24.12.2017

Herders, their herds and hyenas

It is dusk but in a field near Isiolo, the herders are wide awake: Not because they are keen star gazers but because they fear the predators that sneak up under cover of darkness.

Article and photos by Peter Lüthi, Biovision

When the sun disappears below the mountains of Sambura, the herders prepare for the night. Darkness comes quickly on the Equator and each herder takes a blanket and heads for his post at the edge of the Boma – a circular corral made up of spindly thorn bushes. The herders spread themselves around, light a fire and prepare to keep watch during the night. Inside the Boma, the animals huddle close together and a myriad of stars twinkle in the vast sky. 

The herders peer into the darkness, prick up their ears and investigate the slightest noise. They are ready to sound the alarm as soon as they hear the cry of a leopard or the call of the hyenas. They also know that one predator arrives unannounced: The lion appears without a sound as if out of nowhere.

Not afraid of the king of the animals 

“I have seen so many lions that I have lost count,” says Benjamin Losusui, chief herder in a group living near the town of Isiolo in Northern Kenya. Together with his colleagues he guards a huge herd of camels, including some of those funded by the Biovision project “Camels for drought areas”. I once surprised a lion that had just grabbed a goat,” continues Benjamin. “I ran towards it shouting and screaming. The lion was so startled that it dropped its prey and ran off into the distance. I picked up the goat, cooked it over the fire and ate it myself,” – he keeps a straight face as he tells the tale and so it is difficult to say whether it is a tall story or not? Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that Benjamin, a member of the Turkana people has seen a great deal in the bush. And here in Isiolo not far from their current camp, they have to expect lions. Immediately over the nearest hill is the Wildlife Conservancy of Lewa Downs, a reserve well known for its abundant wildlife. 

“Much worse than the lions are the hyenas,” says Benjamin Losusui. “They are much more common and hunt in groups of four to eight animals. If the hyenas get into a camp undetected, animals are often lost – including camels. This has already happened in herds near Boji and Oldo Nyiro, which are also part of the project. Of the 103 camels in eight herds supported by Biovision, three have already been taken by hyenas.

 

  • The spear held by the herder is not just for decoration. Their grazing lands in Isiolo County are also home to large predators.
  • The longer the dry season the further the distance between grazing land and watering holes; for cattle, donkeys, goats and sheep, it is sometimes too far.
  • Camels are much more resilient to drought than other types of livestock. After they have drunk their fill they can last for 14 days without water.
  • However, camels are also at risk from predators such as hyenas, leopards and sometimes lions and so the herds are kept at night in so-called Bomas made from thorn bushes.
  • One herd participating in the Biovision project “Camels for drought areas” is located close to the Wildlife Conservancy “Lewa Downs", just south of Isiolo (Kenya).
  • Lions don’t always keep to the boundaries of the reserves and national parks and so the herders in Isiolo County have to expect them.
  • A far greater danger is from the hyenas that roam outside the parks. They have already taken three camels that were part of the Biovision Project. (Picture: Andreas Beusch)
  • Benjamin Losusui is an experienced herder and he fears drought more than predators. That is why he is persuaded by the need to re-introduce camels. “Camels are the future,” he says.
  • The herders have to watch over the animals, look after their medical needs and also milk them. When the young females are first milked, the herders have to tie their legs together. The camels are not used to being milked and so can be very wild.
  • Muktar Ibrahim is a member of the team working on the joint project to reintroduce camels. He has already noted a gradual increase in the number of dromedaries around Isiolo.
  • This year, the weather was once again very dry in Isiolo County and so the reintroduction of camels represents a major opportunity for the pastoralists and for the area.

 

Drought is the worst enemy 

However, these large predators are by no means the greatest challenge for the herders. “Our biggest problem is the drought and the lack of animal feed,” stresses Benjamin. If the rains fail – something that is increasingly common in recent years - there is not enough food for the animals. However, the camels are much more resilient in times of drought compared with cattle and smaller animals. They can survive 14 days without water and manage the increasing distance between the scarce watering holes and the remote pastures. In contrast, other types of animals die on route from thirst or hunger. Unfortunately, this is becoming much more common.

That is why Biovision has been running a pilot project since 2010 with “Vétérinaires sans Frontières Suisse” (VSF) to reintroduce camels in drought areas. Benjamin Losusui, an experienced herder, is impressed by the project’s approach. “Camels are the future,” he says - a view that is seemingly shared by many in Isiolo County. Muktar Ibrahim, the local project officer has observed a continuing increase in the number of camels. This will increase the resilience of many pastoralists in Isiolo County with its huge semi-arid areas.

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