A Tower of Giraffes

One of the magical things about this place is how many animals appear when it greens up like this. It’s as if they’ve been in hiding (where?) during the whole drought and have suddenly come out. On a regular basis we’re seeing big groups of zebras and elephants (one just trumpeted as I was writing this). The other day we drove through a huge mixed herd of impalas, waterbuck and giraffes.

Yesterday, as we were driving home, we came across a group of about 50 giraffes browsing on this hillside. See how many you can count in these two photos (and there were more!). Amazing, to see so many long necks peeking out among the acacias…

I think it’s funny and fitting that a group of giraffes is called a "tower." This certainly was a big heap of long creatures.

Respite from drought

Happy new year! 2010 has started well so far in Laikipia. We can’t yet say that the drought, which has now stretched on for more than a year, is fully over — but there has been a bit of respite, at least. It has been raining every day since just before Christmas. The grass is green and growing, and the rivers are roaring now. Take the case of  the little Nanyuki River that flows by our house: in April it was reduced to a few, tiny, slimy pools of water. Now it is full, the water fast and white as it rushes past:

We hope this rainy spell provides a bit of relief to all the hungry wildlife, livestock, and people.

Meantime in Kenya

Meantime back home in Laikipia, the drought that has been going on for nearly a year has finally broken – somewhat.

Up until the middle of October it had still hardly rained at all – just a few scattered showers. The humanitarian crisis and extreme livestock death rates have been in the international news quite a bit, lately. Back in Laikipia, we started to notice that wildlife, too, were dying. Many animals were rib-skinny, with new carcasses showing up daily. Usually in a drought like this, big animals like buffalo and eland are some of the hardest hit. Our friend Heather Larkin found this skinny eland along the (dry) Ewaso Nyiro River.

Plains zebras are pretty tough. How have the Grevy’s been faring? We didn’t hear any reports of Grevy’s dying from drought directly, but there have been some lion kills, and it’s quite possible that Grevy’s become more susceptible to predation when they are weak from a drought like this.

The first rains bathed Laikipia in mid-October, bringing relief, hope, flying termites, and a few shoots of green grass. Since then it has been raining sporadically, perhaps less than hoped for but a start, nonetheless. With at least a month still to go in the rainy season, we can hope that more rain will bring green grass and health back to the region.

Ethiopia Trip Conclusion

Sorry, dear readers, we’ve been a bit remiss in keeping up the blog lately. Getting back on track now.

We left you in the middle of Ethiopia, which was a bit unfair, we admit. So to conclude our trip…

After two fascinating days in the area around Yabello, we stopped for one more meeting (with a group called SOS Sahel that is doing some great participatory mapping work) and headed out. Our hosts at CARE had suggested that we go back to Addis via a different route. Our drive took us west of Yabello and into the land of the Konso agro-pastoralist people.

 The Konso live by actively conserving their meager soil and rain water. The steep hillslopes of their land are intricately terraced with stone walls to retain soil and prevent runoff. They plant a number of grains in these terraces, mixed with a particular tree, the leaves of which (we were told) they eat like cabbage.

We continued on to the town of Arba Minch, in the Rift Valley, where we took a peak into the Nechisar National Park. Nechisar means “white grass” but to get to the grasslands you have to drive through a steep, narrow piece of terrain between two lakes: Chamo (blue water, full of huge crocodiles) and Abaya (red ferrous water).

 The plains themselves were gorgeous, but sadly lacking much wildlife. Again, we were moved by the beauty of the landscape and thoughts of what it must have been like a hundred or two hundred years ago.

The rest of the return to Addis was mostly uninteresting roadways (with lots of the road under construction). In Addis we had several more meetings before we returned to Kenya.

The trip left us with a lot of impressions of a country so close and in many ways similar to Kenya, and in many ways so different. Less developed, but perhaps more relaxed than Kenya. A rich cultural landscape sadly lacking the wildlife we are lucky to have further south. A country proud never to have been truly colonized by Europeans, but with its own sad history of political upheaval.

All taken, however, we loved it, and we are excited to go back in December, when we will be running several workshops on monitoring rangeland health, giving something back, we hope, to all the people who gave so much of their time to us on this first trip.

Ethiopia Day 7

Sorry we have not posted in some time; we have been on vacation and haven’t been online much!

