COEXISTING IN KENYA
A Story of Livestock & Livelihoods
For the last summer of my graduate program, I elected to do my field expedition in Kenya to explore a side of conservation that is rarely talked about.
My experience had little to do with the usual wildlife species most people tend to think about when it comes to conservation in Africa. Instead, at the heart of conservation across Kenya’s wildlife-rich savannas is. . . livestock.
One of Kenya’s greatest conservation stories tells that of the pastoralist people — men and women who live a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle centered around the raising and herding of their livestock¹.
For centuries the Maasai communities of East Africa have practiced pastoralism, traveling with their herds as they follow the seasonal patterns of precious food and water sources¹. And in doing so they have helped create conditions that wildlife can thrive in.
When livestock and wildlife share open landscapes they are able to help each other with grazing, and effective grazing can lead to healthier more nutrient-rich grasslands that many other species depend on. Moreover, the shorter grass can be especially important to non-predator species because it allows them to better monitor their surroundings.
So in essence, pastoralism plays a vital role in maintaining the balance of wildlife in savannah-like ecosystems¹.
Traditionally, the Maasai people have relied on livestock like goats, sheep, and cows as their main source of sustenance in the arid regions in which they live. And for hundreds of years, these pastoral practices have been successful, allowing people to rely on the milk, meat and hide from their herds while simultaneously helping sustain the greater ecosystems they call home.
However changes to open landscapes have impacted this pastoral way of life, and in turn the wildlife they have coexisted with for centuries².
Many of the open landscapes that once served as grazing grounds and migratory routes for livestock and wildlife have now become subdivided, resulting in large areas being closed off for private, commercial and government uses¹. As a result, the ability to harmoniously coexist with wildlife becomes harder for indigenous groups like the Maasai.
Not only does less open land mean that pastoral people must now live in tighter spaces with wildlife, but less usable land also means fewer resources for livestock and wildlife to share- often resulting in increased human-wildlife conflict².
It was during my time with the South Rift Landowners Association (SORALO) project that I learned about pastoralism for the first time. And had I not seen it firsthand I may not have understood the significance of what the project is doing for country’s long-term conservation efforts.
The underlying mission of this community-driven project is to bring landowners together for more effective resource management in order to directly improve the livelihoods of the South Rift Valley’s people, plants, and animals.
By working to create linkages and assist in resource mobilization for the development of the South Rift Valley it helps maintain the traditional nomadic pastoralism form of land use, which encourages mobility and ensures the survival of all those living within the region.
In addition, SORALO has also developed a variety of outside programs to address other challenges faced by local communities due to the changing landscapes. Among them are creating educational outreach programs and new economic opportunities for local communities through tourism-driven initiatives.
One initiative that truly stood out was the Olkiramatian Reto Women’s Group. This 200-member strong group is made up of all women, and is responsible for its own list of successful endeavors including the Lale’enok Resource Center, a community center that helps support both wildlife conservation and thriving Maasai livelihoods; the Girl-Child Bursary Program, which provides tuition for local school girls; and Beads for Conservation, a women-run co-operative that sets up opportunities for local artisans to sell their crafts to merchants and tourists.
SORALO’s efforts to support the local community was nothing short of inspiring, and its work to maintain the balance between people, land, and wildlife revealed a side of conservation I never knew existed.
Getting to witness the longstanding traditions of the Maasai people and what SORALO is doing to preserve them has redefined my understanding of the human-wildlife relationship.
So thank you Kenya, thank you SORALO, and thank you to the local Maasai community for sharing your beautiful story of coexistence with me.
I will forever see conservation, and cows, differently.
For anyone interested in learning more about pastoralism check out this short film I did:
To learn more about this film project click HERE.
And just for smiles, below is a short video clip I took on my iPhone during my visit to the South Rift Valley in Kenya. It captures one of my favorite moments from my visit…
To learn more about SORALO’s community-based conservation initiatives visit: SORALO.ORG
1. Curtin, C., & Western, D. (2008). Grasslands, people, and conservation: Over‐the‐horizon learning exchanges between African and American pastoralists. Conservation biology, 22(4), 870-877.
2. Lamprey, R. H., & Reid, R. S. (2004). Expansion of human settlement in Kenya’s Maasai Mara: what future for pastoralism and wildlife?. Journal of Biogeography, 31(6), 997-1032.
Photography by Marlina Moreno.