Colonialism, conservation, cattle, and conflict in Laikipia, Kenya

Last week, two game rangers were shot dead in Kenya. They were part of a group of 10 rangers and other cattle owners, who tried to recover cattle stolen from ranches in Laikipia County.

A couple of weeks before that, armed men disrupted a meeting in Laikipia County. Ironically, the meeting was held to discuss insecurity in the area. The men shot in the air, causing panic.

These incidents are just the latest in an on-going land conflict in Laikipia. This post is an attempt to unravel some of what’s going on in Laikipia. With general elections due in Kenya in August 2017, the situation has become highly politicised.

In recent months, thousands of cattle herders from the Samburu and Pokot tribes have left their traditional grazing lands and have invaded luxury lodges, farms, and conservation areas in Laikipia, apparently in search of pasture for their cattle.

Some of the herders are responsible for shocking acts of violence. They have burnt down luxury safari lodges. Estimates of the numbers of people killed range from 25 to 50.

The Mugie conservancy is at the northern end of the Laikipia Plateau. The conservancy’s website boasts a “spectacular view of Mount Kenya”.

Guests staying on Mugie look out over their personal wilderness from Mutamaiyu House built to take advantage of the spectacular views. With its beautiful architecture, well kept grounds and cliff-top swimming pool, it offers tranquil luxury in the heart of Africa.

Earlier this year, a guard was shot dead at Mugie.

Conservationists are worried about the impact the cattle herders are having on wildlife.

Solomon Epokor, who is in charge of security at Mugie, told The Nation that,

“We have lost 25 buffaloes, 30 zebras, 10 giraffes and other animals to mysterious killings.”

Earlier this year, academics Jennifer Bond and Kennedy Mkutu wrote that,

There is a simplistic assumption that this is due to an ongoing drought or that the cattle raids are part of traditional pastoral conflict. It’s true that the pastoralist march on private land is in part for grazing and water. But in fact their actions are also a form of resistance to an unequal distribution of resources.

This unequal distribution has a long history.

A brief colonial history

In 1895, the British established a Protectorate over what is now Kenya.

Before the arrival of the British, the Maasai had herded their cattle in the fertile grasslands of the Rift Valley. The British wanted the land and persuaded (or forced) the Maasai to sign a “treaty” in 1904.

Under the treaty, Maasai chiefs agreed to “vacate the whole of the Rift Valley”, leaving the land “to be used by the Government for the purposes of European settlement”.

The Maasai were moved to two reserves, one of which was in Laikipia. The “treaty” included the following promise:

We would, however, ask that the settlement now arrived at shall be enduring so long as the Masai as a race shall exist, and that European or other settlers shall not be allowed to take up land in the Settlements.

Just seven years later, the Maasai signed a new “treaty” that resulted in them being forced out of Laikipia and moved to an area near the border of Tanzania, now known as the Maasai Mara.

The Rift Valley became known as the “White Highlands”. Africans were restricted to certain areas. Bond and Mkutu write that,

When independence came, it signalled the move towards individual land rights and redistribution schemes. But these schemes were criticised for putting land into the hands of a few political elites. In Laikipia, the majority of Kenyans were settled on smallholdings in the west, or remained landless. Group ranches, where a group of people collectively own freehold title to land, were set up predominantly in the north while some private ranches from the colonial period kept their land.

Racism from the Daily Mail

On 5 March 2017, Tristan Voorspuy, a British-Kenyan safari guide, was killed. Voorspuy was a major shareholder of Sosian conservancy.

After Voorspuy’s death, Max Hastings asks in his column in the Daily Mail whether this means “the end of the white man in Africa?”

Farms and game ranches have been “invaded and overrun by armed tribesmen brandishing automatic rifles, burning buildings and terrorising owners as they claim grazing rights for their own cattle,” Hastings writes.

Hastings seems worried that he won’t be able to travel on holiday to Laikipia’s luxury safari lodges. He writes that Laikipia, just a few years back, “was paradise”. He describes riding on horseback at sunrise with elephants, giraffe, buck, warthog, and leopards. And he marvels that, “such wild beauty still exists on earth”.

As if to prove Hastings correct, Raila Odinga, Kenya’s opposition leader was reported in the Times this weekend as promising to dismantle white-owned ranches in Laikipia if he wins the general election in August 2017.

Two days later, Odinga’s Spokesman Dennis Onyango told the Nation that the Times had “misplaced” Odinga’s comments, and that Odinga will “create harmony between herders and ranchers as part of his long term solution to constant violence in the farms”.