Getting back to our Ethiopia trip – we are nearly finished relating the important parts of the trip.

Day 7 saw us out the door of the Yabello Motel by 7:30. Back to the kindergarten restaurant for some breakfast ful, before we met Aliyu from CARE.

We then headed out to look at some of the sites where Aliyu and CARE have been working. As in Awash, the Borana community in the Yabello area are maintaining large fenced kalos – areas that are not grazed during the wet season and are kept as a dry season reserve for lactating cows, calves, and weak animals that can’t make the journey to the dry season grazing areas. Aliyu and CARE have been working with the community to do some restoration of these areas.

Since bush encroachment is one of the main problems here, Aliyu has been encouraging the families that keep each kalo to cut the undesirable trees (leaving some trees of the more desirable species). This is followed by a controlled burn to help kill the trees and freshen the grass. The result, from what we saw, is quite impressive. See how visibly different a kalo is from far away!

The land inside these kalos is covered in grass, with hardly a patch of bare soil visible.

Outside the kalos, there is a lot of bare ground and trails, as well as more trees.

Now the trick is to figure out how to expand this model to slowly restore more of the rangeland. (The restored areas are quite large – about 80 hectares – but a drop in the bucket on the scale of the whole rangeland).

Also as in Awash, the government is encouraging pastoralists in Borana to take up some agriculture. Already many of the valley bottoms – where the soil is most fertile – are being cultivated with maize and tef. The government is building a long pipeline to bring in ground water for irrigation. This scheme, though admirable in its intent to help people, seems even worse of an idea in Borana than in Awash. Ground water pumped in from far away to water fields in marginal agricultural land sounds like a recipe for environmental disaster – what happens if the soil gets poisoned by salts and becomes infertile?

After our tour of CARE’s work, we headed south along the main road to Moyale (the Kenyan border), passing through some areas heavily encroached by bush and other areas in better condition. We stopped at the small town of Dubluk to see one of the incredible traditions of this region: the so-called “singing wells.” These wells have been maintained by Borana pastoralists for centuries. They are dug into the ground in areas underlain by limestone. The two we saw were probably about 20 meters deep, but apparently there are some that are much deeper. Each well is accessed by a long ramp that ends in a mud-fashioned trough.

The trough is where the animals drink from. The herders fill the trough by hauling buckets up from the well. A human bucket chain brings the buckets up from the surface. Although we didn’t see this in action, we’re told that the men often sing while doing this to keep up their spirits.

The wells were a fascinating and awe-inspiring sight. It was quite special to see this centuries-old tradition in action, to contemplate how many millions of animals have drunk from these same wells, and the rich knowledge the Borana possess about the land in which they live.

From Dubluk we continued south, getting a chance to see still more of the landscape, until we came to a fascinating volcanic crater. This crater is about 400 m from rim to floor and has at its center a completely black soda lake.

Here, too, the Borana people have been toiling for centuries – in this case, hauling out salt. To get the salt, people have to dive into the lake and pull out the crystals or “salt mud.” The best quality salt is sold for human consumption, but much of it is used as a feed supplement for the livestock. Especially during the wet season, salt can be a critical addition to the animals’ diet. Apart from the interesting human side of this site, it was also quite a dramatic physical setting, with the sharp walls of the crater and the black lake at its core.

By the time we returned to Yabello it was long past lunch-time. We met with a few more people at CARE and a local government research center and then grabbed an early dinner. We were very happy to feast on shiro at our now-familiar kerosene-smelling restaurant.

Ethiopia Day 6: August 31st

Instead of patronizing the motel restaurant again, Tegegn suggested that we go into Yabello town for breakfast. We soon found ourselves at a restaurant that looked a lot like a kindergarten: we sat on miniature multi-colored plastic stools eating off miniature plastic tables in an outdoor area surrounded by colorful murals. Here, we discovered “ful” (a sort of bean stew served for breakfast) and “special ful” – ful served with a bit of fried egg and spiced cheese, along with a big fluffy roll. Full of ful, we headed to the CARE Borana office up the road.

