Natural history documentaries set in East Africa’s iconic savannah landscapes abound with enchanting scenes of wildlife and wilderness. But something critical is generally missing from this archetypal savannah scene: people and their livestock living alongside wildlife. This idea of wilderness, a wild place without people, doesn’t not exist.
Conventional conservation thinking—in Africa and around much of the world—tends to hold that livestock ruin the land through overgrazing and are bad for the planet. Cattle release greenhouse gases and large swathes of the Amazon forest have been cleared for ranching. There have been harrowing stories of livestock invading national parks and herders spearing lions and elephants. But in East Africa’s rangelands, wildlife is found in areas that have been created by pastoralists and managed principally for livestock. Maintaining livestock and finding solutions to the challenges faced by livestock herders can also help us to conserve wildlife. Here’s how.
Going beyond protected areas
Partitioning off vast protected areas from people and their livestock has been the mainstay of conservation practice for over a century. Protected areas now cover at least 15 percent of Earth’s land surface. And at the recent World Conservation Congress in September 2021, members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature approved a motion to protect at least 30 percent of land and ocean by 2030. However, many conservation researchers and practitioners believe that continually expanding protection by creating spaces that are devoid of people is impractical and misguided. Instead, habitat conservation should value rural people, and include them, their land and livelihoods within conservation projects that span entire landscapes. Indeed, despite increases in the area designated as protected in countries like Kenya and Tanzania, wildlife populations are still declining, and much of the remaining wildlife and biodiversity are found outside of protected areas.
In this vein, research from a number of rangeland scholars shows that sustainable livestock rearing can help conserve the world’s remaining rangelands, which make up an incredible 40 percent of the world’s land area. Rangelands are defined by low and erratic rainfall, yet they host large herds of migratory animals, like bison and wildebeest. But in places like the North American prairie and the savannas of East Africa, most animals are domestic livestock, who also extensively graze these areas. These livestock are cultural and economic centrepieces of these landscapes and must be at the heart of any conservation solution.
In East Africa today, conservation is largely focused on finding ways to ensure that extensive rangelands, including savannah ecosystems, remain intact and deliver value for people, their livestock, and wildlife, who move widely across the boundaries of different protected and unprotected areas.
Threats to livestock are threats to wildlife
Understanding the ecology of rangelands in East Africa is crucial if we wish to protect the wildlife living there and foster more effective and resilient conservation strategies.
Patterns of rainfall in East Africa’s rangelands are inherently erratic, with wide oscillations around annual means, and a relatively predictable long dry season running from June to October. When rain does fall on the rangelands, several species of large mammals generally migrate hundreds of kilometres for the fish of vegetation that follows. During droughts, these animals search out the last patches of vegetation and remaining trickles or puddles of water. In the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem this leads to the world-famous migration of over 1.5 million wildebeest and zebra each year, covering nearly 1000 km in their annual round-trip migration, chasing rainfall and pulses of vegetation.
Likewise, resilient livestock management requires large-scale mobility for the ecological and economic benefits it brings. Herders and livestock move to access resources, while also resting other pastures, allowing vegetation to recover, and acting as reserves during long periods of droughts.
But space for wildlife is now rapidly shrinking across rangelands. From East Africa, to Tibet and Mongolia, urban areas are growing, land is being subdivided into individually-owned units, agriculture is being mechanised, and fences are springing up to demarcate ownership. If other land uses are perceived to be more profitable, financial and political pressures lead to the transformation of previously wildlife-friendly pastoral landscapes. Therefore, areas with the highest potential land value are likely to experience land transformation, if the opportunity cost cannot be met. For instance, recent research from southern Kenya demonstrates that land prices are increasing astronomically as urbanisation continues and speculators buy up parcels of land. This has led to large-scale fencing of landscapes, with around 40,000km of fencing in southern Kenya—enough to encircle the earth—further limiting the migration of wildlife between the remaining patches of intact habitat.
Importantly, these threats to wildlife populations are the very same threats that are experienced by herders and their livestock. As the space for these herders and their livestock shrinks, the health and number of livestock decrease, the rangelands degrade, and people’s livelihoods suffer.
As a result of these twin challenges, conservation efforts in East Africa’s rangelands today are increasingly focused on addressing the problems of subdivision, fragmentation, and range degradation, by generating incentives for pastoralist communities to maintain healthy, connected, communal rangelands.
