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Rhinos or Roses: changing land use in dryland East Africa

By Mark Nicholson

White rhinos at Ol Pejeta, Kenya

Our two youngest were here in Kenya from South Africa for the Easter holidays. We came back from up-country before Easter during a fuel crisis. Having stopped at 17 dry fuel stations, we finally found one selling diesel at an exorbitant price and just made it home. The Government blames the Ukraini war but it seems they promised to subsidize the fuel hike and failed to come up with the Ksh. 30bn (US$ 26m) owed to the fuel companies, who have turned off the taps until they get their moolah. How fast an economy grinds to a halt without fossil fuels.

We have been staying with the two adult children of special old friends. Both are in the agriculture sector, one in Tanzania, one in Kenya. Their daughter and her husband live on a lush farm adjoining Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania where they grow several hundred hectares of irrigated avocados. It is a mono-culture, so the biodiversity is low on the farm but very high in the adjoining forest. Avocado trees, native to Mexico, are slightly more interesting than tea (which surrounds us at home), coffee, sisal, pineapple or roses, the latter always under acres of plastic. The avocado cultivar of choice is Haas, which has a firm texture, an agreeable taste and travels well to the supermarkets of Europe. They are trying out two or three new varieties, which may yield earlier or longer and will take advantage of the hiatus in supply. At present, avocado farming is highly profitable, but, worldwide, acreage under avocados is rapidly increasing. My friends are fully aware that it is only a matter of time before prices fall. In common with most of my friends, they are also conservation-minded so they have agreed that I introduce an indigenous tree nursery to increase the number of native trees.

As we crossed a stream separating the farm from the forest, we found a cloud of butterflies drinking water. We stopped counting the number of different species after we got to twenty. Without the forest providing food plants for the caterpillars, these butterflies would not be there.

As I have said, the avocados grown on this farm in Tanzania have to be irrigated. The same goes for the roses, other flowers and vegetables grown elsewhere in east Africa. This has created a serious problem. Kenya is said to be the only country where rivers grow smaller as they flow down from the mountains. Huge pipes take off fresh water upstream to supply villages with water and to irrigate farms, so by the time the rivers reach the lowlands, there is no water left for the pastoralists and their livestock. This leads to conflict. With climate change, the situation in a water-scarce country like Kenya will deteriorate.

Our friends’ son is the new CEO of Ol Pejeta ranch in Laikipia, a large area of central Kenya taken by the colonials over one hundred years ago for cattle ranching. It was originally a seasonal grazing area of one of the larger clans of the Maasai, a well-known and formerly greatly feared tribe of pastoralists. Some have suggested that a neighbouring clan, the Purko, slaughtered the local clan, the Laikipiak, during intra-ethnic hostilities before the colonials came. The Purko then forced the remains of the clan to move to southern Kenya. All these areas were full of wildlife, which have always coexisted with the Maasai and their herds. One cannot say peacefully because there has always been a love-hate relationship between the Maasai and predators, particularly lions. Maasai warriors have always demonstrated their bravery by hunting down lions with spears.

Since independence in 1964, there has been some pressure to sell the ranches but much less than that on the smaller (100-1000 acre) ‘settler’ farms, and that is for a good reason. The dominant Kenyan tribe is the Gikuyu, agriculturalists who farm on high-potential land. The ranches are on semi-arid land, generally unsuitable for cropping without irrigation.

What has happened to these ranches? In some cases the ranches have remained intact by the owners becoming Kenyan citizens. At election time, there is always grumbling about descendants of colonials retaining large tracts of land. This always dies down when it becomes known that wealthy and politically-connected ‘indigenous’ families also now own many of these ranches: one cannot pressurize for the sale of land based on the ethnicity of the owners.

Other ranches were subdivided for settlement, often into thousands of small (5-10 acre plots). This is politically popular but ecologically unwise. Barbed-wire fences went up and that was the end of the wild animals. Smallholders planted maize, a staple but exotic crop that will fail six times out of ten on semi-arid land.

Thirdly, high net worth foreigners bought the ranches. This was probably illegal because foreigners cannot own agricultural land in Kenya but where there is money, an understanding is always possible. Today, these ranches are effectively private game reserves.

