Many of the elders we work with recognise that their society has become more sedentary, with an increasing population and as a result, traditional grazing practices have changed. During their lifetimes they have observed environmental changes characterised by fewer grasses and more forbs, less water, bush encroachment and bare ground. Since the most complex, subtle and increasingly serious threat to Grevy’s zebra is loss of range, addressing the escalating land degradation in northern Kenya is critical to the long term survival of the species.
This can be done through improved livestock management: by planning grazing the community can manage towards productive rangeland that can support livestock and wildlife throughout the year. The Grevy’s Zebra Trust is working with the West Gate Community Conservancy to rehabilitate degraded land using livestock.
The world’s grasslands evolved with the large grazing herbivores that lived on them. These immense herds kept grasslands healthy. Bunched together for protection against predators, their behaviour had the following effects on the landscape:
- Tilling the soil with their hooves
- Fertilising soil with dung and urine
- Breaking down dead plant litter
These herds grazed hard for a short time and moved on, leaving grass with adequate time to recover. This relationship can still be seen in the Serengeti ecosystem with the vast migrating herds of wildebeest and plains zebra moving through the landscape.
Overgrazing occurs when a plant is re-grazed too soon before its root system has had time to recover. Overgrazing results from the amount of time a plant is exposed to a grazing animal and not from the numbers of grazing animals on the land. If grazing is managed for recovery periods of plants then overgrazing can be avoided.
We can manage domestic stock to simulate the relationship of grazers and grasslands and thus maintain healthy rangeland. In Samburu, the elders point out that if one looks at grazing land where there is a high risk of cattle raiding, the land is healthy. They explain that when herders take their livestock to the area they pool their herds for security. In addition, they stay only a short time for fear of being attacked and they will not return for another year. The combined action of pooling stock and allowing adequate time for the plants to recover leads to productive rangeland.
Land degradation (or biodiversity loss) is one of the main causes of global climate change as carbon bounces off bare soil and back into the atmosphere. By promoting covered soil in bare rangelands, we can harness carbon in the soil. Given that over 60% of the earth falls in arid or semi-arid climate zones, the global effect of ensuring carbon returns to the soil through re-establishing lost grasslands is significant.