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Cattle population in Kenya’s semi arid regions has sharply decreased by more than 26 % in the past 30 years, and a new study attributes this to the constantly rising temperatures due to global warming, and reduced or unpredictable rainfall patterns.

The PRISE study, jointly funded by the Canada based International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the UK based Department for International development (DFID), however, shows that the population of the more hardy camels and small animals particularly goats and sheep has largely increased in some areas over the period between 1977 and 2015.

“There is clear evidence to show that climatic conditions in Kenya have changed significantly in the past 50 years,” said Dr Mohammed Said, the lead researcher of a study on ‘Livestock trends in Kenya’s Arid and Semi-arid counties between 1977 and 2016.’

“But most important is the future predictions, which show that climatic conditions are going to worsen in the some years to come,” said Dr. Said, who is consulting for the Kenya Markets Trust (KMT), the organisation that carried out the study under a project known as Pathways for Resilience in Semi-Arid Economies (PRISE) Project.

Counties Most Affected; Turkana, Machakos, Garissa, Kitui and Kajiado 



So far, Turkana County is the most affected in terms of cattle population reduction, recording a drop of near 60 % in the past 38 years ending 2015, followed by Machakos, Garissa, Kitui and Kajiado Counties.

“The underlying reason for cattle population drop is the increase in temperatures and reduced rainfall,” said Dr. Said.

Though the Paris Agreement on climate change seeks for international interventions to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C, some 5 semi-arid counties in Kenya have already surpassed the 1.5oC increase mark. They include Turkana with temperature increase of (1.8oC), West Pokot, Elgeyo Marakwet (1.91oC), Baringo (1.8oC), Laikipia (1.59oC) and Narok (1.75oC) in the past 50 years.

According to Dr. Said, cattle can only survive well in an environment with temperatures between 10oC  to 30oC, hence the reason for a sharp decrease of their population in places like Turkana, Machakos and Garissa, whose average temperatures have risen above 30oC.

However, said Dr. Said, camels, goats and sheep can withstand relatively higher temperatures.

Following these climatic changes, Laikipia County, however, remains one of the most favorable environments for livestock keeping, having recorded 7.3 % increase in cattle stock between 1977 and 2015, with the population of goats and sheep more than tripling with an increase of 259.6% in the same period. Scientists have suggested that this could be due to the cold breeze that emanates from Mt Kenya, which is currently keeping the rising temperatures under control.

Benefits of Trans-boundary Initiatives

“This is a reprieve and an opportunity for residents of Laikipia, but also it presents a huge challenge,” said Dr. Said. “It is a challenge because people from neighbouring counties will also want to take advantage of favourable conditions in Laikipia, and this can easily lead to resource use conflicts,” he explained.

However, according to Laikipia Deputy Governor Hon. John Mwaniki, neigbouring counties that include Baringo, Isiolo and Samburu are already working together with Laikipia County on an initiative known as ‘AMAYA Triangle’ which seeks to address such resource-based conflicts as a way of adapting to climate change.

The initiative seeks to modernize pastoralism by establishing feedlots and fodder conservation, while at the same time working together to improve roads, learning institutions among other amenities across the four counties.

“Climate change knows  no  boundary. So if we solve a climate related problem in Laikipia, and fail to address the same problem in neighbouring counties, we will not have solved anything,” said Hon. Mwaniki.

The County Minister in charge of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Dr. Lucy Murugi pointed out that the government was ready to implement research findings from the PRISE project.

“These projections are very crucial for our planning, given that climatic conditions have changed tremendously in the recent years, and droughts have become more frequent than ever before,” said Murugi.

Investment in Livestock Fattening

Dr Simon Wagura Ndiritu, another scientist involved in the PRISE research urged the County Government of Laikipia to take advantage of the prevailing conditions and invest in fattening of cattle for the pastoralist to increase the quality of the beef, and also to invest in marketing infrastructure such as weighing machines.

“We need pasture to be taken where the animals are, instead of taking animals to the pastures,” said Hon Mwaniki . “When cattle walk for several kilometers in search of pasture, they develop hard muscles, hence, the meat becomes very tough, good quality meat should be tender and tasty” said Ndiritu

Ndiritu also asked the government to invest further in proper planning of the pasture in the group ranches or hire pasture in private ranches to fatten well-selected young steers.

So far, the County Government of Laikipia has advised farmers to invest in pasture farming as a way of adapting to climate change. “We are sensitizing our farmers to grow pasture, and we have already identified areas where such pastures can grow well,” said Minister Murugi.

The PRISE project National Coordinator, Joseph Muhwanga said, “These research findings will be shared and disseminated will all relevant National and County stakeholders including Private Sector players and equally, used to informed new policy and strategies formulation processes; i.e the National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP 2018-2022); The National Wildlife Conservation and Management Strategy, County Development Integrated Plans (CIDPs), County Spatial Plans among others.

So far, more than 80% of beef eaten in Kenya is produced by pastoralists, either domestically or in neighbouring countries. The livestock sub-sector in Kenya contributes to around 12% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and approximately 42% of agricultural GDP. It employs about 50% of the national agricultural workforce and about 90% of the workforce in arid and semi-arid lands.