LAKIPIA, KENYA — The smell of rotting animals permeates the air in parts of central Kenya’s Laikipia area, as lurking vultures and hyenas seem to be the only ones benefiting from the drought.
Dead elephants, buffaloes, zebras, giraffes, cattle, sheep and goats dot the landscape. While some died from the drought, some of the wildlife was shot or speared to death by armed herders in search of pasture and water for their tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and goats.
Ranch and conservancy owners say these herders are invading their private property — breaking fences, stealing cattle, using grass and water meant for their livestock and their neighbors’ livestock, cutting down olive trees for the leaves, even killing the owner of Sosian ranch in March when he went to check on burned houses. About 35 people have died in the unrest.
“This is not the first dry season we’ve had,” said Martin Evans, chairman of the Laikipia Farmers’ Association and the owner of Ol Maisor farm. “And when this thing happened, it wasn’t a matter of drought. It was a normal rainy season when they came in. This is a politically instigated invasion, as far as we can see. They’re using the cattle as a tool, as a battering ram, to just take over private property.”
As Kenya’s August general elections approach, many believe politicians are drumming up constituent support by encouraging these armed herders to take what they want.
“We are very much worried because we can see this issue is political. This is not illegal grazing, this is abnormal illegal grazing,” said Mamo Abdullahi Abdi, 42, a resident of Kinamba village, next to Ol Maisor. “I know, even for us to vote in this general election, it is sad for us to vote because they want to scare us so these people with illegal guns will take over Laikipia North constituency.”
And during this election year, some politicians have told their followers that white landowners should leave, even stating, incorrectly, that their leases have expired.
Daniel Eshikon Lorangen, the area chief of Lonyek village, said politicians should not incite people with such misinformation. He said that because Kenya’s government owns the country’s land, only the government can renegotiate leases when they expire. It is not a decision to be made by herders who illegally enter private property.
“So for that, I think Kenya really respects the rule of the law, and we need to respect that,” said Lorangen.
But Tiziana Wangui, 35, and other villagers in Kinamba do not want landowners like their neighbor Evans to leave, because they said he helps them during difficult times.
“Especially Martin Evans, he was born here, we buried his father … here, so this is their land. This is his home. Their children are our schoolmates. We schooled together here, so I don’t think they have anywhere else to go,” said Wangui.
Perhaps surprisingly, even some of the northern pastoralists said they appreciated the ranchers.
Rueben Lokolongolo, 47, a Pokot herder from Lokichogio in northwest Kenya, brought his cattle to graze in Mugie Ranch and Conservancy in January.
“I’m not happy that some people are saying the white people should leave, because the ranchers are helping us,” said Lokolongolo. “We want them to stay here so that in another drought, we can still come back and find the grass here.”
But David Lokai, another Kinamba resident, said the herders had disrupted grazing agreements that were in place between the ranchers and the locals, since they gain access to grass and water by force and do not pay. Because resources are finite, the local people find there is no longer enough pasture and water for their animals.
New social rules
“The drought has become so wild that nobody can sustain,” said Lokai. “Because from the neighborhood counties, all have crowded here for search of grass, good pasture, water, and now they have not come in good harmony, because we’ve been living here. Our neighbors here have been providing our grass, but under certain pay. But now, they have come without negotiation, they’ve been coming to strike. It’s like they are forcing things, which has never been there before.”
Lokolongolo, however, argued that that he and the other herders were just doing the best they could to survive, given difficult circumstances.
“I know that I’m not doing the right thing, being on somebody else’s ranch, and I’m not happy the way that people see me negatively,” he said. “But right now, it’s my only option because my cows are dying.”
Overgrazing and a lack of long-term planning have been blamed for the northern rangelands’ lack of productivity. Josh Perrett, general manager of Mugie Ranch, said there was too much livestock for the land to accommodate. He recommended the government consider tagging and chipping livestock, to regulate who has what animals.
“It is a massive problem countrywide, and it’s not just Laikipia,” Perrett said. “It’s everywhere. It’s Tsavo, it’s Amboseli, it’s the [Masai] Mara. It’s a very complicated situation because it is pastoralists, it is their livelihood … but it should be looked at seriously because it is a massive problem. … There’s no controls.”
The marked increase in illegal firearms remains one of the biggest immediate issues for all who live in the area, including James Osiago, a former gardener at Sosian ranch, who has been unemployed since its closure as a result of the violence.
“Yeah, they have guns. I have seen with my own eyes — this is not a story. About 2,000 moran [warriors], heavily armed with rifles, M-16s, G-3s, AK-47s. These people, the way you saw them, you think this is a militia group, not only illegal grazers,” said Osiago.
Paul Njoroge Mwura, founder and secretary of the Semi-Arid Conservancy Neighbors organization, lives in Kamonje village, near the Laikipia Nature Conservancy. He said he lives in fear of the armed herders, who he believes are trying to displace him and his neighbors from their land.
“This is the kind of life we are living here,” said Njoroge. “People have been wondering what is happening here. In the evenings, you find no one is moving, even if you have lights. Sometimes you put every light out. You don’t want them to know what you are doing in your home. Like in my own house, I don’t have windows, I sealed everything, because this is the point they shoot the gun, and I want my family safe.”
Kenya’s government announced it would send defense forces to Laikipia and other areas to remove illegal firearms and restore order. People here are urging the soldiers to use restraint, since they say they will be the ones left to deal with the aftermath.
“So, they should actually come, come to the ground and actually appoint some leaders, locals, from the ground, to work with the KDF [Kenya Defense Forces], so the locals will determine the person who is being hunted and who is not being hunted,” said Robert Lochukut, chairman of Lonyek village, who believes soldiers might mistake locals for armed herders if proper care is not taken.
However, Pokot herder Kiptiyois Ngoriakow, 28, who is grazing his cattle on Mugie Ranch, does not want the KDF to deploy.
“I think the government should send the KDF to other places, because this is not the only place where crime is happening,” Ngoriakow said. “Instead of sending the KDF, the government should be providing us with food, and provide us with water, as we struggle to take care of our livestock.”
Laikipia plays a critical role in conservation and tourism in the country, said Peter Hetz, executive director of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum. He said private lands in Laikipia, including those owned by individuals and corporate or trust owners, as well as group ranches, make up 68 percent of the total area of Laikipia, and that the effectiveness of wildlife conservation had been demonstrated in these areas.
“It’s the most successful conservation example in this country,” said Hetz. “The Masai Mara is renowned for its abundance of wildlife during the migration, but there’s more wildlife and more endangered wildlife kept safe in Laikipia than in any other place in Kenya.”
Although a long-term solution is key to fixing the problems here, for now, people are just hoping the rains will come soon.