We spent most of the rest of the morning talking to Aliyu, a rangeland expert who has been working with CARE and with the Borana for more than 15 years. From talking with Aliyu, we got the impression that the customary institutions and land management practices are more intact in Borana than in northern Kenya. For example, the elders’ leadership in making decisions about when to graze an area still seem to be respected. In Kenya, there seems to be more conflict and more fragmentation of the land into “group ranches” – probably because past (and current?) government policies deliberately undermined traditional management and leadership institutions.

Armed with lots of information and reading material, we agreed to meet Aliyu after lunch for a short field excursion. For lunch, we took Tegegn’s suggestion for another restaurant in town. At first we were a bit dubious. The place was not as nice looking as the kindergarten restaurant, and it smelled like kerosene. But the shiro was delicious – probably the best we had encountered so far. Tegegn ordered the shiro with chunks of garlic in it – a different twist. Good for preventing mosquitos in these lowland areas, he said. We also found that this place also served beyeinatu — a sort of variety platter of different lentil and vegetable dishes, arranged on a big round injera. It was also very tasty.

In the afternoon, Aliyu, took us to a government-owned ranch whose main mission is preserving the Boran cattle breed. Incidentally, this breed is prized by ranchers in Laikipia. The Boran cattle are handsome animals; the cows have sweet faces, while the bulls are impressive with their bulk and substantial fatty humps on their backs. We were interested to see that the purebred Borans on this ranch were all white – unlike the brown, gray, and mottled bunch outside. The ranch has a history of being lightly grazed and provided a nice contrast to the more heavily grazed conditions we saw outside the ranch.

Like most of the Borana region, however, much of the government ranch was heavily bushed – a big change from several decades ago. Why have areas that were once open grasslands turned into dense shrublands? There is no simple answer to this question. Most people in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia blame the government and other outsiders for banning fire. Traditionally, pastoralists in these areas deliberately set fires to keep back the bush, freshen the grass (the grass that resprouts after fire is highly nutritious) and to get rid of ticks and tsetse flies. Starting around the 70s, fire was banned or discouraged in these areas, preventing people from using this tool to keep small trees and shrubs from establishing.

But is fire the whole story? We think it’s one, but not the only, cause of woody encroachment. There are at least three other things that have also changed in the last few decades. For one thing, grazing pressure has increased, so there is less grass to compete with the trees. Another change is one we mentioned two posts ago: no more elephants (or rhino). Without these hugely destructive herbivores, trees also gain the upper hand. And what about climate change? There is some evidence that rising carbon dioxide levels favor trees over tropical grasses.

Regardless of the cause, though, the result stands: there are a lot of trees in most of these rangelands now, a lot more than people want, and undoing that change is a huge task (more on that tomorrow).

Ethiopia Day 5: August 30th

Tegegn picked us up at 6:30 and we were on our way for a long day on the road. Our destination was Yabello, in the south of the country – a good 600 plus kilometers from Awash. In the early morning light, we crossed back through the lava-crater landscape, climbing out of the hot lowlands and back up to the highlands towards Addis Ababa. Well before Addis, though, we turned south and back into the Rift Valley, passing a series of lakes on either side of the road. The landscape was heavily agricultural, with green fields of tef, beans, and maize.

From the lake region we climbed up into the highlands again. Here, instead of flat fields of tef, we found a rugged terrain with many fruit trees, coffee bushes, and false banana trees (the stems of the false banana, we learned, are a staple food in this area). This was the land of the Sidama people. As we passed by, young boys would come running out to sell us their various fruits. Tegegn bought some guavas, which we bit into with delight.

The houses in this area were also quite special. Some were large, round huts made of thick piles of false banana stalks and leaves. Others were square with a small veranda in front. These were adorned with geometrically patterned wooden doors and shutters, and sometimes the wood work and trim were painted in bright colors. It was, all in all, a very beautiful area. (Unfortunately, we could not get any photos as we were whizzing by on the well-paved road).

We were only about an hour from Yabello when the road finally started to descend. In a short time, we entered a much drier land, full of shrubs and grass and red, red earth. In the valleys, there were dry fields of maize and tef. This, then, was the land of the Borana people. It was somehow a familiar place – the landscape itself so much like northern Kenya – and so different at the same time with all these fields amid the grazing land. (The maize, by the way, was all dry – a failed crop, even though the rains did reach southern Ethiopia this year, unlike Kenya).

