Two cows wait patiently beside a fireplace as unconventional fodder – roasted stems of a cactus – is prepared for them.
Once the partially burnt stems have cooled, Mzee Lekuyan Sinyok, from Musul village, Laikipia County, takes a machete and begins slicing them. The animals move closer and hungrily consume the strange but life-saving meal.
Locals refer to this invasive species of cactus with needle-like thorns as rkurasi, scientifically called austrocylindropuntia subalata.
This succulent drought-resistant plant is the only green vegetation remaining in this scorched plateau in Laikipia North sub-county.
Mr Sinyok, 72, says it is the first time in his lifetime that he has witnessed cattle eating this type of fodder. He explains that the purpose of burning the cactus stems before feeding the animals is to remove the sharp thorns.
“Only a few months ago, I had a herd of 37 cattle and 106 goats and sheep but they have all succumbed to drought,” the father of seven says despairingly, staring pleadingly at the clear blue skies.
“These two cows I am feeding on burnt rkuras is my only hope and if they die, my family will have to rely on well-wishers for survival in the coming days.”
In January this year, the elderly herder took a treacherous journey to the Mt Kenya forest with his herd in search of pasture.
Six weeks into the forest, the chilly weather was too much for the animals and they started dropping dead one after the other, probably after contracting the tickborne disease East Coast Fever.
The herder then decided to embark on a return journey, but by the time he arrived home, more than 100km away, only the two cows he is now feeding remained, others having died from the torturous journey, lack of fodder and water or diseases contacted along the route.
Some of the goats he had left back at home had been sold to support the family while others had died owing to the prolonged dry weather.
A similar story is repeated across villages in Laikipia North sub-county, where drought is ravaging pastoralists, taking away their economic lifeline – livestock.
Carcasses of cattle dot the Nanyuki-Rumuruti and Nanyuki-Dol Dol road, some partly eaten by scavengers and others rotting away untouched – an indication that hyenas, vultures and jackals from nearby wildlife conservancies are having a season of plenty.
According to recent reports from the government drought agency, by the end of May, a total of 4,500 cattle had died in Laikipia County owing to pasture and water scarcity, while 9,800 goats and sheep had succumbed to the adverse effects of drought.
The report compiled by the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) indicates that an additional 300 cattle and 120 goats and sheep died in transit from Laikipia to Nyeri County in search of pasture. The report warns of a worsening situation in northern Kenya counties in the coming days.
Last week, the national government announced an intervention targeting pastoralists through an off-take programme in Laikipia County to cushion them against the drought.
While other drought-ravaged counties in northern Kenya have been receiving support from development partners and non-governmental organisations, including cash transfer programmes, Laikipia solely depends on government interventions, which at times is seen as inadequate.
For instance, the county was left out recently when the government announced the disbursement of Sh.1.1 billion by the NDMA through the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP). Beneficiary counties include Marsabit, Turkana, Wajir, Mandera and Garissa. Laikipia was listed by the NDMA alongside these counties as one of the regions in the “alarming” phase of the drought.
“We are soon launching an off-take programme where we shall buy the cattle, slaughter them and then distribute the meat as relief food to the needy,” announced Laikipia County Commissioner Joseph Kanyiri when he flagged off a truckload of 600 bags of relief food outside his Nanyuki offices last Thursday.
The administrator revealed that 15,000 households were facing starvation across the county but added that the figure might rise.
But this announcement has not excited herders, who accuse the government of making “unnecessary” late interventions.
“What will they be buying when the programme eventually kicks off? We have not been told exactly when it will commence while hundreds of animals have died and others continue to succumb from the negative effects of drought,” former civic leader Eric Ole Kasana.
“Those still standing on their feet are emaciated and their meat is not fit for human consumption.”
Mr Kasana said they urgently need relief food and fodder to save the remaining animals from imminent death, adding that they were yet to receive government food aid and are relying on support from the Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy.
“Animals are also dying in private ranches. I had moved my cattle to the Mpala Research Centre but had to get them out after pasture got exhausted,” says Mr Kasana, who has lost 70 of 75 cattle.
A spot check by the Nation across Mukogodo West and Mukogodo East wards established that the much despised invasive cactus is the only remaining source of fodder for the cattle. Weak-looking animals could be seen struggling to consume the leaves of the prickly cactus, which covers dozens of acres in the region.
Livestock had consumed all the purplish pear fruit of this cactus locally called matunda and were now struggling to chew the thorn-covered leaves.
In Dol Dol, the headquarters of Laikipia North sub-county, locals talked of deteriorating security following an invasion of the community-conserved Mukogodo forest by armed herders.
“There are armed herders inside that forest with a hundred cattle. In the last few weeks, they have been sneaking to this town at night to rob shopkeepers of foodstuffs at gunpoint until we had to call a demonstration last week to protest the attacks,” said Ms Loise Kimiri, a local leader.
Ms Kimiri appealed to the government to flush out the armed herders, saying that though security agencies were now patrolling Dol Dol at night, that did not guarantee peace.
Her sentiments were shared by Mt Patrick Mokorino, 79, from Kiwanja Ndege village, who pointed out that if the government was reluctant to flush out bandits, the alternative would be enrolling more National Police Reserves (NPRs).
“We have herders from as far away as Maralal and Wamba in Samburu County. They drove their animals to this conserved forest and there is nothing we can do since they are armed,” lamented Mr Mokorino.
“They have been stealing our goats and camels as we watch and once we report to the police, we hardly get assistance.”
Mr Kanyiri, the county commissioner, admitted last week that the presence of migrating armed herders in the county was a cause of concern and could trigger conflicts among communities.
He directed the herders to leave or security agencies would be deployed to forcibly evict them. This was yet to happen and residents have to bear with the twin problem of food scarcity and insecurity.