The Trouble with Laikipia

The second-best wildlife destination in Kenya is under siege. The very foundation of private land ownership, property rights, and rule of law are entwined in ways that Laikipians never expected in the future of this high country.

We are confronted by a challenging combination of a social breakdown in pastoralism, a high percentage of disenfranchised herders, an excess of guns, an excess of livestock numbers (way above what any rangeland can carry), a breakdown in livestock markets, an election year, the whiff of long-term land leases up for renewal, and now drought. That’s a serious rubric’s cube of confounding issues!

35% of Laikipia is owned by ranchers of European and African origin – a third. Almost another third is owned by pastoralist families joined in group ranches – private community lands. That’s almost 70% of the land available to historical land use practices of ranching, tourism, and wildlife conservation. May of the private or corporate ranches of Laikipia fall under leasehold – a long-term agreement with Government conferring property rights. Many of these leases were granted during an era of colonialism. Many of these leases are up for renewal within the next 10-20 years. Honestly, no one is sure what the Kenya Government will do when leases need to be renewed. Insecurity of tenure is historically associated with minimal land inputs and improvements – not what we want or need if 35% of this land is generating 4 billion shillings (40M USD$) in annual economic benefits to neighbors, county and national government.

The Deal with Grazing

For years, each private ranch has developed and planned some sort of grass and water access for their neighbors. Historically these agreements have been all over the place, and are part of a rangeland matrix of livestock, movement, grass and water. Some agreements helped people coming to Laikipia and some benefited the residents. Sometimes, ranchers took their cattle to Samburu and Isiolo. It varied. Livestock disease risk was managed, and conflicts were few. Discussions prevailed, and agreements were handshakes. Drought patterns were cyclical, about every seven years, and some cycles were worse than others. This was a pattern we dealt with in this landscape.

In this century, given Kenya’s population growth rate, and the unrestricted growth of livestock numbers, all grazing plans have been over-stretched to meet private and communal needs. Moreover, with changes in large ranch ownership, there has been no consistency or equity in the grazing plans, systems or fees associated with outside access. Each ranch is left to negotiate terms, typically with neighboring elites. These agreements don’t always benefit the poor. But they do stand as an historical pledge of engagement by private ranches with their neighbors.

The Deal with Livestock and Wildlife

Livestock numbers on private ranches in Laikipia have remained relatively stable over the last 40 years. The growth in livestock numbers in this County stems from two things – increase in the herd sizes of community ranches and immigrant cattle. In 2016, over half of the livestock counted in Laikipia didn’t actually belong here! Laikipia was supporting a livestock population twice the normal size.

Late in 2016, and early in 2017, the situation got worse. We estimate that some 230-250,000 illegal cattle and at least 350,000 shoats were present in Laikipia during the height of the drought. Local livestock were subsequently forced into the cold reaches of Mt. Kenya, the Abedares and Kikuyu homelands. Disaster, mayhem, murder and disease resulted from this “invasion”. The little people suffered most, but the large ranches made their plight known with better access to media and the authorities.

Ironically, during the same time as the growth of human and livestock numbers to Laikipia, the total wildlife numbers over the 40 years did not vary dramatically. In fact, they are almost identical. Wildlife tend to be more resilient than their pastoralist neighbors, but we will see another downturn in wildlife numbers from unnecessary wanton killing, drought and disease


1985 Aerial Census  Laikipia
Cattle 127,735
Shoats  283,459
2009 Aerial Census  
Cattle  190,000
Shoats  206,000
2012 Aerial Census  
Cattle  149,000
Shoats  380,000
2016 Aerial Census  
Cattle  250,000*
Shoats 546,000

This is a staggering statistic in a country where wildlife numbers outside and within the protected area system over a similar period have declined by 70-80%

These two figures won’t add up much longer. Healthy rangelands make for healthy wildlife populations – and it’s clear the both livestock and wildlife can live side-by-side with acceptable losses from predation and disease. Laikipia’s rangelands are being seriously taxed by Laikipia residents outside our private ranches and now even more seriously by immigrant pastoralists and their herds. We will not be able to sustain these rangelands, let alone our epic wildlife, if free access is expected from our immigrant visitors

African Cape Buffalo killed by armed vigilantes in Laikipia Josh Perrett

The Enemies Within

Our four horsemen in Laikipia are not those of the Apocalypse – 2 x war, famine and disease – but perhaps they are just as bad.

Our first horseman is lousy land management. More than 50% of our land in Laikipia is suffering from land use suicide. We are not taking the normal steps to protect our soil cover, water retention, and nutrient values. Our rangelands are denuded by overgrazing and erosion, and our small-holder agriculture by bad soil management practices. This horseman needs to be addressed immediately and decisively with all the tools at our disposal.

Our second horseman is invasive species. The prickly pear cactus (opuntia spp) now festoons most of the community conservancies in northern Kenya. A new book on the invasive species of Laikipia (Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International in Nairobi) illustrates just how much at risk we are from exotic plants. Unless we address this scourge, our rangelands will not recover. Again, we know the solutions and can fix this.

Our third horseman is political manipulation of the poor, the uneducated, and the youth. It’s also their disrespect for tradition and custom and earned leadership – the institutions that have provided some semblance of cultural and environmental stability. Whether cattle barons enjoying the free-inputs of communal grazing for their private herds, or the political leaders who pledge a world of solutions, but never deliver, there are still too many people who blindly allow themselves to be manipulated by those with money, power, or both.

Our fourth horseman is indifference – indifference from the new County Government politicians who play with their new-found power and purse; the indifference of National Government when it comes to the rule of law and the protection of private property; the indifference of neighbors who think they can safely say, “it won’t affect me”. The lack of political will and our indifference will be our un-doing.

The Future

For those of us living and working in this landscape, there is still hope. The new Community Land Act should bring the eventual security of tenure associated with land use care and investment. The new Conservancy movement also offers hope as open pastoralist systems turn to successful ranching enterprises that also conserve wildlife. Wildlife has a future too, if we can somehow link the proverbial problem of conservation incentives, benefits, and subsidies in a thoughtful and equitable manner, and without further delay.

The author, Peter Hetz, is the Chief Executive Director, Laikipia Wildlife Forum