We checked into the Yabello Motel on a busy crossroads 200 km from the Kenyan border. The last hours of the day passed resting from the long drive before we ate some shiro and firfir at the motel. It was, as Tegegn called it, “watery shiro.” Overpriced, too, at 20 birr ($2).

A couple of responses

A couple of responses to comments before we get down to Day 5… Yes, it was exciting to get the perspective of women in a community meeting! What surprised us was that the women were relatively content with the changes in their lot over the last 30 years or so. We expected them to feel the pinch of less milk and meat, but although they did express a wish for more forage and milk, they were also quite happy that water is more available now than it was before. Between the government and aid organizations, wells and cisterns for drinking water are now much closer to settlement areas. And when you think about walking many kilometers every day with a 20 liter jug of water on your back – all the water your family will get for that day – you really do appreciate that life has probably improved for these women. The women were also happier with a slightly more settled life because it means their kids can go to school. So, the classic tradeoffs between a more mobile life (better for the livestock and rangeland) and a more settled life (better for health, education, etc.).

Anna, you asked about elephants, and we just wanted to add that elephants are virtually extinct in Ethiopia. While we were there, we happened to see a short TV clip about a group of elephants that still lives in the far east of the country, but through most of the country’s park and rangeland, there are none left. (More on the absence of wildlife later).

Sauwah, you asked why bush encroachment is happening – an important question, and we’ll talk about that a bit more in one of the next posts, since it is a huge issue in southern Ethiopia as well as northern Kenya (and many other semi-arid rangelands around the world).

Ethiopia Day 4: August 29th

Today we headed to the area west of the park (including, technically, part of the park), where the Karyu people live. The CARE staff had organized for us to meet with community members, and at 10 AM we met under a huge Acacia tortilis (umbrella thorn) tree. The community members were mostly old men, but unlike any community meeting we had attended in Kenya, this group included women. A cultural difference, a sign of progress in raising women’s voice, or just happenstance?

We soon learned from the community that the biggest issue they are facing is woody encroachment in their lowland grazing areas. Elders remember the area being very open, whereas now it is being taken over by bush. Accompanying this (or perhaps causing it) is a loss of perennial grasses and an increase in bare soil and erosion. The story was very similar to what we have heard all over Kenya, and it was good to see that the community members exhibited the same detailed knowledge of their land that we have found among communities in Kenya.

What was different here was the land management side of things. For a number of years, the Karyu have been keeping kalos – small plots of land that they enclose with brush. They leave these areas ungrazed throughout the growing season so the grass has a chance to grow and set seed (allowing new grass plants to establish). The main purpose of this practice is to create a dry season grazing reserve, particularly for the lactating cows that can’t migrate far from the village in search of water. But a second effect is to allow a small portion of land to rest and recover. Can this practice be scaled up to restore more of the landscape?

But it was even more interesting to learn that these pastoralists are becoming agro-pastoralists – a conversion the government is pushing. Huge irrigation canals are being built to bring water from the Awash river, and community members are being encouraged to plant maize in their kalos. Is this a good idea? We were a bit skeptical, but we also appreciated the plight of the Karyu, whose land has been taken for large sugar beet plantations, fruit farms, and the park.

After our meeting concluded, we drove around the Karyu grazing areas to see more of the landscape – noting the problems of bare ground, erosion, bush encroachment, and general degradation, except in the kalos. (As one community member said earlier, “Before the water was sinking into the land, not washing over it”).

By then it was after 1 PM, and we headed to the nearby town of Metahara where we had – you guessed it – shiro and Ambo – at a roadside café. After lunch we decided to explore the park a bit. Along our drive, we saw quite a few species of birds and mammals, some of which we had never seen before – hamadryas baboons, lesser kudu, defassa waterbuck, Salt’s dikdik, Sommering’s gazelle, Abyssinian roller, Abyssinain ground hornbill, carmine bee-eater, and more.

We also saw a lot of cattle (illegal in the park) accompanied by herders with guns. A beautiful landscape, to be sure, but one with a lot of management challenges if wildlife and people are going to live side by side in this region.

Ethiopia Days 2 & 3: August 27-28

We spent our first full day in Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, sorting out the logistics of the rest of the trip, meeting several people, and exploring the city a bit. Our official host for the trip is CARE Ethiopia, one of the key partners in the larger project (called Enhanced Livelihoods in the Mandera Triangle) that is funding our rangeland monitoring manual work.

