Pastoralists vs conservationists in the highlands of Kenya

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This conservation resource was created by Charles Esplana. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

The highlands of Kenya are currently the location of a widely talked about controversial issue between two groups of individuals, Pastoralists and Conservationists. Pastoralism is a term to describe the agricultural practice in which individuals use to farm and raise livestock. [1] It is a practice that involves a lot of movement in result of the search for fresh resources and its success will tend to be highly dependent on the locations current climate. On the other hand, conservation is a fairly popular term that is referenced when talking about preserving a resource or protection of an ecosystem(and the living organisms within it).[2]) The highlands of Kenya are popularized by pastoralist as an area for agriculture and herding. However, more recently around early 2017, a drought hit the highlands Kenya and many pastoralists are now being forced to flee in order to find fresh water for their animals. In lieu of this unprecedented exile from traditional lands, pastoralists and many herders have violently swept through several conservation areas.[3] While conservationists are in outrage by the actions of pastoralists, many individuals see this as an inevitable act that was bound to take place. Earlier in the year many pastoralists in Kenya saw an unjust ruling by the government and lost access to traditional lands, in turn, these lands were handed over to the conservationists mainly controlled by politicians who are utilizing said land to profit and benefit for the countries GDP[4]. Conservationists however, view this not as a negative, instead, as a way to preserve and to profit. The issue between the groups are a multidimensional conflict primarily centred around politics, with several possible negative consequences. If no action is taken, violence between pastoralist communities, and conservationists will only increase. This will result in several deaths not only through civil war, but as well civilian deaths in smaller communities who are reliant upon the resources that pastoralists can provide i.e; water and food. Ultimately, no winner will arise, rather, Kenya as whole will see loss.

This is a Samburu warrior- one of Kenya's marginalized communities. The Samburu is a pastoralist community and have the richest culture. By Kuraruelijah via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

The Kenyan Government's Involvement

While pastoralists show a resentment towards conservationists, driven by wealthy foreign settlers, the newly elected government of Kenya has shown to make decisions influenced by economic benefits. That being said, the government of Kenya possesses a more "conservationist" point of view in the sense that pastoralism isn't a profitable market, while conservation efforts can generate revenue via multiple streams such as tourism attractions, and construction of conservancies[5]. In a way, the government is slightly involved and run the decisions made by the conservation groups. By steering away pastoralists from their ancestral lands, and utilizing them to benefit profitably, its a clear indication through their actions that followed these decisions that a poorly made decision for the allocation of funds have been made. Rather than aid individuals in need, some politicians have been seen to benefit from the revenue themselves[6]. Furthermore, the government has contributed to the growing number of casualties and reeking the benefits of the countries drought by utilizing raids to steer certain individuals votes in exchange for fresh pasture and fresh water.[3]

Negatively Affected

Pastoralist Communities

The pastoralist community is going to be one of the groups that negatively get affected the most. Already, several pastoralist have lost access to traditional herding lands, were pushed towards poorer conditions for pasture and resources, and have been portrayed by the media as a violent group of individuals forcefully going through private conservation lands.[4] In result of their conflict with the conservation groups, pastoralists are currently struggling to continue to find better land that they can rightfully use for agriculture. Aside from all the violent acts that have undergone, many pastoralists and individuals who rely upon them are witnessing severe losses that livestock can provide in result of the drought happening in Kenya. Furthermore according to a study conducted by XXX it was reported that in addition to human casualty over 5billion dollars worth of livestock have been stolen across Kenya over the duration of a decade in the mid 90's to early 2000's.[5] Without rightful access to fresher and better lands during these times of conflict, pastoralists and individuals alike will only continue to struggle.


During these times of conflict between two strong willed groups in Conservationists and Pastoralists, it's evident that business will start witnessing drops in revenue. Multiple reports have come out claiming pastoralists have swept through several areas of conservation in the highlands of Kenya[7]. With conservation lands being one of the most highly touted areas for tourism due to the animals and land present, and claims of violence and deaths resulting between the two groups, individuals and tourists alike will be very hard pressed to make a trip to Kenya anytime soon. Ultimately, due to the negative impact and portrayal this conflict will have on the country, after a drop in tourism takes place

you can expect a drop in GDP as well. Essentially, the politically involved conservationists will experience not only a negative impact in their countries GDP/revenue, but as well as fear of more pastoralists taking a stand of activism and trying to grab land back. Similarly to how pastoralist communities will negatively be affected, individuals involved within conservation movements in Kenya will also be at risk for potential casualties resulting between the two groups.

