ISIOLO, KENYA - It looked like a hostage swap, only the currency was livestock and the mission was to end decades of deadly clashes.
More than 50 sheep, goats and cows stood in the scorching heat of a desolate no-man’s land in arid northern Kenya, as Maasai and Samburu herders negotiated their handover.
Lipan Kitonga cast a critical eye over his emaciated herd, which 10 gun-toting Samburu had stolen from his home in Isiolo County, 300 kilometres (186 miles) north of Kenya’s capital.
“I was not around at the time,” said Kitonga, a community-based police officer, known as a police reservist, dressed in camouflage fatigues with a G3 rifle in hand. “Otherwise it would have been a different matter,” he said, his voice still tight with anger nine days after the animal theft.
Drought and violence
Nomadic herders in remote northern Kenya, which is awash with illegal arms, frequently raid cattle from each other and fight over scarce pasture and water, especially during droughts.
A wave of violence has hit Isiolo’s neighboring Laikipia region in recent months as armed herders searching for grazing have driven tens of thousands of cattle onto private farms and ranches from denuded communal land.
The livestock exchange was organized by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a charity set up in 2004 with support from donors and conservationists to reduce conflict and poverty among nomads by helping them better manage their land.
Almost 300,000 people are members of NRT’s 33 conservancies, which are community organizations focused on conservation, owning nearly 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) of land across Kenya’s north and coast.
Nomads no more
Drought has hit millions this year in northern Kenya, where most people live off their livestock. As Kenya’s population has doubled in 25 years, nomads can no longer freely follow the rains, turning some overgrazed common lands to dust.
“You have got more people, with more livestock, on less and less productive rangeland and it’s a really explosive situation,” said Mike Harrison, chief executive of NRT, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “The only answer to this is that everybody has to invest in improving their land.”
NRT promotes rotational grazing with a sustainable number of livestock, which allows land to rest, and the reseeding of degraded areas. Zones are set aside for wildlife, people and livestock, with limited access during drought for nomadic animals from other communities.
It also helps develop new businesses — tourism, bead-making and livestock markets — so nomads are less dependent on herding.
Tourism is the real money-spinner.
The most successful conservancies earn about $500,000 a year from visitors paying daily entry fees of $50-$80, Harrison said.
These earnings go into a community fund with 40 percent spent on operations, such as rangers’ salaries, and 60 percent on community projects, such as education and health, NRT says.
One of NRT’s main achievements has been to reduce conflict, cattle rustling and poaching by funding more than 500 rangers, trained by Kenya Wildlife Service, to patrol members’ land.
Many are police reservists, like Kitonga, issued rifles by the government to back up the overstretched police.
In Nasuulu, just north of Isiolo town, the Samburu, Turkana, Somali and Borana — who have traditionally fought each other — have come together to form one conservancy, an NRT member.
“They never used to talk to each other before, but they are now working together,” said Omar Godana, Nasuulu’s chairman.
Wildlife protected, too
Elephant poaching has stopped on 35,000 hectare (86,487 acre) Nasuulu since 12 NRT-funded scouts were deployed, he said.
NRT’s mobile security teams work with the police and wildlife service and receive aircraft and tracker-dog backup from a nearby wildlife conservancy, Lewa.
With increased security and strict controls on grazing, shootouts between armed herders and rangers are inevitable.
“It’s a killer squad,” said John Leparsanti, a Samburu herder in Laikipia who sees the crackdown on illegal grazing on NRT conservancies as a threat to his traditional way of life. “When there is a biting drought we cannot graze.”
Herding is key to the identity and culture of Kenya’s nomads, whose young men are initiated as warriors in colorful ceremonies where each kills a cow and drinks its blood. Their role as ‘morans’ is to guard the community and its animals.
Livestock provide nomads with a ready income because they can be sold quickly for cash. Pastoralists often do not have bank accounts and have high illiteracy rates because they roam over vast terrains with their cattle from a young age.
“We are not ready to do business like other tribes because we believe in cows,” said Samburu politician Mathew Lempurkel. “What are we going to replace them with?”
Harrison says less than 1 percent of NRT members’ land is set aside exclusively for wildlife.
Livestock is life
In remote, insecure lands, with poor roads and patchy mobile phone networks, there are no obvious alternative ways of life.
“If we went to say: ‘Look, you’ve all got to cut your livestock numbers in half, we would be laughed out the door,” Harrison said. “It’s a long slow process of rethinking what the incentives might be, trying different options.”
The authority of elders who used to control shared grazing land has been eroded by centralized government rule and modern education, experts say.
As climate change has brought increasingly frequent and prolonged drought and less grass, herders are keeping more goats as they can browse on shrubs and young shoots, unlike cattle.
The goats rip out the grass roots, further degrading the rangeland and reinforcing the vicious downwards cycle.
Some northern counties have formalized traditional land management customs in local bylaws, with the aim of giving power back to elders, in contrast to NRT’s approach of supporting decision-making by conservancy boards of directors.
“When you have the elders managing, there is enhanced ownership and the feeling of exclusion is not there,” said George Wamwere-Njoroge, an expert with the International Livestock Research Institute, which supports such initiatives.
ILRI is also encouraging herders to keep fewer, healthier animals, which fetch a better price at local markets, instead of trucking their cattle for 24 hours to the capital, Nairobi, where cartels control sales, he said.
One solution, rarely discussed by politicians, would be to reduce the number of livestock owned by wealthy, urban elites, who keep vast herds on northern lands as a status symbol.
Unlike in the past, when droughts would naturally have reduced livestock numbers, the elites ship in hay and water to keep their animals alive.
“A lot of destitute pastoralists have dropped out and moved to the small trading centers and depend on relief and petty trade,” said Wamwere-Njoroge. “But the elite pastoralist animals keep on going.”