Months of invasions by sometimes armed semi-nomadic herders, and tens of thousands of their livestock, have had a disastrous impact on the wildlife in the conservancies of Laikipia.
The delicate balance between small-scale farmers, large private ranches, wildlife areas and local pastoralists, was upended, leaving grasslands picked dry.
A combination of population growth, increasing livestock numbers, poor rains and bad politics led to unprecedented invasions of private land and explosions of deadly violence.
African wild dogs, elephants, buffalo, lions, giraffes, zebra and antelope have all been affected by shooting, starvation and disease, or by being forced out of their usual habitats.
Canine distemper, a virus most likely caught from the pastoralists’ attendant dogs, has wiped out scores of endangered wild dogs, including all seven packs studied by Dedan Ngatia, an ecologist and wild dog researcher at Laikipia’s Mpala Research Centre.
INCEASE IN ELEPHANT MORTALITY
Jamie Gaymer, conservation manager at Ol Jogi Ranch where packs of wild dogs roamed, watched as the last pack died, one by one, over the course of a week in July.
Elephants have also died at a tremendous rate, with 84 deliberately killed in the first half of 2017, compared to 75 during the whole of 2016, according to data compiled by the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme.
The increase in elephant deaths is “what happens when there is any kind of security vacuum in elephant ranges,” said Max Graham, founder of Space for Giants, a conservation charity based in Laikipia.
While the number of illegally killed elephants has dramatically risen, Graham pointed out that with more than 6,500 elephants in the region, “what was lost was in the order of half on one per cent of the total population”.
NOT JUST THE ELEPHANTS
Mugie Conservancy was one of the first to be invaded in late January. Elephants, giraffes and zebra were shot, while others were lost to disease, according to wildlife manager Josh Perrett, who blames tick-borne diseases brought to Mugie by the pastoralist herds. Mugie’s buffalo population fell from 1,000 to 100; hartebeest antelopes were reduced from 40 to just seven.
One day Perrett found a herd of around 30 impala, clustered dead on the plains. Tests showed they had all contracted anaplasmosis, carried by livestock.
Among the wildlife victims, lions appear to have fared better than most, said Alayne Cotterill, a biologist and founder Lion Landscapes. But while the 250 or so lions in Laikipia do not appear to have been deliberately killed in large numbers, they have been forced out of their habitual areas by the encroaching herders.
Years of work to reduce the big cats’ access to cattle created “a state of real coexistence between lions and livestock”, which has now been disrupted.
The combination of strong, well-fed and protected cattle and ample wildlife prey meant cows were largely “off the menu” for Laikipia’s lions. As a result, fewer lions were being deliberately killed after hunting cattle.
The influx of large herds of weak and poorly-protected livestock has upset that balance. Although only a handful of shot lion carcasses have been reported, no survey has yet been undertaken.
The situation is bad, but not irreversible, scientists and conservationists say. In 2006, for example, an outbreak of canine distemper all but wiped out Laikipia’s wild dogs but the few that survived developed immunity and went on to foster new packs and the population rebounded. As stability returns to Laikipia, so too will the wildlife.