope in this expanse of savannahs, scrublands, and dry grasslands.

Oddly enough, my trip began with rain. Water holes, mud, and camel milk Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands in southern and northern Kenya are reeling from a string of recent withering droughts that turned grassland to dust, the longest one being from 2020 to early 2023. By last fall, according to ReliefWeb, more than 2.4 million livestock had perished for lack of food and water, and more than 4.2 million people were suffering from acute food insecurity.

The first seasonal rains returned for a few weeks in April, followed by a second round that began on Oct. 17, the first day of my trip north from Nairobi. After passing through Isiolo, a key transport hub for lorries heading to Ethiopia 170 miles north of the capital, the rugged empty landscape immediately became dry and brown, even after rains the night before. One hour later, I saw my first camels, first a handful, then dozens. Cow bells clanged around many of their necks while being herded by young pastoralist boys who survive for days at a time on camel milk. Thirty miles further north, I visited a Rendille settlement, a cluster of two dozen huts made from tree branches and plastic. Nestled behind a mountain, the rainy season had transformed the bumpy path to the settlement into a slurry of mud up to a foot deep. A Rendille settlement purposefully located at the base of a mountain for water access and security from cattle raids. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.


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