Pastoralists herd sheep and goats in Isinya, Kenya. Cattle populations in semi-arid parts of Kenya have decreased by 26 per cent in the past 40 years, as per some studies. Image Credit: Reuters

Isinya (Kenya) Last year David Ole Maapia nearly lost his herd of 48 cows to crippling drought in southern Kenya’s Kajiado County.

To avoid repeating the experience, the Maasai pastoralist, whose culture has long rested on cattle herding, has decided to switch to something more resilient — sheep and goats.

“With this weather I can’t keep cattle for more than a day,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a bustling market in Isinya, where he was buying goats.

Kenya has seen heavy rains this year in many parts of the country. But in other years more regular and severe droughts are depleting water and pasture and decimating pastoralists herds.

To limit livestock losses, pastoralists like Ole Maapia are opting to sell drought-threatened cattle to buy goats, sheep and camels, which they say can better withstand erratic weather.

Ole Maapia has already bought more than 200 goats and sheep, and hopes to have more than a thousand by the end of the year.

“If I sell them all during the festive period, I will have enough money to buy a small piece of land to build rental homes for those working in Nairobi”, about 60km from Isinya, he said.


Vulnerable to drought

Cattle are more likely to suffer in droughts than hardier goats, sheep or camels, scientists say.

According to a study released in February by the Kenya Markets Trust, a business association that promotes market growth, cattle populations in semi-arid parts of Kenya have decreased by 26 per cent in the past 40 years.

The number of sheep and goats increased by 76 per cent during the same period, the study said.

Cattle thrive best in temperatures between 10 to 30 degrees Celsius, said Mohammed Said of Kenya Markets Trust and one of the lead authors of the study.

So as climate change brings hotter summers, cattle are becoming less well suited to arid regions of the country, he said.

In contrast, smaller animals such as goats are better able to tolerate high temperatures and so are an attractive alternative for pastoralists, he added.

Parting from one’s cattle can be difficult, said Ole Maapia, as they have long been considered a Maasai pastoralist’s most precious asset.

“But many did not survive last year’s dry spell, so we are investing in animals that can cope with tough conditions,” he said.


Preventing conflict

Prolonged drought has created increased competition over resources such as land and water and sparked conflict, local people say.

When some pastoralists lose their animals due to harsh conditions, they raid and steal animals from other communities to replenish their stock, said Ole Maapia.

“This leads to fights with guns, burnt homes and sometimes even deaths,” he said.

Finding alternative and more stable sources of income, including by investing in sheep, goats and camels, could help avoid conflict, explained Said, particularly with weather expected to grow more extreme in coming years.

Salad Boru, an Isiolo County local official, thinks owning more goats and sheep also may be helpful in fending off cattle raiders.

“In many cases, bandits are not interested in small animals.

They prefer stealing cattle as they are seen as more prestigious,” he said.

The Kenyan government is investing in other measures as well to prevent conflict over scarcer resources, according to Laikipia deputy governor John Mwaniki.

Last year four county governments set up the Amaya Triangle, an initiative to grow and store animal fodder as a cushion against pasture losses during droughts.

“Following massive cattle deaths during extreme droughts, we are establishing fodder banks to help fatten the most impacted animals,” Mwaniki said.

“Climate change does not recognise boundaries,” he added.

“So we cannot solve a problem in Laikipia only, or conflict will carry on in neighbouring counties.”