16 March 2017
By Simon Kasaine & Stephen Melubo
“Since I was a young boy, I overheard old men telling stories of similar droughts. As an elder now, I also remember dry seasons when livestock and people died. The only fear I have now is that this drought might prolong, and livestock, being the main economic activity for my community, will greatly suffer.”
Naingue Kishoko, Maasai Elder from Enkongu-Narok, Amboseli
It is February and the weather conditions in Amboseli are unusual. Animals, both domestic and wild, are threatened. Human beings are not being spared either. The expanse is dry and dusty, with blazing temperatures topping 35˚C in some areas. The situation is dire, the future bleak.
There is a drought wreaking havoc throughout this land that has even shocked the Maasai community and their traditional weather forecaster. For years, they have not experienced such a dry spell in the months of December, January and February. But they have noted that the rain seasons have become shorter and more unpredictable, and the droughts more frequent and intense over time.
In the past, almost the entire Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem would have abundant grass and water during this time of the year. Livestock and wildlife would roam everywhere, looking healthy and happy.
Today, the situation is different. The outlook for the next few months is grim for many communities in Kenya, particularly pastoralists. The next rainy season is expected from April. During the short rain season last year, Amboseli as a whole received inadequate rainfall - too little to sustain livestock in terms of pasture and drinking water. Most of the wildlife migrated from Amboseli National Park to the community areas that also act as dispersal areas. Competition for pasture and water between the community’s livestock and wildlife was inevitable. As a result, the grass did not sprout early enough to sustain livestock during the hot and dry season that started in January.
When the signs of a looming drought were all too clear, panic set in throughout the community, as most are either pastoralists or subsistence farmers. To save their most valued economic and cultural asset, the pastoralists, mainly men and boys, began moving their livestock to different areas of the country in search of pasture and water. Some families have deserted their homes and moved to higher altitude areas such as Chyulu Hills and Tsavo West National Parks, and Taita Taveta County that borders Tanzania. Others have moved across the border into Tanzania itself as it has more pasture despite the area not being favourable to indigenous livestock due to lower temperatures. The health condition of the livestock is pitiable and predators such as lions are taking advantage.
As they do so, some have driven their livestock into people’s farms, destroying maize and tomatoes under irrigation. This raises tension between the farmers and the pastoralists as both struggle to protect their life-sustaining activities.
Worse, the livestock that have been taken into the Park in search of pasture are being predated on in the Chyulu Hills National Park but any casualties cannot be compensated for as grazing in the park is illegal. Others have watched their animals die from starvation while some are killed by the farming communities. Currently, virtually all stock is emaciated, and will not fetch good money at the local markets.
The effect of droughts on the Maasai community is more than economic hardship because livestock are an integral part of their culture and survival. Livestock is life. And the ripple effect of such climatic changes and volatility is immense.
The homesteads are left in the custody of women who take care of the children, the elderly and vulnerable livestock. The hundreds of predator-proof bomas which we have helped build with support from Born Free Foundation, and partners such as Land Rover, have not been left empty though – they provide security for the young and weak animals left behind. The major challenge is inadequate nutrition, now that milk supplies have diminished and the livestock is emaciated. Their market prices have also shrunk, and subsequently has reduced incomes making payment for school fees or medical care even harder.
To cope, some community members have become casual labourers at the irrigated farms in Kimana area and are trekking tens of kilometres for their subsistence. Others have turned to unsustainable ways of survival such as burning and selling charcoal as an alternative temporary livelihood.
Almost all water pans have dried up and the community is forced to buy water for the young and weak livestock that cannot walk long distances in search of this scarce commodity.
Some of the 500-litre water storage tanks provided by Born Free Kenya under the water harvesting project have proved essential as they harvested at least some rainwater from the light showers that briefly swept in the area a week ago.
Kenya Wildlife Service is also offering support during this time of extreme hardship by allowing the community to bring in their livestock to graze and drink water in Amboseli Park. This however is limited to specific times in a day. In addition, some neighbouring communities in the private ranches in Kaputei area are leasing out their grazing fields to the pastoralists.
Everyone hopes that the long rains due in April will bring lasting relief. In the meantime, everyone is doing what they can to help each other through one of the worst droughts in living memory.