Maasai herders breed fewer, stronger cattle to resist climate change

To withstand more-intense droughts herders in Tanzania cut the size of their herds and cross-breed for resilience and resistance to disease.

AlertNet/Lucas Liganga
Ngaiyok Legilisho Kipainoi shows off his motorcycle, bought with earnings from his improved cattle herd. Cattle herders in Tanzania are cutting the size of their herds and breeding for more resilience as climate change leads to more intense droughts.

The loss of more than half their livestock in the 2009 drought has led Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania’s Arusha region to breed fewer, stronger cattle and end their traditional focus on numbers alone as symbols of wealth and status.

The impact of that devastating drought, which dealt a blow to the whole nation’s economy, is still visible in the small number of cattle in many villages of Engarenaibor in Arusha’s Longido district.

The district’s cattle breeders and owners lost at least 120,000 cattle, more than half the total herd of 200,000, as a result of the drought, which plunged the region into poverty and threatened the pastoralists’ traditional livelihood.

The good news emerging from this blow to their way of life is that breeders have realized that in a time of climate change their wealth lies not in the size of their herd but in its quality.

“The days of keeping many head of cattle for prestige are gone thanks to the 2009 drought. It has taught us a lesson. A lesson to adapt to climate change,” says cattle owner Ngaiyok Legilisho Kipainoi.

For many years, Maasai pastoralists had resisted government pressure to reduce the size of their herds, until the drought made clear the need to adapt to the changing environment.

Reducing their herds has allowed herders to use less water and reduce the degradation of grazing land.

As Kipainoi sees it, his fellow villagers are “graduating from the culture of keeping livestock for fame to increasing the productivity of their animals in a well-managed manner.”

 “We have started selling our animals and we use the proceeds to build decent homes or pay school fees for our children,” says Kipainoi, a 35-year-old who has two wives and six children. All his children attend primary school.

At the onset of the drought Kipainoi boasted a herd of 480 cattle, but he emerged from the catastrophe with less than half as many.

“After the drought we realized that our local Zebu breed can withstand adverse weather conditions and are well adapted to the environment. So if we are to improve earnings from livestock, without risking another loss to drought, we must practice proper animal husbandry,” says Kipainoi, standing beside his new motorcycle at the site of his new house, bought with earnings from his cattle herd.

Other local cattle farmers have also started selective breeding to build up a productive stock that is resilient to climate change, he says.

“This involves selling cattle that are weak and cross-breeding new stock from animals that display strong characteristics of high productivity and resilience. Preferred animals are those that feed selectively on the range, can trek long distances, and are resistant to local diseases,” he says.

Ongoing experiments concentrate on cross-breeding exotic cattle varieties with local Zebu and Borana cattle and popularization of the hardy Gabra breed of goats.

“Our plan is to ensure that calving takes place at the start of the short rainy season, when fresh pastures enable cows to yield more milk. In that way calves stay healthy enough to survive their first dry spell and then benefit from the long rains before the long dry season sets in,” Kipainoi explains.

To back up the pastoralists’ efforts, the Arusha-based Tanzania Natural Resource Forum has come up with a climate change adaptation project that focuses on the drylands of Longido, Monduli, and Ngorongoro districts in the Arusha region.

Similar projects are under way in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nepal, according to Ced Hesse, a drylands development researcher with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which is backing the Tanzania adaptation effort.

• Lucas Liganga is a reporter based in Dar es Salaam Tanzania.

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to