Reclaiming Laikipia’s grazing fields, one dead cactus at a time

samburu women, laikipia's grazing fields, cactus

 Samburu women carrying baskets with cactus plants bearing insects that are meant to remove the invasive species Opuntia to control its spread in Naibunga Upper Conservancy, Laikipia County on May 1. 


What you need to know:

  • The fruits are edible by both livestock and wildlife.
  • The bloodied mouths of goats, cattle, sheep and donkeys here, their dripping saliva and wasted bodies, is evidence of the struggle the animals go through to feed. But feed on the cactus they must. Or die.

In the hillside village of Munichoi, Laikipia County, three women work in the boiling sun and wind, moving slowly from one cactus bush to the other, dropping from their buckets pieces of the fleshy plant and taking some cuttings back.

Half a kilometre down the hill, a herd of goats and cattle graze. Further down the hill, a herd of elephants is having an afternoon snack as their calves play nearby.

But this is not your typical grazing fields. There is scarcely any grass here, only small bushes of hardy plants. The entire landscape of Munichoi Group Ranch, which is part of Naibunga Upper Conservancy,  a 13,300 hectare community conservancy, is a blanket of giant cactuses known as the Opuntia stricta.

This cactus is endemic to subtropical and tropical areas of the Americas, around the Caribbean.

The Opuntia is not just an invasive plant, it is aggressive and selfish, too. Wherever it grows, no other plant can grow. It kills all surrounding plant species. After years of acute land degradation in this area through overgrazing and soil erosion, large expanses of the land here have been left bare.

cactua, laikipia's grazing fields, naibunga conservancy

Cattle feeding on Opuntia in Naibunga Upper Conservancy, Laikipia County. 


Stephen Nuru, the manager of this conservancy that integrates human settlement, livestock keeping and wildlife, says the cactus has taken over three-quarters of the grazing fields, rendering his community helpless. ‘‘The cactus has fibrous roots and takes up a lot of water from the ground. This area has become drier than before because of the plant.’’

‘‘Livestock is our only livelihood. People here do not grow crops. With nothing to feed on, most livestock owners have had to move elsewhere,’’ adds Nuru.

Those who stayed put have been confined into destitution after they lost their animals to starvation.

Jacqueline Nalenoi is the manager of the Mount Kenya chapter of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). She explains: “This plant grows vegetatively. Wherever it falls, it starts to grow. It also requires minimal water to grow. That is why it has spread so fast despite the dry conditions in this area.’’

The Opuntia traces its origin to colonial times more than 50 years ago when the British settlers in Kenya imported it from the Americas and introduced it in Dol Dol for ornamentals reasons. When it blooms, the flowers lend the landscape a magical splendour of yellow, purple and green. Its large spikes make it suitable for hedges.

The fruits are edible by both livestock and wildlife. The bloodied mouths of goats, cattle, sheep and donkeys here, their dripping saliva and wasted bodies, is evidence of the struggle the animals go through to feed. But feed on the cactus they must. Or die.

Eating the Opuntia fruits is where the problem begins. In this locale, elephants are the biggest agents of dispersal of the plant. Locals say an elephant can feed on up to 2,000 seeds a day and spread these through defecation for up to 10 kilometres.

Camels and cattle too can feed on a substantial amount of seeds and spread them far and wide. Then there are the goats, sheep and olive baboons, all which disperse the seeds.

While the Opuntia has become the delicacy of choice for livestock and wildlife here, it has also been the cause of gut complications for the animals. ‘‘The cactus has thorns which cause mouth ulcers to the livestock. Some of them have even become blind. The seeds are indigestible. They clog the intestines of goats and sheep, killing them.’’

For cattle, ingesting the spines causes stomach ulcers and bloody dung, Nuru says. After some time, the animals are unable to feed. Death follows.

After years of dispersal by livestock and wildlife, the cacti dominate the vista of these rangelands. Land degradation here has continued to worsen in recent years, with 90 per cent of the area severely ruined.

As the climate changes, droughts become longer and vegetation disappears, pastoralism in this region is facing perhaps the worst threat yet.

Now the community has taken up the challenge, first to rid their homes of this dangerous plant even as they combat climate change. It is a task of herculean proportions, but the sense of community here, and the support from NRT and donors, serve as hope that this can be done –one dead Opuntia at a time.

Since 2015, the community has been attempting to control the spread of the cactus by feeding cochineal on it. The virus was imported from South Africa, where it had successfully been used to fight the Opuntia.

‘‘It was quarantined at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization before it was brought to the fields here,” recounts Nalenoi.

In this biological method, cochineal is reared in cacti stems in a greenhouse for two weeks and later taken to the fields. The treated stems are put by hand among the live cacti.

Pauline Mamai, a mother of three, is one of the women in this area who have been spreading the cochineal to kill the cactus. ‘‘The cactus has been a problem here for many years. Our animals die after feeding on them.’’

She explains:  “After putting the infected stems in the cactus, we cut fresh stems and take them back to the greenhouse for treatment.’’

Meanwhile in the field, the cochineal spreads, infecting the Opuntia and killing it. Thereafter, the bug dies. ‘‘Where the Opuntia has died, grass and other vegetation start to grow again as soon as the rain falls.’’ It is an arduous job that requires women to work in hot and windy conditions, often without any protective gear, owing to funding challenges.

‘‘The spines are sometimes too small, almost like fur. When wind blows, they can get into your eyes,’’ says Nalenoi.

For members of this community, however, it is the only way to salvage their grazing fields. The only way to protect their families’ livelihoods. The Opuntia menace is a matter of life and death. A race against time — combat it now and have a fighting chance. Or look on and perish. Is it too late? Are these approaches really working? Is it even sustainable?

For this expansive area that covers three sections of the conservancy, personnel challenges hamper efforts to fight the cactus, with only 15 women working in every block. In each section, there are also only six greenhouses, which limits the capacity to rear the cochineal. Nalenoi admits this is not sustainable in the long run.

“We need more funding support if we are to make substantial progress in this fight. This method alone is not sustainable,’’ says Nalenoi, adding that more studies on the cactus are required to come up with better methods to eradicate the plan in an industrial scale.

Involvement of women in this initiative has been a game changer for the community, Nalenoi says. ‘‘It is easier to engage women. They are cooperative and always available for project activities. Sometimes they volunteer to work for free.’’ The manager says effects of this plant species have a direct impact on women and their families’ welfare. ‘‘It is the women who remove thorns from the animals when they are blinded in the field. When the goats die from gut complications, women suffer because they have no milk to give to their children.’’

 Besides fighting the Opuntia, this community is also doing gulley healing by planting trees in the gorges created by runoff water to reclaim the land. Says Nuru.

‘It is a disaster whenever it rains in this area because there is nothing to control the flow of water. We are also practising seed reseeding to introduce grass where it has been depleted but also as a way of preventing soil erosion.’’

The triple threat of acute land degradation, conflict over resources and climate change in Northern Kenya has made restoration of nature a complex affair. But communities living here are not relenting. A strong sense of community and the selfless work of locals is changing the landscape of conservation in this area, one ‘‘tiny’’ effort at a time.

Seven years later, the fight goes on. Nalenoi says between 40 and 50 per cent of the plant has been killed so far. There is, however, scanty evidence of that, as the cactus keeps spreading every which way.

She adds: “The women have done well, based on our monitoring. We are winning this.’’ But truth of the matter is that it is a long road ahead for the resident