Opportunities for wildlife conservation by overcoming threats to livestock
Before colonial changes in livestock policy, the Maasai in southern Kenya managed their livestock over vast areas using principles they call “eramatere”. The rules on where to graze, and for how long, were enforced through close social ties that tightly linked people and their extended families together. It’s much harder to break the rules when it jeopardises the well-being of a close friend or family member. This compelled individuals to make decisions that benefited the whole community.
But cultures are changing, and so too are these principles. It is now vital to understand how we can support or rekindle indigenous management practices as a way to sustain landscapes that support both wildlife and livestock. For instance, in Kenya’s South Rift Valley, communities are working with the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO) to overcome these challenges by adapting and improving traditional governance systems, and reinforcing social ties all across multiple scales. This improves the ability to manage livestock at a landscape-scale and, consequently, preserves rangeland health. In doing so, the communities are indirectly preserving the resources and mobility that wildlife too needs to survive.
To achieve this, SORALO works with local governance bodies to map, plan, and monitor the foraging of livestock. Spatial planning helps communities to plan the future use of their land and balance the tradeoffs with competing interests of agriculture and urban development. SORALO also supports traditional governance institutions to adapt to the modern legal systems and gives them the rights to support their management choices. They support networking and planning with neighbouring groups of herders and their governing bodies. At a time when there is increasing pressure to stay in one place, these efforts help to ensure that the crucial mobility to follow rain and resources can continue.
In doing so, decisions made about livestock grazing beneft the entire community, not just certain individuals. Grazing can happen at a scale that is large enough to access erratic vegetation and water, and to rest those patches of grass which have been overgrazed or that need to be preserved for prolonged drought. This means that people have healthier livestock, which are less likely to die during droughts.
Indeed, research from southern Kenya’s rangelands shows that a combination of effective traditional livestock management, which includes mobility and access to wet and dry season grazing areas, can help to maintain resilience and ensure that a diverse and abundant wildlife community can coexist with people and livestock in these landscapes.
Healthy rangelands with livestock and wildlife also allow for the possibility of supplementary and diversifed revenue. This includes equitable eco-tourism partnerships, payment for ecosystem services— like the Chyulu Hills Conservation Trust’s carbon credit project, which pays local landowners to manage and restore their rangelands—and sale of rangeland products, such as plants, honey, and other food. All of these can increase the economic value of livestock-wildlife landscapes, and thus help to reduce the threat of land degradation, fragmentation, and conversion to urban development, crop agriculture or land speculation. And by generating suffcient economic returns, people may not feel that they need alternative income streams to support their families. In all this, livestock—the most valuable product in rangelands—are key, and conservation efforts need to be founded on improving rangeland management and productivity, which will in turn beneft wildlife.
Building conservation from a community world view
By focussing on the potential of livestock, communities can preserve rangeland health, prevent rangeland fragmentation, and build pride in their landscapes, an approach we have termed “inside-out” conservation. In other words, by improving the cultural, economic and ecological sustainability of livestock production systems in rangelands—including both traditional and commercial production systems—wildlife can also benefit. Best of all, this approach doesn’t require large sums of money to incentivise landowners to change their livelihoods or lifestyles, and it doesn’t require governments or conservation NGOs to impose top-down rules and regulations on herders that can lead to conflict. By drawing on lessons from the past and from current systems that function well, such an approach reminds us of the possibility of coexistence across landscapes.
Although these approaches are critical to the future of East Africa’s rangelands, they still face challenges. Livestock and their products are the most important revenue generator in rangelands. We need to find more ways to generate greater economic returns from them. We need to do more to ensure that benefits from ecotourism or payments for ecosystem services are equitably distributed and reach the people who are doing the most to conserve their living resources. And beyond economics, we need to ensure that the rights, knowledge, and experiences of people living and managing these rangelands are recognised as vital in any conservation activities. We need to do more to maintain or restore the cultural pride of healthy landscapes, livestock, and wildlife. Without the “place” for wildlife in people’s lives, the “space” created for them may not matter.
Russell, S., P. Tyrrell and D. Western. 2018. Seasonal interactions of pastoralists and wildlife in relation to pasture in an African savanna ecosystem. Journal of Arid Environments 154: 70–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaridenv.2018.03.007
Tyrrell, P., S. Russell and D. Western. 2017. Seasonal movements of wildlife and livestock in a heterogenous pastoral landscape: Implications for coexistence and community-based conservation. Global Ecology and Conservation 12: 59–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2017.08.006
Western, D., P. Tyrrell, P. Brehony, S. Russell, G. Western and J. Kamanga. 2020. Conservation from the inside-out: Winning space and a place for wildlife in working landscapes. People and Nature 2(2): 279–291. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10077