Finally, large wildlife organizations or related research institutes purchased the ranches and turned them into ‘conservancies’ where cattle-ranching continues alongside wildlife conservation. This is arguably the most sustainable approach, as it should ensure the perpetuity of wildlife biodiversity. Wildlife tourism is as profitable as livestock production.

But the real losers are the traditional pastoralists: human and livestock numbers have soared; grass is scarce, land is degraded and there is conflict when the pastoralists invade privately-owned ranches. It is ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ once again.

At 90,000 acres (35,000 ha.), Ol Pejeta ranch is one of the larger ranches in the area but it is dwarfed by the ranch where my young friend grew up, a drier area of 630,000 ha. (1.6m acres) in the southeast of Kenya next to one of the larger National parks, Tsavo East. Various individuals and organizations have owned Ol Pejeta over the last century, including the controversial Saudi billionaire and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who was a central figure in the Iran-Contra affair. A consortium of conservation groups, including Flora and Fauna International, bought the ranch, which now attracts about 65,000 visitors a year who come to see the wildlife. There are at least eleven places to stay from campsites to up-market lodges. Tourists pay a daily fee varying between US$25-90 depending on residence, plus a further $25-80 per person and upwards for accommodation. In the corner, nearly 2000 ha. (6000 acres) are leased to a wheat farmer. About 6500 Boran cattle graze among large numbers of wildlife including thousands of elephants and buffalo, tens of thousands of plains game (zebra, giraffe and eight species of antelope) and their predators (lion, leopard, cheetah, hyaena etc.). There is also the largest number (roughly 120) of black rhino in East Africa and about 30 of the much heavier white rhino.

It was a misnomer to label rhinos black or white as they are almost the same colour. The huge white rhino, Ceratotherium simum, is a grazing animal with a wide mouth (hence probably its name: ‘wyd’, means wide in Afrikaans) and so stays on open grass plains. The smaller and much more aggressive black rhino, Diceros bicornis, has a hooked mouth for browsing shrubs which is why it prefers to stay in thick bush. They are not even that closely related. White Rhino can weigh in at 1500-2500 kg, against the featherweight black rhino (700-1400 kg) but I would far rather face a white rhino (which are nearly always docile), than a black rhino, which, like a bull buffalo, will often charge first and ask questions later. They can be tamed: our girls fed and scratched Baraka, a 28-year-old blind black rhino.

The endemic white rhinos in East Africa are the Northern White, and they are nearly extinct. It is a slightly smaller subspecies of the common Southern White, of which there are at least 20,000, mainly in Southern Africa, some of which were introduced into Kenya. The last male Northern White on Earth died on Ol Pejeta four years ago and the two remaining females are undergoing IVF and A.I. to see if they will become pregnant with the preserved semen from that last male.

Protecting all the rhinos against poaching is a serious and expensive undertaking. The ranch employs over 100 guards to protect them on a 24-hour basis, 60 of whom are armed and trained by the British special forces’ regiment, the Special Air Service (SAS). A rhino horn now fetches between US$ 10,000-60,000 per kg, yet it has no recognized medicinal effect. The Western black rhino of West Africa is already extinct so it is quite possible that all rhinos will become extinct in the wild, an animal once so common in Kenya one hundred years ago that early explorers would frequently encounter 50 black rhinos every day. Numbers fell across Africa to around 100,000 in 1960 and 2400 by 1992. Today, there are probably 5000 black rhinos left in the wild in four African countries.

We ate on the verandah outside. Twenty metres in front of us was a ‘Ha-Ha’ and an electric fence. Elephant wandered silently through the bush beyond, so quietly it was difficult to believe they were there unless they were tearing down tree limbs. One night, something spooked them and one trumpeted deafeningly from just the other side of the fence. Around our friends’ house is 20,000 acres of emptiness and peace, far away from the tourist areas. Ol Pejeta is rather flat at around 1500m (5000 ft) but at dawn at this time of the year, the sun lights up the top of Mt. Kenya 50km away at over 5000 m (17,000 ft). Sitting alone on a grass plain watching a group of elephant grazing peacefully, I found it difficult to believe that the horror of Mariupol was unfolding 6000km north of here on almost exactly the same longitude as our house*.

*My old school atlas calls Mariupol, Zdhanov. Maybe that is the Russian word for the port city.


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