Maasai Mara locals selling hand crafted ornament to tourists visiting Maasai Mara National Park. By Franklin Amulyoto via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

Positively Affected


Although conservationists are negatively involved in this conflict between themselves and pastoralists, there are some positive upsides. While all these unprecedented acts of violence is happening on lands for conservation, conservationists are viewed as the victims. While the government has heavily favoured conservationists by providing them with pristine and premier lands in the highlands of Kenya, little people know this without the fact that by doing so pastoralists have been barred from utilizing these said lands, which were traditionally theirs.[8] Being victims of violent crimes have led media outlets to project negative views on pastoralists and have shed a positive light towards the conservation community in Kenya, who are primarily run by profit hungry leaders. Furthermore, conservationists in Kenya are in a prime position not only to aid in the preservation of certain species, but also to generate more revenue. By dismissing the pastoralists of their land, whether they are involved in this conflict or not, one thing is certain... Conservationists presently have possession of the land and therefore have autonomy over the pastoralists.


Pastoralists in Kenya are in a tough situation due to the duties required by their jobs. Pastoralists are individuals that are nomadic in the sense that they are constantly on the move in search for better land that will provide the freshest water and the purest pasture. Unfortunately, Kenya is a country that is scarce not only in said resources, but in employment as well. In lieu of this conflict between pastoralists and conservationists, because conservationists currently have autonomy over lands and multiple locations for conservancies around the country, individuals have found multiple opportunities for employment within the industry.[9] Examples of jobs within conservancies include security, consulting and managerial positions.

Drought In Kenya

In late 2016 the country of Kenya witnessed a drought that was so severe the local government had to declare it an emergency[6]. A drought is defined as a period in which there is a shortage of water due to an abnormally low amount of rain[6]. In result of the drought in Kenya it was reported that approximately 200 thousand children were unable to attend school, and while cost for relevant resources have skyrocketed, about 2 million people are in need of water. This drought is an inevitable catastrophe if no solutions or plan for action can be implemented. In the case of pastoralists, they too are not only suffering from the drought but all the cattle are as well, forcing them out of lands[7] and in search of better pasture. However, due to current implementations by the government in early 2017.[8], pastoralists have been disallowed to enter and utilize certain lands that may contain fresh pasture and water during these difficult times. The lack of rainfall alone has contributed to several consequences, however, the lack of pasture and available water for pastoralists have resulted in several cases of malnutrition and dying animals [6]. Pastoralists are vulnerable now more than ever due to the drought coupled by the land grab by conservationists, and ultimately, are forcing a community who thrives on their livestock to enter a state of fight-or-flight.

Reported Violence

An ongoing and major issue regarding the current conflict between pastoralists and conservationists is the increasing number of deaths and casualties due to violence. Kenya is a country that isn't well known for its wealth or its riches, rather, for the amount of geological wonders and animals within it. For citizens in Kenya, cattle was seen as luxury and in result have been the primary cursor for theft and violence. Without the controversy, pastoralists and herders always were on alert for people who might come and attack them for said cattle. However, more recently with the ongoing tension between pastoralists and conservationists there have been incidents where pastoralists have gone to conservancies unrightfully and in turn, have resulted in multiple casualties between the two groups.[10]While tension continues between the two groups and while raids continue to happen the violence will always be present on either side. In addition, violence ranges not only from adults and elders, however is prominent in the adolescence teens. A featured article in 2016 reported a 16 year old in Kenya leaving his village early in the morning with several cattle armed with an AK-47.[10]. Reports of the event happened to inform readers that the teen was used to the situation and would never leave his village unarmed..[10] The fear of being attacked by raiders and thieves always worried the people. That way of thinking is still present in some villages, however, for conservationists, you'll always find security guards armed with weapons at conservancies.

Land Control

The conflict between pastoralists and conservationists is multidimensional and has even carried over to violent actions. History has shown that when british settlers first entered the sacred land of Laikipia in Kenya, they pushed away the citizens and people of Maasai, a community of local pastoralists, and they always promised to allow the elders of the town to utilize and hold the land.[11] Until the early 90's, when the British fully pushed the people away and took full ownership of the land. Even to this day, now with conservationists being primarily white settlers, the people of Kenya hold resentment towards them and past history. Again with the result of the election in Kenya, and now with land being provided to conservationists for the intent to "preserve" and generate revenue, the people, specifically pastoralists, are re-living history in this generations version of the land grab. Many reporters and articles have been made in direct response to this event with one article stating "They also argue that these conservancies prioritise wildlife welfare over the welfare of humans and livestock."[4] They being the conservationists, and the pastoralists claiming conservationists view the term "conservation" as an opportunity for foreigners with connections and heavy pockets to land grab even further.

