WAJIR, Kenya (AlertNet) – Drought-hit northern Kenya is seeing a surge in cattle rustling as pastoralists try to restock herds decimated by climatic shocks, residents say.
But with the raids leading to an increasing number of deaths and a rise in economic losses, Kenya’s government has responded by allocating 200 million Kenyan shillings ($2.5 million) to electronically tag livestock in northern Kenya, making them easier to trace and recover.
Kenya’s government has come under increasing pressure to improve security and curb the surge in rustling, which usually involves armed groups stealing livestock from other communities in and adjoining Kenya’s pastoral areas.
Livestock herding is the main livelihood and source of income in northern Kenya, and the hike in cattle thefts threatens to ignite cross-community reprisals and raids that could set the stage for a surge in ethnic fighting in the region. Settled Kenyan communities that live in regions bordering the pastoral areas of northeastern and eastern Kenya have complained that cattle rustling incidents are surging during drought periods.
Besides hitting settled communities, armed rustlers waylay and attack pastoralist communities moving with large herds of livestock across the border into Somalia and Ethiopia. Herders who stay behind in their own remote, drought-hit villages with small numbers of animals also have fallen prey to attacks.
According Adan Garad, executive director of the Wagalla Centre for Peace and Human Rights, a Wajir-based community organization focused on pastoralist rights issues, livestock theft has been reported in all the pastoral districts of Wajir, Moyale, Marsabit and Sabarwawa.
“Cases of cattle rustling are increasing in these areas and we have received numerous cases from affected pastoralist communities. In the past, the communities used to practice cattle rustling as it was permitted by their culture. But now people are using cattle rustling as mean of restocking back to what they lost to prolonged droughts,” Garad said.
“In the past, communities in northern Kenya witnessed sporadic cases of insecurity but the prolonged drought and changing weather pattern is causing a spiral and increased cases of armed assaults that will see many lives lost and thousands of livestock lost,” he warned.
So far, 36 cases of cattle rustling have been reported in areas of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Kenya that are inhabited by pastoralists, he said. All the cases involved arms raids.
Cattle rustling victim Mandeeq Yuffey, from the Yamicha area along the Isiolo/Wajir border, said that a group of armed men recently staged a dawn attack and made off with his 50 cattle, injuring some of his family members who tried to thwart the attack.
“We were attacked in the dawn by heavily armed men who started beating us and moved our cattle toward the Marsabit area. Initially I was living in the Arbajahan area of Wajir but I moved due to lack of water and pasture there. I thought by moving to the border area of Yamicha my herds would get some water and feed on the remaining pasture. But I have lost everything,” he said.
He said the raiders spoke in a dialect used by one of the pastoral communities living in Marsabit district.
“I understood from their dialect that they are from neighboring Marsabit district and they were looking for cattle to restock their lost herds and to sell to get money to buy food as milk and meat are not available anymore due to drought,” he said
As a result of the surge in rustling and a growing outcry from victims, Kenya’s government has committed to spend $200 million to tag livestock in an effort to help recover stolen animals and deter thieves.
The tagging will be done with an electronic chip that can be traced using a satellite system known as Global Positioning System. The tags should help Kenyan security officials monitor the movement of stolen livestock in northern Kenya.
The electronic chip is inserted through the animal’s mouth and contains details such as the name of the animal’s owner, district of origin, and the animal’s breed and country of birth.
The chip is also expected to help Kenya create disease-free animal zones as it can be used to trace where animals originated and identify their owners when diseases are discovered in carcasses at slaughter houses.
According to the most recent census, Kenya has 12 million cattle and 18 million goats with 60 percent of the livestock found in arid and semi-arid regions of northern Kenya.
To help carry out the electronic tagging program and create other improvements in the region’s livestock sector, the government already has employed an additional 100 veterinary officers and supplied 180 vehicles, Kenya’s livestock minister said.
Government support for the electronic tagging effort follows an earlier successful tagging project initiated by Terra Nuova, an Italian sustainable development NGO, in 2007 in the Wajir area that borders Somalia.
The prolonged drought and rustling upsurge has not spared pastoralists moving with livestock across the border into Somalia and Ethiopia in search of water and pasture. Many rustling attacks have been reported in border areas.
Ali Jirma, a livestock herder, said that armed men recently attacked him and other herders at the Kenya/Ethiopia border area of Dukana and made away with 80 cattle belonging to various ethnic Gabra families, who had been moving into Ethiopia in search of water and pasture.
“We were attacked by armed men believed to be (ethnic) Shangila. … We have now moved back to our village empty handed and we are facing starvation,” he said.
Garad, of the Wagalla Centre, said he feared cross-border cattle rustling could in turn spark an escalating series of bloody cross-border revenge raids, with each side acquiring arms.
Abjata Khalif is a freelance journalist, based in Wajir, Kenya, with an interest in climate change issues.This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.