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Herders hard hit as skies refuse to open up

Tuesday September 22 2009

A cow is loaded into a truck destined for the Kenya Meat Commission, which is offering Sh8,000 per animal. Photos/FILE

A cow is loaded into a truck destined for the Kenya Meat Commission, which is offering Sh8,000 per animal. Photos/FILE 

By MWANGI NDIRANGU

When Mzee Tompo ole Ngolia drove his emaciated animals to Mt Kenya forest in June, he hoped the desperate move would save them.

But for three months, he has watched in anguish as one animal after another succumbs to diseases associated with the harsh climate in the region.

When he arrived at Gathiuru forest with his two wives and nine children, he had 102 head of cattle but today he has only 18.

Now he is wondering what else he can do to save the remaining animals from certain death.

“I had decided to sell the remaining animals but when I called a buyer, he offered to pay Sh800 per cow which in normal circumstances would fetch Sh14,000,” he told the Nation recently.

Gaze at the clouds

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Mr Ngolia is among hundreds of pastoralists from Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu who find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

With every passing day, they gaze at the clouds for a sign of rain so that they can go back home.

However, the skies do not offer any hope and together with their families, they have continued to endure the harsh mountainous climate.

In the last two weeks, rains have been pounding the mountainous area but where the pastoralists came from, it has remained dry.

The rains and the cold weather have combined to make the lives of the herders more miserable as they are used to warmer weather.

“We know our children are suffering and diseases may eventually wipe out our entire herd. However, driving back the animals to where we came from is not a solution because there, they will die of hunger,” said Mr Gabriel Lepeorish from Samburu.

According to veterinary officials, more than 30,000 animals have died since June because of tick-borne diseases and pneumonia.

Though veterinary officers have tried to treat the animals, they are overwhelmed by the work and the cattle have continued to die.

Animal carcasses litter the forest floor and an terrible stench welcomes visitors.

Due to the large number of deaths, the herdsmen no longer remove the skin of the dead animals as is their tradition.

“So many animals are dying in a single day and we have no time to remove the skins,” said Mr Napishu, pointing at five dead cows next to his temporary dwelling deep in the forest. He said the dead animals fell sick within a day and all died the next morning of what he believes is East Coast Fever, a diseases spread by ticks.

“I suspect the animals collect the brownish ticks when they venture deep into the forest to graze, an area inhabited by buffaloes and other wild animals.”

Another herdsman, Mr Leterian Moire has been forced to go back to his home village of Makurian in Laikipia North District after all his 17 animals died in 45 days.

After losing his only source of livelihood, the father of four has joined millions of other Kenyans seeking relief food from the government and donor agencies.

But his is a desperate situation as his name is not on the list of identified beneficiaries.

Much anticipated

“When the list was compiled, I was left out because I was considered a rich man because of my cattle,” Mr Moire told Nation at Kiwanja food distribution centre last week.

He said even if the much anticipated El Nino rains do come, he did not know where he would get money to restock.

“It was horrible in Mt Kenya forest. We watched helplessly as thousands of our animals collapsed and died. Sometimes we were forced to feed on the carcasses,” he said.

Veterinary officials, however, said the pastoralists were partly to blame for the trouble they find themselves in.

They accuse the herders of ignoring advice to dip the animals, preferring to spray them with anti-tick chemicals.

“Spraying is not an effective method of killing ticks. But the herders stuck to their guns and ignored our advice to take the animals to community cattle dips next to the forest,” said Laikipia East veterinary officer Kiguru Mwaura.

Dr Mwaura said the Ministry of Livestock supplied free dipping chemicals but the pastoralists insist that they should be distributed to individual herdsmen.

Early last month, veterinary officers from Nyeri and Laikipia held a meeting where dip committees comprising locals and the herdsmen were established.

Locals, who have fewer livestock, offered the herdsmen the use of their dips for a small fee.

But the pastoralists argued that the animals were not used to dipping.

“Back home, we have no cattle dips and we do not intend to introduce this new concept now,” said one of the herders at the meeting at Maragima village in Nyeri North District.

The herders said that in any case, the animals were too weak and would die if they were dipped.

But they continue to watch as their animals die, convinced that the ultimate solution will only come when the skies open up and they can start the journey back home.

Some had walked for more than 200 kilometres from Wamba in Samburu East District and a huge number of animals died on the way.

And the recently introduced offtake programme where pastoralists can sell their animals to the government through the Kenya Meat Commission does not seem to offer a solution.

The herders feel the scheme has come too late when they have lost thousands of animals.

Leaders from the pastoral areas have urged the government to increase the number of livestock it is planning to buy during the programme.

Former Laikipia County Council vice- chairman Ntinai ole Monto said each of the 10 locations could only sell 10 animals at Sh8,000 per beast.

Mr Monto said that hundreds of children dropped out of school to help their parents drive the animals to Mt Kenya forest.

A recent survey conducted by the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV) and a community-based organisation estimated that about 600 children from Samburu, Isiolo and Laikipia are in the mountain.

The international development agency has urged the government to intervene and ensure that the pupils resume learning.

Never go back

The agency has been supporting pupils from the pastoralist communities to access education through local community-based organisations.

“Some of the children in our support programme have dropped out of school and are herding cattle in the forest,” said SNV official Ms Lorna Atieno.

“We have established that there is an estimated 600 children who have dropped out of school. Unless the government makes an urgent intervention, they may never go back to school,” said Ms Otieno.