Lolldaiga Hills Logo

Research on the impact of livestock production on natural resources in eastern Laikipia

Michael Herger, Master degree student in Geography, University of Bern, Switzerland

It is early morning on 8 December 2016 and my driver, Dennis, and I are leaving Nanyuki and heading to the field. It’s a perfectly clear morning. We are lucky to catch a glimpse of majestic Mount Kenya, a rather rare happening during the short rains.  

Gazing at Mount Kenya, I ponder my previous 2 months in Kenya. Starting with my first lecture at the University of Bern, Switzer­land, I learned of the Laikipia Plateau, Nanyuki, Mount Kenya, and of the region’s land-uses, water catchment and run-off systems, and environmental problems related to unsustainable land-use. The Institute of Geography at the University of Bern has a long history of research in Laikipia County. Today, Laikipia remains one of the Institute’s focal research sites. So, after more than 4 years of studies, I am finally here conduct­ing research for my master’s thesis. 

View of Mount Kenya on our way to Lolldaiga Hills Ranch.

View of Mount Kenya on our way to Lolldaiga Hills Ranch.

My study (Environmental Impacts of Two Red Meat Livestock Production Systems on Natural Resources in the Mount Kenya Region) is part of an over-arching research project on the sustainabil­ity of food production systems in South America and Africa (implemented by scientists in Kenya, Switzerland and Bo­livia). Specifically, I am looking at livestock production and its impacts on natu­ral resources in eastern Laikipia.

Over two-thirds of the arid and semi-arid land of Laikipia County is either under pastoralist grazing and browsing on group ranches and ‘abandoned lands’, or under large-scale ranching. Livestock production is, therefore, of great importance for Laikipia’s economy and people, and has the potential to significantly impact the con­dition of the natural resource base (e.g., soil, water, vegetation, biodiversity). It is important to note that, in addition to livestock production, much management of the large-scale ranches is related to wildlife, biodiversity, and watershed conservation, to the promotion of tourism, and to assisting neighbouring communities.

Cattle grazing on Lolldaiga Hills Ranch at the end of the short dry season.

Cattle grazing on Lolldaiga Hills Ranch at the end of the short dry season.

I am interested in the environmental impacts and sustainability of livestock management systems. My study compares Laikipia’s two largest livestock production systems; group ranches and private ranches/conservancies. During my 6 months of field study, I want to: (1) find out how these two livestock production systems are man­aged; (2) construct the value chain of red meat production; and (3) assess the condition of the range­lands.

This morning, I am on my way to Lolldaiga Hills Ranch to collect my second set of samples at that beautiful, biologically rich, site. My research affords me game drives while in the field. This morning we see zebras, giraffes, and several species of antelope. I stop the vehicle to take photographs and observe wild animals—but  my driver, Dennis, laughing, reminds me that we are not here as tourists and should proceed.

My team consists of Dennis (driver for CETRAD, the local institution to which I am affiliated), Julius (Research Technician) and Lemputui (Ranger) at Lolldaiga Hills Ranch, and Nicholas (botanist from Makurian Group Ranch). Today, we are repeating transects conducted in early November (end of the long dry season). Lolldaiga Hills Ranch is one of two private ranches on which I am collecting data for comparison with neighbouring Makurian Group Ranch. Today’s rangeland health assessment is after the short rains. The landscape has changed from dry and brown to moist and green. Water is clearly the limiting resource here.

Left to right, Julius, Dennis, Nicholas, and Lemputui.

Left to right, Julius, Dennis, Nicholas, and Lemputui.

We arrive in the flat area near the North Gate for the first transect. For each site, three 100 m transects have been selected, each with different geo­morphological features (flat, slope, and depression) in order to take the various ecological con­ditions of the landscape into account. Later, using GIS, I will extrapolate the results to the larger area that exists under similar ecological conditions. Every 10 m along the transections, data are collected on vegeta­tion, soil, and erosion features. Other data obtained include grazing intensity, distance to water, common animal and plant species, and tree, shrub, and grass cover. Nicholas and Julius help me identify the plants. We collect soil samples in order to later assess organic content.

Equipment for collecting data on vegetation and soil.

Equipment for collecting data on vegetation and soil.

Nicholas (left) and Julius collecting soil samples.

Nicholas (left) and Julius collecting soil samples.

Below: Nicholas and me assessing top soil properties.

Nicholas and me assessing top soil properties.

The rangeland at this site has recovered well after the November rains. In contrast, large areas of Laikipia are now so severely degraded that quick recovery of the vegetation is no longer possible. Those areas show large, ever-increasing, amounts of bare ground, soil erosion, and bush.

Negative impacts of livestock grazing and browsing on natural resources manifest themselves initially in changes in vegetation dynamics. These include a decrease in desirable food plants, basal and foliage cover, and primary productivity, and an increase in soil crust­ing and other soil erosion features.

Transect Number 1 on Lolldaiga Hills Ranch early November after the long dry season.

Transect Number 1 on Lolldaiga Hills Ranch early November after the long dry season.

Transect Number 1 on Lolldaiga Hills Ranch early December after the short rains.

Transect Number 1 on Lolldaiga Hills Ranch early December after the short rains.

Laikipia’s rangelands represent a complex, poorly understood, ecological system that is influenced by past and current social, economic, and environmental dynamics—and by livestock management systems. I hope that the insights gained through my research will assist in the better management and sustainable use of these vital rangelands. 


Diplolophium africanum: A common but little-known plant on Lolldaiga Hills Ranch, Kenya

By Tom Butynski, Yvonne de Jong, Mike Roberts, and Julius Mathiu
Lolldaiga Hills Research Programme

One of the most widespread, common, distinctive, and little-known plants on Lolldaiga Hills Ranch, central Kenya, is Diplolophium africanum, a member of the Carrot Family (Apiaceae = Umbelliforae).