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Fighting for land and water

In the shadow of Mount Kenya, a battle is intensifying as drought pits wildlife conservationists against traditional nomadic cattle herders and small-scale farming communities.

In a remote corner of Laikipia County, north and west of Mount Kenya, all the elements of a perfect storm forming on the horizon can be seen in a single dramatic encounter.

A helicopter is buzzing low over a thick covering of trees and brush as it tries to coax a huge bull elephant out of the bush and onto land managed by Ol Pejeta, a nature conservancy.

The elephant is one of three that have been raiding crops in a subsistence farming community nearby, threatening its livelihood with their return visits.


But the elephant clearly feels threatened, too, at one point trying to charge the helicopter.

A wildlife manager from the conservancy is leaning out of the helicopter’s passenger seat, ready to fire blanks in the air in an effort to herd the elephant in the right direction.

Wildlife officers try to encourage a bull elephant away from a farming community.
Wildlife officers try to encourage a bull elephant away from a farming community. Some conservationists say human-animal conflict is becoming a threat almost on par with that of poaching for wildlife as their habitat and resources are threatened by population growth and increased contact. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

And on the ground, a handful of young Samburu tribesmen stand watching, a strange mix of tradition and modernity as they shift their spears to hold under their arms so they can snap pictures of the scene on mobile phones.

They’re a long way from home. The cattle herders from Samburu County to the north and east of Laikipia are traditional pastoralists, much like the Maasai.

But in the face of even more severe drought in their own county, they’ve been travelling much further than they normally do in search of water and grass.

‘The livestock are suffering’

“I’m scared,” said 21-year-old Joseph Sawe, after the helicopter finally left, having managed to direct two out of the three elephants away from local cornfields.

“Where we are living, there is not enough water,” said Sawe. “The livestock are suffering.”

Jacob Sawe is a 21-year-old member of the Samburu tribe who has travelled far from home in search of grazing land for his cattle.
Jacob Sawe is a 21-year-old member of the Samburu tribe who has travelled far from home in search of grazing land for his cattle. They've been spending nights on private conservancy land where he says smaller cattle are often prayed upon by wild animals. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

While some parts of Kenya are struggling with floods, others, including Laikipia and the counties to its north, are facing drought, with seasonal rains again falling short as climate change shifts old weather patterns.

“It’s a very challenging situation even for the government, trying to tackle two extremes,” said Joyce Kimutai, a climate scientist and meteorologist based in Nairobi.

“You are trying to get food supply to regions where they experience famine because there are no pasture for the animals, the crops are not doing well.

“But at the same time, there are regions where they’re experiencing the floods so their crops are being destroyed. The roads, the infrastructure are being damaged and all that. So it’s a very difficult situation. It’s dire.”

In Laikipia, fears that competition for land and water could lead to violence are growing, along with the number of pastoralists with large herds of cattle arriving from even more badly affected areas.

Laikipia is particularly attractive because it is home to wealthy ranches and no fewer than 12 nature conservancies devoted to protecting biodiversity. Most hold vast tracts of better-resourced land complete with boreholes for water in times of drought.

Source of resentment

For many in the county, those privately owned lands are a source of resentment, still associated with the colonial days of white British rule in Kenya.

“People are coming up with the notion of conservation as a new colonialism,” said Yoakim Kuraru, a community leader and member of the Maasai tribe living close to Ol Pejeta.

“That is what we are thinking. Wild animals are valued more than us.”


A former teacher who now works for an NGO, Kuraru is not a typical cattle herder. He and his family still keep about 40 cows and a number of sheep. But they’re also trying some small farming, with limited success.

“This is a small farm,” he said, prodding the ground and turning over some withered plants. “You can see how dry it is. We planted some peas. You can see what grew.”

Yoakim Kuraru is a member of the Maasai community who says climate change is forcing traditional pastoralists to consider trading cattle herding for sedentary farming.  But he also says wealthy ranches and conservancies associated with the colonial days of
Yoakim Kuraru is a member of the Maasai community who says climate change is forcing traditional pastoralists to consider trading cattle herding for sedentary farming. But he also says wealthy ranches and conservancies associated with the colonial days of white British rule should be doing more to help pastoralists feed and water their herds. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

Kuraru stares climate change in the eye most mornings when he steps outside his small house and looks at the peak of Mount Kenya in the distance.

“The snow used to be as big as the clouds up here,” he said, pointing at the sky.

Mount Kenya is one of three mountains or mountain ranges on the African continent with glaciers, an important source of water.

But a recent United Nations report predicts that they’ll disappear over the next 20 or 30 years because of climate change and that Mount Kenya’s will be the first to go.

Pressure on nomadic cultures

The warming conditions are putting pressure on the Maasai and other nomadic cultures to abandon their centuries-old way of life and opt for sedentary farming with an emphasis on drought-resistant crops.

The Maasai were essentially disenfranchised from the land in Laikipia in the early 1900s. But they still see themselves as the traditional custodians of the land.

“We think that land has been fenced off so that we, we the pastoralists, cannot access that [private] land,” said Kuraru. “But if we had that land, then I think our alternative ... source of living would be better.”

He also points out that his first attempt at growing a garden last year was destroyed by elephants.

