Kenya: Drought turns spotlight on human-wildlife conflict in the north

By Kang-Chun Cheng
Posted on Friday, 16 September 2022 12:50

Taking a break at Gue watering hole. For such pastoralists, animals are their ‘moving banks’ and also signal social standing. (photo by Kang-Chun Cheng)

To the layperson’s eye, much of northern Kenya appears barren, proliferated by desiccated shrubs and the occasional struggling goat. However, it’s home to many ethnic groups, such as the Rendille, who tend to live in big clans and herd their livestock together, and the Turkana, who traditionally operate in small family units and are semi-nomadic peoples. Pastoralism is a common thread that unifies the residents in this region, but climate change is exacerbating an already extreme environment.

The Horn of Africa is experiencing the fourth below-average rainy season since 2020, of which the Kenyan government declared a national emergency in September 2021. An estimated 4.1 million people in Kenya require humanitarian water assistance as nearly 500 boreholes have stopped functioning. 1.5 million cattle have also died from the drought.

Linda Ogallo, a climate change adaptation expert at the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) based in Nairobi, says drought is not being experienced in a vacuum. “The region has faced compounded disasters in the last few years,” she says, which has heightened instances of food insecurity and disease outbreaks.

Climate change exacerbates extremes, says Robert Patalano, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology. In addition to coping with periods of more intense dry seasons, punctuated by severe storms and flooding in certain areas, Patalano says that people are also confronted with restrictions on movement.

“Areas that are drought-tolerant or climatically distinct [e.g. highlands versus lowlands] that may have once provided food and water resources to livestock during periods of climatic stress, may not be accessible to local communities any longer,” he tells The Africa Report.

Herders from Northern Kenya often congregate at the Gue watering hole. (photo by Kang-Chun Cheng)

Drought exacerbating long-standing illnesses

Severe droughts create a conducive environment for more prevalent illnesses and a general state of unhealthiness, says Samuel Derbyshire, an anthropologist and development researcher who examines shifts in the livelihood systems of Turkana’s pastoralists. There’s also the stress and mental pressure that comes with seeing one’s livelihood drain away as livestock dies. Climate change factors into health as a whole, along with conditions that spur infectious diseases.

The remoteness of places like Laisamis means that common diseases like tuberculosis remain deadly. This past April, Galwaha rushed his toddler-aged niece to the nearest clinic to have her treated for malaria; she passed away that same night.

Everything is changing from what we used to know, different diseases that we don’t understand

Prosopis juliflora, known in Kiswahili as mathenge, is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree of tropical American origin. Although it was distributed mere decades ago as part of development programmes to afforest the semi-arid landscapes for livestock fodder, the invasive species has been linked with gum and tooth issues. The small, smooth seeds get stuck in animals’ mouths, eventually causing their teeth to fall out. Mathenge seeds have also been documented as a cause of slicing open goats’ feet; herders are forced to cut hooves off as a last resort.

Outbreaks of diseases, such as Kala-azar (visceral leishmaniasis, spread by sandfly bites), measles, Dengue fever, and yellow fever have been reported, which correlates to increasingly limited access to water sources.

Nicholas Ekitela, a local pastoralist and resident in Turkana, says the drought feels relentless. With fewer places to graze and water animals exist, tensions and stresses flare up among communities. “It’s been really hard here, especially for the pastoralist community,” he says. “Everything is changing from what we used to know, different diseases that we don’t understand.”

The outskirts of Laisamis village of Marsabit. (photo by Kang-Chun Cheng)

Man-made modifiers

35-year-old Benjamin Galwaha, a local pastoralist and resident of Laisamis village in Marsabit, says when he was a child, there was more available space in general, as well as larger populations of wildlife, such as antelope, in the bush – the environment never felt crowded. However, as village populations grow in size, animals have been killed or scared off, yet outbreaks of diseases, such as Rift Valley fever, remain a growing concern.

Patalano cites the conversion of swathes of pastures to ‘cash-crop’ agriculture – a vestige of German and British colonial legacy – as an example of land-use shifts that affect communities’ resiliency. “This is really complicated because those crops support millions of people both economically and as a food source,” Patalano says. “You have both climate and drought impacts compounded with policy issues, all having cultural impacts on herding communities.”

Limited space means closer proximity to wildlife as grazing and water sources become scarce. While these communities already have lifestyles closely intertwined with their livestock, even closer proximity creates the perfect environment for priority pathogens to bloom, such as Covid-19, influenza, ebola, and others that have yet to be identified.

Although there has been distribution of humanitarian aid, common knowledge of the transmission of diseases from humans to animals can be low. For instance, fewer than 30% of Kenyan pastoralists associate high-risk practices (e.g. drinking raw milk) with brucellosis infections.

Local boys along the road leading to Marsabit in Northern Kenya. (photo by Kang-Chun Cheng)

Despite certain gaps in understanding within these livestock systems, traditional knowledge as a whole should not be underestimated. “Pastoralists have an intimate and extensive knowledge of their surroundings and are well aware of the diseases affecting their livestock,” says a study titled ‘The Impact of Malignant Catarrhal Fever on Maasai Pastoral Communities in Kitengela Wildlife Dispersal Area, Kenya’. However, the process of integrating pastoralists’ knowledge with government and mainstream discussions of disease, pastoralism and wildlife conservation remains a challenge.

The Gue watering hole where herders from Northern Kenyan congregate. (photo by Kang-Chun Cheng)

Research has found that locals may feel powerless to respond to wildlife-induced challenges on their land, due to a government ban on hunting and strict conservancy regulations, even as limited resource availability and distribution limit space, both where wildlife can roam and where livestock can graze.

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