The issue is not just grazers vs. wildlife
U.S. and European concern over the drought-driven conflict besetting central Kenya in early 2017 tends to focus on the impacts afflicting wildlife, wildlife habitat, and eco-tourism.
This is understandable because these are the aspects of Kenya most often seen by outsiders, as viewers of wildlife documentaries, films such as Out of Africa with Kenyan settings, and as occasional visitors.
But wildlife are only one aspect of a crisis cycle driven only in part by the increasingly frequent droughts hitting Kenya, a nation which straddles the equator, and also only in part by the land distribution and other social justice issues spotlighted by Kenyan sources and commentators Sebastian Mwanza, Gitau Mbaria, Rasna Warah, and Josphat Ngonyo, among others whose voices ANIMALS 24-7 has recently been honored to help amplify.
And not just about whose cows eat
At root, the Kenyan crisis, and parallel crises afflicting much of the rest of Africa, especially east Africa, is not just about whether wildlife or pastoralists’ cattle or ranchers’ cattle will or should consume what share of the grass and water.
Rather, the underlying issue is whether the region can lastingly sustain any sort of economy based on grazing cattle, sheep, goats, or any other species, in historical abundance. As East Africa dries out, it can no longer support zebras, impalas, wildebeests, giraffes, elephants and rhinos in historical abundance, either, or their predators such as lions, leopards, wild dogs, hyenas, and cheetahs, even if poaching could be 100% suppressed and both pastoralists and ranchers could be permanently expelled.
Since neither permanent and total suppression or expulsion of either poachers or pastoralists and ranchers is a probable or practical option, resolving the Kenyan and larger East African crises requires another approach, focused on helping the region transition to an economic base recognizing ecological reality: grazing livestock, as an industry, is already well on the way to becoming a cultural and historical artifact, not a viable way of life.
Wildlife tourism, meanwhile, can thrive even if tourists see “only” hundreds of animals of a variety of species, instead of thousands or tens of thousands. What is necessary to conserve, rebuild, and even expand wildlife tourism is to be able to show visitors examples of wildlife in native habitat, under safe conditions.
East Africa never was humanless wilderness
Contrary to the fantasies of many major conservation organizations and individual donors, no amount of money can––or should––restore an East African humanless wilderness which in truth never existed in the first place.
Humanity itself evolved first in the Rift Valley of Kenya. East Africa, including the nations of Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, North and South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Dijbouti, may also have been where herding cattle and other livestock were first practiced, more than 10,000 years ago.
The East African wildlife ecology as it has existed throughout human history has developed parallel to grazing livestock. Now the environmental conditions which permitted the pastoralist way of life, the ranching way of life, and the abundance of wildlife which long thrived among the grazing industries are changing quite abruptly.
Cultural & economic gearshift
Within the span of much less than one normal human lifetime, East Africa is having to go through cultural and economic gear-shifting, willingly or not. All of the human elements and indigenous wildlife are likely to suffer least if there is widespread recognition that the region will not soon return to the climatic conditions that prevailed over the last several centuries.
The current chaos in Laikipia, as the Kenyan commentators have pointed out, echoes the chaos afflicting southeastern Kenya as recently as 2015.
“At least 400,000 head of cattle have invaded the Tsavo West National Park, depriving wildlife of pasture and water,” reported Mathias Ringa of The Daily Nation then.
In truth the number of cattle in Tsavo West was closer to 47,000, Africa Animal Welfare Network founder Josphat Ngonyo told ANIMALS 24-7, after a week of making inquiries. Another 20,000 cattle were illegally in Tsavo East National Park.
But that was steeply increased from previous reported incursions into Tsavo during drought years.
Even sixty to seventy thousand cattle may not sound like many in habitats of 8,500 square miles, between the two Tsavo National Parks, and the total was only about .03% of the 19.5 million cattle in Kenya. Yet the cumulative impact of the cattle might have been greater than that of the estimated 11,000 elephants in the Tsavo region.
The Tsavo catastrophes of 2015 likewise had recent precedents.
Wrote Katharine Houreld of Associated Press on September 1, 2011. “In central and western Kenya, farmers have had a bumper crop of corn and potatoes. Yet in the north, skeletal children wait for food aid amid a growing emergency,” which put 3.75 million Kenyans at risk of starvation, along with eight million other East Africans
Paradoxically, the most afflicted nations––Kenya and Ethiopia––remained net food exporters, with thriving crop sectors despite the ecological and economic collapse of the Horn of Africa region.
Herds used “like bank accounts”
“Small farmers in western Kenya––which has had steady rains and a good harvest––say they don’t move their crops to the drought-ravaged north because it costs too much to store and transport them and they are not assured of a market,” explained Houreld. “Many wouldn’t be able to afford to buy the produce in the north because drought killed their cattle. The pastoralist communities there use their herds like bank accounts, selling off animals when they need cash. Oxfam says in some areas between 60-90 percent of livestock have already perished.”
Overwhelming as was the human suffering in 2011 in the Horn of Africa, livestock suffered and died there in far greater numbers than people. Much of this misery was manufactured by aid agencies which should have known better––and then re-manufactured as the same aid agencies helped many of the stricken pastoralists to rebuild their herds.
