Maasai cattle breeders adapt their practices to the changing climate (AlertNet)

| February 4, 2013

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Life has changed for Ngaiyok Legilisho Kipainoi, a Maasai cattle owner in Longido district, northern Tanzania. He explains: “The days of keeping many head of cattle for prestige are gone thanks to the 2009 drought. It has taught us a lesson. A lesson to adapt to climate change.”

Mr. Kipainoi has two wives and six young children to support. At the onset of the drought, Mr. Kipainoi boasted a herd of 480 cattle. He emerged with less than half that number. Across the district, most herders faced the same situation, and at least 120,000 cattle died.

For many years, Maasai pastoralists resisted government pressure to reduce the size of their herds. Traditionally, the number of cattle a Maasai owned was a symbol of wealth and status. But poverty levels in the region were worsened by the drought, and traditional livelihoods threatened. The drought emphasized the need to adapt to the changing environment.

The loss of more than half their livestock in the 2009 drought has led the Maasai to breed fewer, stronger cattle. They realize that, with the climate changing, their wealth lies not in the quantity, but the quality of their animals.

Mr. Kipainoi explains: “After the drought, we realized that our local Zebu breed can withstand adverse weather conditions. They are well-adapted to the environment.” He believes that, if the Maasai want to increase their income from livestock and avoid losses from drought, they must practise good animal husbandry.

Herders in Longido have started to breed animals that are resilient to climate change, but more productive than their traditional Zebu and Borana cows. Ongoing experiments are cross-breeding these animals with breeds not indigenous to the area. These “exotic” breeds are chosen for their higher milk production and faster growth.

Mr. Kipainoi describes the idea behind their efforts: “It involves selling cattle that are weak, and cross-breeding new stock from animals that display strong characteristics of high productivity and resilience.” They are also hoping to breed animals that are able to trek long distances and are resistant to local diseases.

Other husbandry practices are also being introduced. Mr. Kipainoi explains, “Our plan is to ensure that calving takes place at the start of the short rainy season, when fresh pastures enable cows to yield more milk.” By planning their calving time to coincide with the short rains, the herders have a much better chance that calves will survive to become healthy and profitable adults.

Mr. Kipainoi has seen the financial benefit of managing his cattle more productively. Standing beside his new motorcycle at the site of his new house, he says, “We have started selling our animals and using the proceeds to build decent homes or pay school fees for our children.” All of Mr. Kipainoi’s children are now attending primary school.