In the evening, we met with Charles, the CARE Director of Pastoral Programs in Ethiopia. We decided to make it a dinner meeting and enjoyed yet more delicious food (a variety of lentil and vegetable dishes and injera) at a nearby restaurant. After a fruitful discussion with Charles, we sat back and enjoyed some traditional Ethiopian dancing (a lot of chest, shoulder, and neck pulsing to a strong beat – very nice!). Once again, we enjoyed the music and dance and the feeling of being somewhere totally new – very different from Kenya, disorienting and pleasing all at once.

The next morning, we were picked up from our hotel by Tegegn, the driver from CARE who has been tasked with taking us around for the next week. We headed eastward out of the city, passing through some of the highland areas around Addis. We were impressed by how green it was – field and fields of tef – the Ethiopian staple grain which grows in fields of lush grass. (Tef is the key ingredient of injera).

After passing the busy town of Nazaret, the road dropped steadily down into the Rift Valley. The temperature rose, and the road became completely dominated by large trucks carrying cargo containers. This, we learned, is the main road to Djibouti, where all Ethiopia’s cargo enters or exits at the port. (Incidentally, we were impressed by the quality of the road – much better than most roads in Kenya).

The landscape in this section of the Rift Valley was positively odd. There were large crater-like areas filled with chunks of black rock; it looked like a huge tractor had tilled them up. After some time, we passed by Lake Basaka, the northernmost of the Rift Valley lakes. Unlike any of the other lakes we’ve seen, though, the water in this lake was totally black. Not fit for drinking or irrigation, Tegegn told us!

By around 11:30 we reached the town of Awash. We were in time to speak with some of the CARE staff at their Awash office and get a brief orientation to the management issues in the region’s rangelands.

We then grabbed some lunch – our first dining experience in rural Ethiopia. I should mention that we are both vegetarians, and we had been warned by several people and our Lonely Planet guidebook that there is almost nothing for vegetarians to eat in rural Ethiopia. We brought a bunch of granola bars as emergency food and were prepared for the worst. So, we were quite pleasantly surprised when Tegegn ordered some tegabino shiro for us, and served on a plate of injera, this spiced lentil puree was quite tasty. We also discovered Ambo water – an Ethiopian mineral water that is advertised as “naturally carbonated” (something neither of us had ever heard of before).

Fortified with lunch, we set out with Alfanur, the CARE Awash field coordinator, to see some of the area. In our meeting before lunch, we had learned that there are two main ethnic groups in the area, the Afar and the Karyu. The Afar live in the areas east of the Awash National Park, while the Karyu live in the areas west of the park. We headed into the Afar land and quickly understood that the biggest management issue in these areas is invasion by Prosopis juliflora. Prosopis, or mesquite, is a hugely successful invader and problem shrub in many arid areas in the world, not just Ethiopia and Kenya. It forms extremely dense thickets of thornbush, with grasses rarely growing underneath.

After we visited some of the areas worst affected by Prosopis invasion, we drove further north up the Addis-Djibouti road, until we came to an area called the Alledeghi Plains. These vast plains are full of grass and wildlife – including, rumor has it, about 30 Grevy’s zebra. If this is true, this is the only extant Grevy’s population north of the very southernmost part of Ethiopia. Unfortunately, we did not see any Grevy’s; we were told they are quite hard to see unless you go there first thing in the morning.

What makes the Alledeghi Plains full of grass, in a landscape that is generally heavily grazed by livestock? Conflict. The Plains area is a buffer zone between rival ethnic groups, the Afar and the Issa (who are part of the Somali ethnic group). Can human conflict actually be good for wildlife? Sadly, it seems this might be the case – though obviously not in the long term.

Tired, we headed to our evening accommodation at the newly built Awash Falls Lodge in the Awash National Park. The “lodge” is really a series of huts right next to the impressive Awash Falls. The location was stunning, but some of the lodge’s amenities were still rough around the edges. Still, it was a beautiful location, and we quenched our thirst on Ambo water under the stars. We again ordered shiro and found another dish we could eat: firfir. Firfiris basically injera that has been broken into bits and tossed in a spicy, oily concoction called berbere.

Stuffed with firfir and shiro, we slept to the sound of the rushing falls.