Thirteen centuries ago East Africa underwent a livestock revolution. A new breed of cattle—known today as the zebu– was introduced from India which quickly adapted to the region’s searing temperatures, a skimpy topsoil and competition with the world’s largest abundance of wildlife to become the mainstay of pastoral life in a region which today is the Republic of Kenya.
But a strange thing has happened in the zebu’s recent fabled history. Kenya’s British colonial rulers and subsequent authorities favoured the introduction of high maintenance imported breeds while ignoring local herds. Conservationists and agricultural specialists seeking both to preserve Kenya’s fragile savanna lands and raise the standard of living of impoverished communities largely overlooked the role of the zebu.
Climate and environmental conditions also deteriorated rapidly in the last decades, upsetting the balance between human settlements, the delicate terrain and wildlife and, latterly, climate change. Crop farming has increasingly replaced pastoral communities, depleting finite water resources.
Which has placed the future of the zebu in a paradoxical position. Herds have decreased by 25%, but three quarters of Kenyan still own zebu which comprise 83% of the country’s overall cattle herd. There is increasing evidence that Kenya’s domestic breed, with expert management and adequate resources at the macro level, can alleviate these deteriorating environmental and economic situations.
Are zebu in fact Kenya’s ‘hidden treasure’ a solution for some of the country’s problems actually hiding in plain sight? Do we need a second revolution?
I am a director of a non-profit, volunteer Kenya-Japanese team researching and studying ‘on-the-ground’ means to more successfully exploit the zebu. I have spent 30 years studying wildlife and livestock joint land use in savanna lands; ran a working ranch in Laikipia for 20 years producing milk, beef, wool, lamb and camel milk and working with local communities throughout the country to improve their livestock output and their standard of living. Savanna ZeBu is currently seeking fund for running cost of our core activities.
I recently undertook an extensive safari, living with and studying local communities throughout Kenya. There are three specific groups of cattle—coastal, inland and Boran zebu. Pastoral communities live in wildly different geographical regions and one immediate overall conclusion is that the farmers and cattle are totally adaptable to all of these environments. Living conditions were often extremely harsh and a byproduct of my research is that I learned a lot about myself as well.
In southern Turkana I reached the Suguta Valley after a wild roller coaster ride through the Samburu hills. There is little water, no trees, no electricity, no phones, only sand and stone and searing heat. As I was to discover in every other community I visited across Kenya, I was treated with kindness and generosity. I learned how to tell the time from the sun; fetched water in a sandstorm, ate little and by the fourth week the soles of my shoes fell off because of the intense heat.
The zebu endured these harsh conditions, walking and grazing 10 hours a day, surviving by adapting and lowering their metabolic rate and yet producing enough milk to sustain both their calves and local village children. Hardy though they are, village women did complain there were many miscarriages during pregnancies.
Mariakani on the coast 40 miles north of Mombasa port is a total contrast to Turkana. There is a local market. Farmers grow cassava, coconuts, fruits and maize, plant trees and raise ducks and chickens as well as zebu. The area gets 1000mm of rain per year, six times as much as in the Suguta Valley. But it was a difficult visit and unlike the locals here I was plagued by fleas and bedbugs throughout my stay.
Though there was a drought during my visit, my host Mama Mwakamsha, was able to scoop a little water from a small puddle, enough to nourish her cows which would produce two litres of milk she could sell the following day at a local market. Upon leaving the region I realized how peaceful it was compared with Turkana where villagers there are fearful of the neighbouring Pokot tribe. Here there were no door locks, no gates and no security.
In June of this year near the coastal town of Malindi herds of cattle, sheep and goats were moving south in search of water and pasture, female herders strapping babies and household utensils on the back of donkeys. At Garsen livestock market farmers were exchanging news with neighbours and selling Boran zebu for beef in Mombasa and yearlings for breeding and fattening.
I crossed the Tana River in a dugout canoe after ‘seeking permission’ from cruising crocodiles. Here the coats of the Orma Boran zebu is white-pale and their skin moves to deter tsetse fly. They are slightly bigger than other zebu and yield both quality and quantity milk. I wondered why these beautiful creatures had not spread out to other parts of Kenya.
Later in the month at Marafa town, Constance a teacher and my host, worked without rest to take advantage of the sudden rains, planting maize, spinach and tomatoes in three fields and then caring for two dozen Giriama zebu on her 30-acre farm. Conditions were more productive than other areas I had visited, but the workload for local farmers was equally backbreaking.
As I continued my journey through the coastal region I came to other conclusions: importantly zebu have a near perfect conception rate; they calve regularly whatever the conditions, similar to wildebeest. They can also continue to provide milk in drought conditions, though in smaller quantities.
Our research already indicates that Kenya’s zebu are indeed a key to a better future for local communities and the country itself. The unusual climate pattern of three rainy seasons should greatly improve the quality of zebu herds supported by a proper infrastructure and support system.
Though global cattle herds are increasingly blamed for greater greenhouse gas emissions, Kenyan zebu emit only one-half the amount of herds in New Zealand, for instance.
While pastoralists are all too aware of the invaluable contribution of zebu to their very survival, there is a far greater need for senior officials to recognize the treasure they are sitting on. To fully exploit that there is a need for further research and basic infrastructure such as better roads and more transport vehicles to allow farmers to reach market with their beef and milk.
Even with modest investment, we believe that most farmers could double their income. This would lead to better health and education for rural populations, better communication via smart phones and the purchase of bicycles or motor cycles, their ability to build small dams to alleviate drought conditions and saving remaining forests by replacing wood burning with gas for cooking.
Only then will the country be able to take full advantage of its hidden treasure.
By Fumi Wells