Cows wander across land.
The UN launched a flash appeal to support Kenya’s drought response in October, saying more than two million people were food insecure in the country’s arid and semi-arid regions. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Laikipia is home to the second-largest elephant population in Kenya, but that doesn’t mean their world isn’t shrinking, too. Those who have dedicated themselves to their protection – and that of other wild animals – say climate change is another duress for species already in danger.

“If we keep having communities that have bad attitudes towards wildlife, perceiving wildlife as a threat, that’s our biggest threat,” said Abraham Njenga, an ecologist and wildlife officer at Ol Pejeta, the same man who was up in that helicopter trying to direct elephants away from people’s farms.

Njenga works closely with community scouts hired by the Kenya Wildlife Service who sound the alarm if elephants or other animals are raiding gardens or coming into potential conflict with human settlements.

Trying to build good relations

He said building good relations with local communities has become critical.

“Actually human-wildlife conflict is becoming [an] even bigger challenge now, seemingly even more than poaching. Because we don’t want people to retaliate.”


Ol Pejeta sits right on the equator on the western side of Mount Kenya. In 2004, the U.K.-based charity Fauna and Flora International bought the land that had been used for cattle ranching in the past with the help of a private donor.

Today, it still runs cattle as a part of its business model, but profits, along with those from safari tourism, are turned back into conservation.

It’s now the largest sanctuary in East Africa for black rhinos.

Abraham Njenga is an ecologist and wild-life officer with the Ol Pejeta conservancy where they are trying to build corridors with other wildlife reserves in a bid to preserve the ability of wild animals to roam as freely as possible as human settlements en
Abraham Njenga is an ecologist and wildlife officer with the Ol Pejeta conservancy, where they are trying to build corridors with other wildlife reserves in a bid to preserve the ability of wild animals to roam as freely as possible as human settlements encroach upon their space. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

Njenga said there is a plan to create wildlife corridors connecting with other conservancies so that animals can roam more freely. But given population growth and demands for land, it’s an uphill battle.

“We are losing the wildlife migration routes and the corridors as well, even the dispersal areas that we used to have to the south. Now most of these parts, they are all settled.”

Pastoralists insisting on access to grazing lands for thousands of cattle add another dimension to an already crowded field.

Forcing the issue

In some cases, herders are forcing the issue, launching incursions onto private land by cutting holes in the fences and driving their cattle through.

Access to grazing rights is a particularly sensitive issue, in part because of unresolved historical claims.

And there have been violent confrontations between armed herders and private landowners and government forces sent in to deal with the situation in the past.

“We have now about almost a year without rain,” said Samwel Parare, a Maasai cattle owner waiting anxiously for young herders to bring his cattle off a private ranch near Nanyuki where he’d set them to graze for the day.

A family of elephants
A family of elephants.
A herd of giraffes
A herd of giraffes.
A pair of lionesses
A pair of lionesses.
A giraffe looks above the treetops
A giraffe looks above the treetops.
images expandLaikipia County is home to Kenya's second-largest elephant population, while giraffes roam on the Ol Pejeta reserve with Mount Kenya visible in the background. The reserve also hosts animals ranging from lions to hyenas and has the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa.

He said he has no choice but to graze them illegally. And he’s willing to risk a fine or even having his cattle – more than 100 of them – confiscated.

“We don’t have a place to go and our cows are dying so we see that it is the only place we can get grass,” said Parare.

“They have big ranches. Some places even nothing is going there. So we also like them to see our problem and see how they can help us in this time.”

Up the road, managers at Ol Pejeta say an estimated 6,000 cattle and 3,500 sheep and goats are being grazed illegally on a section of land called Mutara that the conservancy is leasing from the Kenyan government.

In an email, Roxanne Mungai, deputy fundraising and communications manager, said there have been talks with community leaders and that a plan had been in the works to offer pastoralists water and pasture on Mutara for up to 2,000 head of livestock.

“This has not worked due to the incursions,” she said. “There are boreholes and water dams on site but recent incursions have not helped in proper management.”

Greener pastures

Njenga said if they allow their own resources to be depleted by large herds of cattle grazing on land the conservancy tries to rotate for optimum use, they’re more likely to have incidents where elephants and other animals go in search of literally greener pastures elsewhere.

He also said that once word gets out that pastoralists are being allowed onto one conservancy or another, there is a real danger of being overwhelmed, with the pastoralists quickly spreading the word.

“If someone has 300 cows, how do you tell them we’re only going to allow five so that [another] person can have his? Everyone wants a piece of the cake.”

It is a complicated picture. And one that will require all parties to help resolve, not an easy ask when the one thing uniting them is also the same thing driving them: fear.

Young Masai man
The traditional Maasai way of life is built around cattle, which are a measure of wealth and status. Younger unmarried males known as moran are often those who stay with the animals. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Climate scientist Kumitai said it’s too big a problem for the Kenyan government to handle on its own.

“So we want preparedness to be the priority and we want them to act before the extreme events actually take place. We don’t want them to react to the forecasts when there’s already mortalities, already people dying, there are cattle already dying.”

That’s an enormous task for any country, least of all those in the developing world that don’t hesitate to point out they’re not the ones responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.

“There’s so much money that goes into it actually for countries to prepare for it. It requires the willingness of the government and the other stakeholders,” Kumitai said.

And the need is urgent. The UN has warned that some 2.5 million people in Kenya are facing food insecurity because of drought. It’s in the midst of a fundraising drive to assist the country’s drought response.

Top image: Margaret Evans/CBC

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