In any case, as Murithi Mutiga writes in the Guardian, it’s not just white-owned ranches that have been targeted:

Ranches owned by both whites and blacks have been overrun. Powerful Kenyans, including a former chief of the army and a former speaker of the national assembly, have seen their holdings occupied by armed raiders.

Joseph Shuel, a human rights activist in Laikipia told the Guardian that,

“This crisis is partly driven by the effects of the drought. But historical grievances also play a role with politicians inciting herders and misleading them that they can take land by force outside the bounds of the law.”

Conservation conflict

Several conservation areas have been set up in Laikipia. Some of these conservancies, as they are known, are privately owned, some are community owned. The conservancies attract tourists, paying high prices to see Laikipia’s “wild beauty”.

But the fact that some communities benefit from conservation and others don’t has added to the conflict in Laikipia. In 2004, the New York Times described,

the human conflict between those who are trying to live off the semiarid land and those who want it to remain untouched, wild and well stocked with animals.

The New York Times quotes Kuki Gallman, an Italian who owns the Ol Ari Nyiro conservancy in Laikipia. She arrived in Kenya in 1972 and bought the a 40,000 hectare cattle ranch. Gallman’s autobiography “I Dreamed of Africa” was made into a film starring Kim Basinger.

Gallman told the New York Times,

“I’m a curator of a living museum. Nature here is so majestic. The world will need places like this more and more in the future. They are impossible to reconstruct once they’re gone. My dream for the future is just that this place will remain whole.”

In April 2017, Gallman sent a series of texts to Jeffrey Gettleman, a New York Times journalist:

“Pokot militia openly carrying firearms. Not just herders. Group of armed men without livestock. 13 firearm spotted.”

A lodge at was set on fire. Gallman was shot in the stomach while inspecting the damage. She is now out of hospital and fund-raising to repair the damage at Ol Ari Nyiro.

The image below from Google maps illustrates the problem in Laikipia. A fence separates Ol Ari Nyiro from the surrounding farmland:

Cattle Barons

An anonymous report is currently doing the rounds of embassies and NGOs in Nairobi, as well as farmers in Laikipia. The report provides a detailed analysis of the situation and is based in part on meetings with 135 people in Laikipia between January and April 2017.

The paper is titled, “Cattle Barons: Political Violence, Land Invasions and Forced Displacement in Kenya’s Laikipia County.” It’s available in full below.

The author argues that the drought is just an excuse for the land invasions, which have been going on for several years. The author writes,

“This far predates the onset of Kenya’s recent dry spell from November 2016 onwards, dispelling illusions that the land invasions are driven by drought. Rather, the declaration of drought countrywide in February 2017 has served as a timely mirage behind which the true ends of the invasions in Laikipia have been obscured to outsiders.”

The report makes a couple of suggestions of ways out of the crisis in Laikipia:

  • In the long term, the only way to forestall this crisis from cyclically re-emerging is to tackle it at its source, that is, the unsustainability of pastoralism in its current state and resulting susceptibility to political misappropriation of its frustrated, often armed, youth. Measures to remedy this would need to be robust and these are beyond the scope of this particular research project. They include education at the primary and secondary level, accompanied by realistic and obtainable opportunities for employment and integration into the cash economy, emphasising skills-based or vocational training.
  • Second, a rehabilitation of the northern rangelands, a diversification away from pastoralism with alternative forms of livelihoods. Management of livestock-carrying capacity on the rangelands should be at the forefront of any such long-term efforts, together with revival of the veterinary standards and regimes that once existed in post-Independence Kenya, and effective measures to market livestock. This will require active buy-in and consensus from all concerned stakeholders: the state, the pastoralist communities, and other land users of all scales, acting as development partners, not competitors.


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  1. So basically what your saying is, pastoralist are at fault here and no one else is to blame.
    Secondly, your recommending people to forego a culture they treasure most and have been practicing for several decades to just forget.

  2. Thanks for this comment, Charles. No, I’m not saying that pastoralists are at fault here at all. Just to be clear, I think colonialism and racism are part of the problem.

    Neither am I recommending that pastoralists should forego their culture.

    I’m sorry that you seem to have got this impression from this post. I was trying to give some of the background to the land conflict in Laikipia.

    Here are a couple of other posts about Laikipia on Conservation-Watch:

    June 2017: Christine Mungai: In a Guardian Story About an Environmental Conflict in Kenya, the White Saviour Rides Again

    July 2017: “The Big Conservation Lie”: A presentation by Mordecai Ogada

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