By Aidan Hartley

Armed ethnic Pokot and Samburu herders began killing wildlife in Kenya the same day they invaded northern Laikipia’s Mugie Conservancy in January. Systematic poaching spread to Suyian, Sosian and Ol Maisor when invaders together with their cattle overran those ranches in the following weeks.

Monitoring all incidents became impossible especially as security deteriorated, so the 144 animal deaths reported in the first 11 weeks of 2017 were surely a fraction of the total. What we know is that buffaloes were hardest hit, followed by elephants — and then also lions, Jackson’s Hartebeest, Reticulated giraffe, Burchell’s zebra, eland, and several other antelope species.

Of the 23 elephants found dead or dying from bullets or spear injuries, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) were able to retrieve tusks from a few, some were very young — while others were found with their ivory already hacked out.

Killings seemed highest around watering points. Many animal carcasses were left untouched except for the removal of strips of hide, genitals and other body parts, apparently for ritual use. Carcasses were often left uneaten by scavengers, raising the possibility that they too had been killed off or driven away.

By late March, as the pastures were exhausted and a dry spell became a drought, wildlife began dying of starvation, signalling the much greater impact of invasions.

Together Mugie, Suyian, Sosian and Ol Maisor form 147,000 acres of conservation-friendly space. Aerial counts estimated some 100,000 invading cattle were packed into this area — a semi-arid zone where the advisable stocking rate alongside wildlife is one adult cow (ie a Tropical Livestock Unit) per 15 acres.

Incursions on these ranches were simply the latest phase of invasions that have escalated since 2015 across at least 13 conservation-friendly properties, including Loisaba Conservancy and two community ranches in the Mukogodo. In all, a conservation habitat of at least 497,000 acres has been overrun and depleted.

It was not the end of the game on these areas. Large herds — remarkable numbers of elephant, giraffe and buffalo — moved south and east onto ranches such as Mpala, Ol Jogi and El Karama. While wildlife deaths were alarming, from a population perspective the game still had spaces to occupy — even up against the urbanisation and real estate developments gobbling up significant areas north of Nanyuki town.

Across much of this territory KWS, though legally responsible for all wildlife in Kenya, was too constrained in its resources to tackle the onslaught. 2017 is a year in which KWS’s primary responsibility — national parks and water towers — are already under

immense pressure from invading livestock, even up into the caldera of Mount Elgon at 14,000 feet.

Line in the sand

In Laikipia, KWS was simply too overstretched to assist across ranches that did not qualify as conservancies except in special cases, such as the euthanasia of injured elephants. As of March, the government had been unsuccessful in removing invaders and the violence persisted. For KWS, a line in the sand appears to have been drawn around Laikipia’s rhino sanctuaries (Ol Jogi, Ol Pejeta and Lewa/Borana). The invaders appeared to have reckoned it was not worth testing these hard boundaries.

While still blinded by the dust clouds of the current situation, we have to consider what the longer-term impacts of the invasions could be on Laikipia’s ecosystem. Apart from hosting the largest population of elephant north of the Equator (6,000-7,000), plus half of Kenya’s rhinos, this is a last resort sanctuary for Grevy’s zebra, of which just 2,350 survive, and a home to Jackson’s Hartebeeste, together with Reticulated giraffe, down to 9,000.

Most worrying is the loss of habitat. Livestock from the counties of Isiolo, Samburu, Baringo and Laikipia — 16,127,000 acres of rangeland most of which has been degraded over years of overgrazing — are targeting ranches and conservancies that total no more than 860,000 acres of comparatively well-managed country.

Pastures in Laikipia’s conservation space are rapidly being degraded. Wildlife, long a reservoir for diseases affecting domestic livestock, is now itself vulnerable to diseases from cattle, sheep and goats. The current fear is that the relatively minor scale of wildlife killings could, under cover of lawlessness, see a sudden escalation of poaching. In this current climate local extinctions are now possible: eland, for example, already in decline over the past 15 years and sought after for their meat, were down to a few hundred even before the invasions.

Even in the unlikely event that invasions ceased by the time of writing in March, the economic impacts will inevitably affect the prospects of conservation. For decades Laikipia’s tourism industry has helped to bankroll conservation and provide the logic for wildlife protection. Economically the model has been a success. Some 32 members of the Laikipia Farmers’ Association-LFA — most of them on conservation-friendly properties — contributed 3.86 billion Kenyan shillings ($38 million) to the local economy in 2014-2016 and many of the 3,741 employees on those properties worked in the tourism business.


Cattle barons

Due to insecurity, seven out of around 30 tourism lodges had to be closed by March 2017, including the community lodges at Il Ngwesi and Tassia, widely praised as fine examples of community conservation that helped alleviate poverty. Despite efforts by

businesses in Laikipia’s east and south to present invasions as a problem primarily affecting properties west of the Ewaso Ng’iro, the invasions are a public relations disaster for the local tourism industry. It will take time and effort to revive Laikipia’s reputation.

It is widely acknowledged that invasions are driven by a group dubbed ‘cattle barons’, who include local politicians. As counties to Laikipia’s north dried out in late 2016, spokesmen for the pastoralists argued that the search for pasture was the sole motive for migration.

There are other reasons, some of them politically related to national elections in August, together with a crisis in pastoralism. Apart from land degradation, research shows there is now an inequality in livestock ownership among pastoralist communities that was probably never previously so sharply pronounced.

In a recent case study among Laikipia pastoralists, just six per cent of the community owned the majority of the cattle, while nearly a quarter of households owned not a single cow. The massive growth of small stock among pastoralists is partly a response to land degradation, but cattle ownership remains the aspiration, even when there is not land sufficient for livestock.

However much the cattle barons acquired their huge herds, there is no future in impunity and conflict for either communities or Laikipia’s conservation landowners.

In the midst of a crisis it seems pie in the sky to start discussing solutions: initiatives to restore degraded land, upping multiple-property grazing plans on ranches for communities, the revival of livestock marketing and veterinary standards, destocking, dry land arable farming as an alternative to ranching beef.

But Laikipia landowners are extremely keen to do whatever is necessary to survive. In the past when Laikipia’s landowners set their minds to a conservation problem they have overcome it. The revival of Laikipia’s African wild dog population is just one example.

Aidan Hartley is a farmer in Laikipia. His farm was invaded in October.