Amidst the conflict between pastoralists and conservationists, there still remains the potential for coexistence that would yield benefits to both groups. Livestock is of central economic and livelihood importance in Maasai, northern Kenya/southern Ethiopia pastoral rangelands, and is a pathway out of poverty, yet national economy and local livelihoods remains un-acknowledged by most government policies due to conservation interventions. Wildlife enterprises generate vast revenues, yet generally contribute poorly to local livelihoods. The persistence of poverty, displacement, and eviction experienced by local pastoralists, can begin to be addressed by fostering policy and practices that further explore common interests between pastoralism and wildlife preservation [12]. There is the shared interest of maintaining open rangelands for migratory use of grazing and water resources, which supports biodiversity gains. Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania are increasingly leasing vast areas of rangelands to foreign entrepreneurs for the large-scale cultivation of biofuels and food crops for export [12]. Allowing policies which erode open rangeland and mobility leads to inevitable losses to livestock production and to wildlife, which is critical to biodiversity, tourism, and poverty alleviation [12]. Furthermore, policies must do more to address the unequitable distribution of wildlife returns across the broader landscape of non-landowning pastoral households. There are clear opportunities to bridge the gap between pastoralist and conservationist point of views, and the struggles experienced by the people involved, by pursuing new initiatives of shared distribution of land and wildlife profits.

An effort that could be used towards uniting and solving these issues between pastoralists and conservationists is "Collaborative Management". The issues currently residing in the highlands of Kenya are due to conflicts regarding two opposing groups wanting different things. In result, the chaos and ongoing struggle of many civilians to stay nourished or even simply put, to stay alive is becoming ever so difficult. Breaking it down, pastoralists want possession or at least access to their native lands in order to better produce using their cattle/livestock. On the other hand, conservationists want to keep their autonomy of the lands and preserve as much of its beauty as possible while generating revenue in hopes to spring the countries GDP and decrease the unemployment rate. By collaborating together, both side can find a happy medium all while still getting what each side wants.[13] By providing the pastoralists access to the lands during dry seasons, conservationists may witness a period without revenue during that time however, the civilian casualties that resulted from the two sides conflict will no be lessened.

Marine Protected Areas

Marine Protected Areas are an example of an effective collaborative management. Marine Protected Areas or MPA's are known to be the most sustainable method because the conservationists collaborate with the local fishers who are most familiar with the spawning area. In return, fishers are granted periods of the year(seasons) in which they are able to go fishing and capture fish with set limitations. Similarly, if Kenya is able to implement a collaborative measure such as an MPA, where pastoralists can provide useful info regarding certain lands, then a plan to find a solution for the ongoing conflict can be set in place.

Ultimately, there is an evident and historical tension between pastoralists and conservationists. The issue goes far beyond simple autonomy over land, or even political corruption. Instead the greater issue is the civilian casualties and how this controversy between two groups in a a united country is resulting in several cases of hunger, fear, and even, deaths. History has shown that pastoralists have been unrightfully negated and exiled from their traditional lands, and that coupled with the drought many individuals who are reliant upon the resources provided by livestock are suffering.[14] While pastoralists seek an opportunity for access in lands that are better suited for their livestock, and conservationists seek an opportunity to protect an ecosystem that is at risk, while generating revenue, governments must be held responsible for the damage that is currently taking place in Kenya. A simple integration of collaborative management can do wonders for a "united" country that is currently divided. By allowing pastoralists access of pristine lands during certain times of the year, the country as a whole can benefit immensely not only by the revenue generated by conservancies, but also benefit by witnessing a drop in the number of casualties caused by pastoralist and conservationist issues. Furthermore, implementation of a collaborative management plan also aids the communities who are least fortunate and rely upon livestock. By doing so, conservationists continue to generate revenue and protect species and land, while pastoralists regain access to an ancestral territory that can negate the consequences caused by a catastrophic drought.

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  7. 7.07.1 The Guardian. Retrieved on April 10, 2018. Retrieved from
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  9. The Collapsing Platform for Pastoralism: Land Sales and Land Loss in Kajiado County, Kenya. Retrieved on February 15, 2018. Retrieved from:
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  11. Expansion of human settlement in Kenya's Maasai Mara: what future for pastoralism and wildlife?. Retrieved on April 10, 2018. Retrieved from:doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2004.01062.x
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  13. Can conservation and development be coupled among pastoral people?. Retrieved on April 10, 2018. Retrieved from: 10.17730/humo.51.4.d20010q600v50240
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Post image:   By Franklin Amulyoto via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0