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Maasai herders breed fewer, stronger cattle to resist climate change

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AlertNet/Lucas Liganga

(Read caption) Ngaiyok Legilisho Kipainoi shows off his motorcycle, bought with earnings from his improved cattle herd. Cattle herders in Tanzania are cutting the size of their herds and breeding for more resilience as climate change leads to more intense droughts.

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The loss of more than half their livestock in the 2009 drought has led Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania’s Arusha region to breed fewer, stronger cattle and end their traditional focus on numbers alone as symbols of wealth and status.

The impact of that devastating drought, which dealt a blow to the whole nation’s economy, is still visible in the small number of cattle in many villages of Engarenaibor in Arusha’s Longido district.

The district’s cattle breeders and owners lost at least 120,000 cattle, more than half the total herd of 200,000, as a result of the drought, which plunged the region into poverty and threatened the pastoralists’ traditional livelihood.

The good news emerging from this blow to their way of life is that breeders have realized that in a time of climate change their wealth lies not in the size of their herd but in its quality.

“The days of keeping many head of cattle for prestige are gone thanks to the 2009 drought. It has taught us a lesson. A lesson to adapt to climate change,” says cattle owner Ngaiyok Legilisho Kipainoi.

For many years, Maasai pastoralists had resisted government pressure to reduce the size of their herds, until the drought made clear the need to adapt to the changing environment.

Reducing their herds has allowed herders to use less water and reduce the degradation of grazing land.

As Kipainoi sees it, his fellow villagers are “graduating from the culture of keeping livestock for fame to increasing the productivity of their animals in a well-managed manner.”

 “We have started selling our animals and we use the proceeds to build decent homes or pay school fees for our children,” says Kipainoi, a 35-year-old who has two wives and six children. All his children attend primary school.

At the onset of the drought Kipainoi boasted a herd of 480 cattle, but he emerged from the catastrophe with less than half as many.

“After the drought we realized that our local Zebu breed can withstand adverse weather conditions and are well adapted to the environment. So if we are to improve earnings from livestock, without risking another loss to drought, we must practice proper animal husbandry,” says Kipainoi, standing beside his new motorcycle at the site of his new house, bought with earnings from his cattle herd.

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