Joseph Letoole beams as he describes how the Samburu communities of northern Kenya have worked together to transform their landscape for the better His hands by his side can just touch the top of the golden grass without bending over — grass that didn’t exist two years ago.
The grasslands here are returning because of the work of people like Joseph, grazing coordinator for the self-governed West Gate Community Conservancy. Supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust and The Nature Conservancy, the West Gate communities have collaborated with Grevy’s Zebra Trust to develop a grazing management plan that aims to improve the health of grasslands on which both the people and wildlife of this region depend.
Just a few kilometres from where Joseph stands, the land tells a different story — of what the region looked like before the grazing project. The red ground is completely devoid of grass. It’s surface smooth and hard like some giant pottery project. Kick this and it would break your ankle — it may as well be tarmac.
The only trees here are Acacia reficiens, a species that sucks any last moisture and nutrients out of the hardened earth, denying other species a chance. They look like a ghoulish invention of Harry Potter author JK Rowling — black skeletal branches with vicious thorns instead of leaves. The Acacia reficiens here in northern Kenya is a subspecies named misera, which means “wretched, miserable or sick” in Latin. Land with this acacia is indeed wretched and sick.
Yet even the acacia are playing a role in the restoration project. In the most degraded areas, the acacia have been cut down and used to make circular lion-proof enclosures called boma. Here the community corrals their cattle together overnight. This is new behaviour; previously each household protected their own cattle.
Over a couple of weeks, the action of 800 hooves in a concentrated area breaks up the hard ground and their dung provides much needed nutrients as well as the seeds of grasses. The animals are then moved to another boma to repeat the treatment. The thorny acacia wall that protected the cattle from lions now protects the new grass from grazing, allowing it to mature and add more seed to the system.
As we walk through a boma where the cattle have just left, Joseph kicks his foot at the ground and a spray of red dust blooms in front of him. He grins. Later, we get an even bigger surprise: driving away from the bomas, we spot two young male cheetahs hiding in the waist-high grass. As they bound away, Joseph explains that cheetah haven’t been here for a while — there’s been no where for them to hide.
(Image 1: Adult male cheetah at the Lewa Conservancy, Kenya. Source: Suzi Eszterhas. Image 2: Joseph Letoole. Source: Eddie Game/TNC.)