“Camels are the future”

The main rainy season in North-East Kenya normally runs from the beginning of March to the end of May. But more and more the rain simply does not come. With its project to reintroduce camels, Biovision is helping to develop a model that will alleviate the effects of drought.

Peter Lüthi, Communication

A man with camel

The dirt road north of Mount Kenya runs for 650 kilometres from Isiolo to the Somalian border and at the beginning of May, herders and their animals travel the route heading for the south west. They are fleeing the drought and looking for grass as the rains have once again failed. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Horn of Africa has been affected by drought almost every year since the start of the new Millennium. Kenya itself escaped the extreme drought until 2014/15. The cause that year was the “El Niño” weather phenomenon. Around Isiolo, where at least there has been some rain, livestock herders from different tribes are all competing for scarce animal feed, making for a tense situation.

Little but stones

Some 70 kilometres east of Isiolo is the village of Kula Mawe. Roughly translated this means “eat the stones”. An appropriate name as there is little else to eat. The land is hot and dry and the lives of the Borana, a tribe of herders is hard. “I used to have about 110 goats but now I only have 20,” explains 64-year old Abdy Guyo. Like most people in Kula Mawe he is reliant on food aid. The situation for his oldest daughter Amina and her family is no better, particularly as her husband is paralysed in one leg and cannot work. Despite that, they have grounds for hope. In April 2016, each was given a female camel. They and a further 16 women and men had been selected by their community to take part in a demonstration project run by Biovision and Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Suisse (VSF). When the camels calve, each owner will have 3-7 litres of milk every day – a healthy and an important addition to their diet. By selling the surplus milk they can also earn about 100 Kenyan Shillings (about 90 Swiss centimes) per litre. “Camels are much better at coping with drought than cattle and smaller domestic animals. They also continue to provide milk during dry spells,” says Abdy Guyo with pleasure.

  • Portrait of a man
    “Camels are the future,” says experienced herdsman Benjamin Losusui. Camels cope much better with drought than cattle, sheep and goats.
  • Dry landscape
    Waiting for the rain: Landscape at Kula Mawe north of Mount Kenya. Kula Mawe is Swahili and roughly translates into “eat the stones” – an appropriate name as there is little else.
  • herd of cattle
    Cattle, goat and sheep are very common amongst nomads and semi-nomads. During the drought, cattle can only survive without water for 2 – 3 days.
  • herd von cattle
    Herders and their animals congregate wherever rain falls and compete for scarce pasture.
  • Landscape with clouds
    The first signs of rain are the dark clouds. It can be very intensive but often it only rains over a very small area.
  • Landscape with mountains
    It only needs a little rain and the grass soon starts to sprout. The humus layer is very thin and the ability of soils to store water is poor. This means that regular rainfall is needed during the rainy season if the grass is to grow sufficiently.
  • Herd of camels
    Camels are more robust than both large and small livestock and can survive for 14 days without water.
  • camel calf
    Next generation in the herd belonging to the Wabera Group - participants in Biovision camel project. When the herd moves in search of pasture, the calves remain in the camp and are protected from hyenas and lions by thorn-bush hedging.
  • camel calf
    Born during the project: 7-day old camel calf.
  • The camel calf is drinking milk
    The camel calf is given milk twice a day.
  • A woman milks a camel
    As soon as the calf has drunk its ration, the herder milks the camel.
  • A woman milks a camel
    The camels belonging to the Wabera Group provide 3 – 7 litres of milk per day. Camel’s milk is very rich in Vitamin C and is a natural way to ward off diabetes. It is also more tolerant to heat than cow’s milk.
  • Portrait of a woman
    25-year old Amina Abdy from Kula Mawe: “My camel makes me proud. In the past, only men were able to own camels”.
  • Man with camel
    Muktar Ibrahim is the VSF project officer responsible for the camel project in Isiolo: “We now provide camels solely to those with at least some income so that they can at least pay for the cost of the herders and veterinary care”.
  • Herd of camel
    In addition to grass, camels can also eat the leaves of thorn bushes which are available even when the grass has dried up during the drought periods.

Learning from mistakes

“A few years ago, the plan had been to give the camels to the poorest members of the community,” reports Muktar Ibrahim, the VSF Project Officer in Isiolo. We found however, that they could not even afford the required veterinary care or pay the herders. “We have learned from our mistake and now provide camels to those with at least some income,” explains Muktar.

There are also other challenges to overcome. At present, only five of the camels in Kula Mawe are in calf and the shortage of fodder is making it more difficult to rear the camels.

Kula Mawe is one of 4 locations, where a total of 50 dromedaries (camels with one hump) funded by Biovision are being provided. Thanks to the project, the herders discover the benefits of camels, particularly during periods of drought. Benjamin Losusui, an experienced herder in the project hopes that others will copy. “Camels are the future,” he says with conviction.