Shorter drought cycle
The 2015 and 2011 disasters in turn followed many similar episodes, occurring with increasing frequency.
Summarized The Economist in 2009, “The drought cycle in East Africa has been contracting sharply. Rains used to fail every nine or ten years. Then the cycle seemed to go down to five years. Now, it seems, the region faces drought every two or three years. The time for recovery––for rebuilding stocks of food and cattle––is ever shorter.”
The Economist mentioned “food and cattle” as separate commodities because in truth they are. Despite the prominence of livestock in the culture and economy of the Horn of Africa, the residents eat less meat than the people of almost any other nations except India and Sri Lanka, whose Hindu and Buddhist majorities include tens of millions of people who are vegetarian by choice.
Americans eat 16 times more meat
Ethiopia ranks tenth in the world in heads of cattle, according to the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization, with nearly three times as many cows as Kenya, yet Kenya produces 20% more beef.
But Kenyans also eat very little meat compared to Americans. While Kenyans eat about twice as much flesh food as Ethiopians, all species combined, Americans on average eat nearly 16 times as much as Ethiopians and eight times as much as Kenyans.
About 45% of Ethiopians and 30% of Kenyans, most of them in the Horn of Africa region, were malnourished in recent non-drought years. The 2011 and 2014 droughts have only intensified the ongoing disaster.
People in the Horn of Africa raise cattle and other livestock they cannot feed and water, and mostly cannot afford to slaughter until the animals are already dying, chiefly because livestock are their currency. East Africans are as culturally wedded to livestock––often including as the price of arranging a marriage––as western cultures were wedded to the gold standard until former U.S. President Richard Nixon decoupled the value of the U.S. dollar from the price of gold.
The Horn of Africa had not yet become desert when the pastoralist way of life evolved, nearly 10,000 years ago. Back then, at the dawn of civilization, when humans were few, possession of cattle and other livestock actually measured wealth. Big herds illustrated the amount of meat and milk accessible to the people who kept them, and of the grasslands the herders could protect against predators and human marauders.
Prophecy becoming history
That was before millennia of overgrazing and deforestation induced the present aridity, accentuated by global warming caused largely by industrial agriculture as practiced in “developed” nations; before the herds kept by the now impoverished pastoralists came to mean little more than numbers in a bank book measuring currency inflated to meaninglessness; and before the ongoing reliance on animal agriculture plunged the region into intractable ecological and economic debt.
“Currently, 1.6 billion people live in areas of water scarcity. This could easily grow to two billion soon if we stay on the present course,” warned the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Water Management Institute in a 2009 joint report entitled An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food Security.
Then just a projection, the report is now rapidly becoming historical prophecy.
Same benefit from fewer animals?
UNEP and the International Water Management Institute noted that historically “grazing animals capture the benefits of sparsely distributed rainfall by grazing on rainfed pastures” over large areas.
This, however, was before the runaway growth of human population and livestock concentrations that began in the early 20th century. UNEP and the International Water Management Institute were optimistic in 2009 that “Opportunities exist for the sustainable management of livestock systems that maintain ecosystem services,” but only if “herders are able to get the same benefit from a smaller number of animals.”
Hoped UNEP and the International Water Management Institute, “Management strategies to improve animal health and survival can reduce herd sizes.”
So far, this has not happened.
Scrambling to repeat inadequate response
Asked the Heifer International web site in 2011, after quoting the 2009 Economist article cited above, “The catastrophe is here. Will we hand out aid again and not dig deeper to long-term solutions? Will the images and stories fade until two years from now, when it all happens again, we’ll scramble to repeat the inadequate response?”
These were the necessary questions, but Heifer International went on to promote more of the same mistakes that put the Horn of Africa into crisis in the first place, and now have deepened it.
“Heifer’s camel projects in Kenya and Tanzania have already helped farmers and pastoralists recover from loss of cattle,” Heifer International boasted. “We’re studying ways to expand our model in Kenya to Ethiopia and Somalia.”
Introducing livestock better suited to desert, such as camels, may slow the rate at which animal agriculture fails. If fewer animals are kept, the habitat has a better chance to recover from overgrazing––but only if rain falls.
The Heifer International model calls for “zero grazing,” which fights soil erosion by introducing intensive confinement husbandry, the same approach called “factory farming” when practiced on a large scale.
This requires that animals who formerly grazed must instead be fed crops. Raising crops requires water––and the same crops could feed many times more people if made into food for humans, instead of being processed through the bodies of animals.
Lack of leadership
International animal charities logically should be leading recognition that the epoch of animal husbandry in the Horn of Africa––and the rest of a hotter, drier world––is staggered toward a thirsty close. Yet so far there is scant sign that most of the biggest animal charities have paid much attention to the causes of the rapidly deepening disaster.
“Poor pastoralist communities depend on animals for their livelihoods–for milk, for trade, for transport. Without animals their future is bleak,” contends the British-based Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad, overlooking that keeping animals at huge ecological cost has already cost tens of thousands of humans and millions of animals of any future at all.
Whether in the Horn of Africa, Britain, the U.S., or anywhere else, animal husbandry has become ecologically and ethically unviable, most especially in arid regions. Arid climates may be able to support the people who presently live there, but not by feeding and watering either the numbers of livestock or working animals whom the residents have become used to keeping.