Danielle Nierenberg
Danielle Nierenberg

Livestock keepers’ rights: Conserving endangered animal genetic resources in Kenya

By Dr Jacob Wanyama and Danielle Nierenberg

Maralal, Kenya, is mostly known for its wildlife. And as we made the seven hour, bumpy trek from Nairobi — half of it on unpaved roads — we saw our fair share of water buffaloes, rhinos, impala, and giraffes. But we weren’t here to go on safari. We were here to meet with a group of pastoralists — livestock keepers who had agreed to meet with us and talk about the challenges they face.
 
We met in the community primary school and it was humbling to see so many people — many wearing traditional Maasai clothing, brightly woven clothe, beads, elaborate earrings — come through the door to greet us.
 
Over the years, pastoralists like the well-known Maasai here in Kenya have been pushed out of their traditional grazing lands to drier and drier regions, places where it was easy to ignore them. But as the effects of climate change, hunger, drought and the loss of biodiversity become more evident, it’s increasingly hard to push livestock keepers’ rights aside. Governments need to recognise that pastoralists are the best keepers of genetic diversity.
 
Anikole cattle, for example, a breed indigenous to Eastern Africa, are not only beautiful to look at but they’re one of the “highest quality” breeds of cattle because they can survive in extremely harsh, dry conditions — something that’s more important than ever as climate change takes a bigger hold on Africa.
 
Although most of the people we met don’t have access to cable TV or even radios, they do have a good sense of the challenges their fellow livestock keepers face all over Kenya. They are aware that climate change is likely responsible for the drought plaguing much of East Africa, killing thousands of livestock over the last few months. They know that conflict with neighbouring pastoral communities over water resources and access to land makes headlines in Kenya’s newspapers. And they know that many policy-makers would like to forget they exist, considering their nomadic lifestyle barbaric, as our guide Dr Pat Lanyasunya, a member of the Africa LIFE Network, explained.
 
Unfortunately, governments and agribusiness don’t share the same viewpoint. They’re increasingly promoting cross-breeding of native breed with exotic breeds — breeds that were designed to gain more weight and produce more milk. The problem is, however, that these newer breeds have a hard time adapting to sub-Saharan Africa’s dry conditions, as well as the pests and diseases present here. As a result, pastoralists who adopt these breeds have to spend more on feed and inputs, like pesticides and antibiotics to keep cattle healthy.
 
One of the most serious problems we heard about was the effects that replacing indigenous breeds of livestock with mixed breeds of more exotic cattle have had during the drought. These livestock keepers began replacing their indigenous Zebu cattle with mixed breeds about 15 years ago after missionaries introduced them to the community. While the new breeds were bigger and could potentially produce more meat or milk, they aren’t as hardy as native cattle that can travel long distances without much water.

According to one of the community elders, the “old breeds could go 40km [for food and water] and come back,” but the new breeds can’t tolerate the distance or the heat. In the past, water sources could be much farther away and the cattle could thrive, but now they need to be much closer.
 
That’s one reason different pastoralist communities sometimes clash — when cattle can’t travel far for water, livestock keepers have to find it elsewhere, often at sites that are traditionally used by different communities. A man wearing a Harley-Davidson hat along with his Maasai shawl acknowledged that although they fight with other communities over resources, “they’re just like us”, trying to survive with very little support from the government or NGOs. The conflict has not only effected the raising of livestock, but also forced schools to close and created more internally displaced people as they are driven off the land.
 
What surprised us most about these livestock keepers is their understanding that the world is changing. They know that many of their children won’t live the same kind of lives that their ancestors lived for centuries. Many will choose to go to the cities, but they said if their children become “landed”,  they want them to maintain links to the pastoralist way of life. And they said that for some of them, livestock is what they do best and what they have a passion for — and that they should be allowed to continue doing it.

  • Dr Jacob Wanyama is a veterinarian and coordinator for the Africa LIFE Network. Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.
    • Judith

      And so we destroy a way of life that is sustainable! As we are doing all over Africa and the world whilst destroying humanity!

      Suicides of the world unite – it is all of us

    • haiwa tigere

      Nice break from Terror Blanche. Was a herdboy myself know what they are talking about.

      40km walk for water- maybe a borehole or two could solve that problem so the lazy new cows dont have to do the treck. It solved our problem in my village.

      Cross breeding is not such a bad thing more pound to the hoof I say. Maybe the vets and animal doctors should start doing some work to protect these animals from pests and pestilence.
      One problem with traditional cattle is we never sell cattle. we would rather see them die(or kill them just before they die) than sell them.

      This happens in a lot of places in Africa- cattle are not a business but a possession and even have names maybe that attitude should change.

    • X Cepting

      I agree with the findings of this article. To all those who advocate tampering with natural selection by cross breeding with cold-climate stock, please think carefully before you commit poor farmers to a lifetime of expensive chemical farming and possible stock wipeout. I have seen this in effect. To weed out the full weakening effect of the genes of one European bull from indigenous stock took nearly 6 generations and even so, the occasional “sport” appeared to haunt the decision.

      I still think we should stick to what is adapted to Africa in Africa and rather improve the stock internally as have been done by generations of herdsmen. After all, it took generations to get it right, which just one ill-advised crossing can undo and a quickfix borehole won’t solve. Who will hold the herders to ransom for this borehole? If the price of extra feeding is included, is it still really more pound to the hoof or just false advertising from greedy European Agri salesmen? Compare Eland or even local Nguni cattle to any of the European heavy beef species as to input for output. Still more pound to the hoof? The fatty beef grown in colder climates are totally unsuitable to our diets as well. We need leaner meat in warmer countries to be healthy. The object is no longer to grow the biggest, but the most healthy protein with the least high tech input (sustainable).