Armed herders invade Kenya’s most important wildlife conservancy


Adam Cruise & Bibi van der Zee, The Guardian

Date Published

See link for photos.


Thousands of heavily-armed herders are invading conservancies, private properties and smallholdings in Laikipia, one of Kenya’s most important wildlife areas, as they search for pasture for their cattle.

Over the past couple of weeks, about 10,000 nomadic herders, armed with automatic rifles and driving 135,000 cattle, have left a trail of destruction and chaos in the county, just three hours drive from Nairobi. The herders have indiscriminately killed wildlife – from elephants, giraffes, zebras and lions to family dogs. Residents have been injured, some seriously. At least one person has been killed, according to reports.

This is just the latest but most serious clash between the herders and the residents of Laikipia, after a series of incursions dating back at least a few years. This time private game lodges, ranches and smallholdings owned by farmers are being targeted systematically. David Mwaweu, who owns a small farm, said that armed herdsmen passed his way as they marched towards private land where they have since been “stealing grass for their cows”.

“When they came here they stole half of my goats and their cows ate my fields,” he said.

On Sunday evening, Suyian Lodge was burnt down by armed attackers while the owners of nearby Sosian Ranch were told they would be “done” on Wednesday. The owners are moving staff, cattle and guests off the property with only the management and core staff remaining behind.

Initially, the invasions were thought to be drought-related, with herders apparently seeking lush grazing lands in wildlife conservancies after laying waste to their own counties through overgrazing.

This is the view of Laikipia North MP, Mathew Lempurkel. “People are struggling over the available water and pasture for their livestock, which is our livelihood,” he told Kenya’s The Star this week. In October last year, the Kenyan devolution cabinet secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, warned that about 1.3 million Kenyans are affected by drought. The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) issued drought alerts for 11 counties late last year. Worst hit are the Pokot and Samburu communities which is where, the NDMA says, the land invaders come from.

However, some believe the problem is also driven by underlining political tensions that go back to the 2008 general election, when Kenya was embroiled in a violent political crisis between the then president, Mwai Kibaki, and opposition candidate, Raila Odinga.Farmer Mwaweu opposes the view that the invasions are drought-related. “If these herders are here because of drought, why do they not see that we too are also suffering from drought?”

Kenyan politics are complex, but many believe that the tensions are due in part to the ethnic and geographic diversity of the area. Land invasions by Pokot and Samburu tribesmen are the latest expression of long-standing tensions, which have boiled over as the next general elections later this year loom. “This was all planned years ago, and is designed to peak in the run-up to the elections,” said one resident who owns a lodge in the area. “Votes in exchange for grass and land grabs, the seizure of Laikipia by outsiders and the expulsion of rival tribes, ranchers and conservancies.”

Laikipia straddles the geographical ethnic divide between counties who support the government and those who oppose it.

The land invasions have been steadily gathering pace since 2013 and it is estimated they will affect 250 jobs and a potential £790,000 in tax revenue over the next two years.

The wildlife deaths appear to be a tragic byproduct of the violence. At least six elephants have been killed in the last two weeks, and graphic photos of a decapitated zebra and a skinned buffalo, among many others, have been posted on Twitter and Facebook.

“The elephants are being shot for several reasons,” said Max Graham, CEO of Space For Giants, a conservation organisation headquartered in Laikipia. “First, the herders are coming into conflict with elephants at water points, and shooting at them to scare them away. Second, some of these herders now in Laikipia, but not indigenous to the area, are traditionally hunters: to kill an elephant is a rite of passage in their culture.

“Some of these hunters have strong links to poaching networks, so that’s another reason, supplying ivory. And finally, as more cattle come into these areas, the elephants are concentrated into smaller and smaller areas, and in some cases they are then spilling over into smallholder farms where they come into conflict with farmers. I’m afraid we’re going to see more of this as this situation progresses.”

One large wildlife conservancy, that depends on donor funds to safeguard its wildlife, has already had to cancel a £4.75m investment due to fears about the future of its wildlife. Another sanctuary for the endangered black rhino is also under serious threat.

President Kenyatta has ordered all invading herdsmen to leave the Laikipia ranches, but so far the government has been unable or unwilling to act against the invasions.