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Kenya: how livestock can bring enemies together

06-06-2008 Feature

Piers Simpkin is ICRC's regional livestock specialist in Nairobi. He speaks to Iolanda Jaquemet of a strange camel killer, of how a cattle virus can bring sworn enemies to the same room, and of ways to help endangered pastoralists across Africa.

" It is a camel disease that kills the most productive animals: those females which give most milk, and the strongest males. They die of heart failure, but the cause is a mystery. It has already provoked lots of deaths, and it is something we need to keep an eye on. "

From his office at the ICRC delegation in Nairobi, Piers Simpkin, regional livestock specialist and expert in environmental science, does keep an eye on many things. The mysterious camel killer, which, over the past four years, has come all the way from the Afar region of Ethiopia to Somalia, northern Kenya, and perhaps Sudan, is but the latest.

“…livestock disease can actually help overcome differences” 

This is a serious issue: Somalia, already plagued by conflict, has the biggest population of camels worldwide. And in northern Kenya, camel milk is the staple diet for young pastoralist men, particularly during the dry season. " A camel lactates for eight to nine months, even longer if there is a drought, compared to four months only for a cow in this environment, " says Piers Simpkin.

 Pastoralists’ way of life increasingly under threat  

All over Africa, the pastoralists'way of life is increasingly under threat, with governments feeling challenged by their disregard for national borders, whi le nomads are marginalized in the political decision-making. Conflicts between groups of pastoralists and agriculturalists over ever dwindling grazing lands and water sources are at the root of many bloody conflicts, including Darfur, Chad and Somalia. This is why, says Piers Simpkin, " ICRC is not looking only at emergencies, but at the bigger picture " .

  ©ICRC / V. Louis / SD-E-00524    
  Animal vaccination programme in Darfur.    

Apart from massive vaccination and treatment programmes (up to one million animals in Darfur in 2007), the livestock specialist and his colleagues strive to " create a very basic, but professional competence at village level " . The linchpin is the animal health worker, who is selected by the community, then receives a month of training from the ICRC – with a yearly refresher course – and a veterinary kit containing basic, but high quality drugs.

In places which are too far away from any vet, this can make the difference between the life and death of animals – and, consequently, all the difference in the livelihoods of their owners. Over 200 animal health workers have been trained in Darfur, 150 in Chad, with more in Afar (Ethiopia and Somalia) and northern Kenya. The health workers are also taught basic business skills: they should sell the drugs to the community with a small profit, so that the stock can be replenished, ensuring the project is sustainable. But again, the major problem is finding a sustainable drug resupply.

 ‘Vet vouchers’ for vulnerable families  

This is why, in northern Kenya, the ICRC distributes ‘vet vouchers’ to conflict-affected vulnerable families, like female-headed households, whose small herds (less than 50 goats) are insufficient to make a living. " These people get free parasite control for their herds during the dry season, when the animals are under a lot of stress from ticks and worms. This increases the survival chances of the animals by 20 per cent,” explains Piers Simpkin.

In 2008, 1,500 Kenyan families will benefit from this programme, which is carried out by the community animal health workers. The latter are linked to the private sector, and this in turn ensures the sustainability of the project.

Other interventions include rehabilitation of existing water points and of drinking places for animals, particularly in drought-stricken places like Somalia. Water trucking in times of emergency is reserve d for people, but, as Piers Simpkin well knows, " people always share with their animals. "

 Livestock marketing  

Apart from animal health and nutrition issues, a third area of intervention for the ICRC is livestock marketing. Again in Somalia, the 2006 drought made the price of animals drop to one-third – and even at that price there were no buyers. At the same time, the price of cereals went up, meaning that terms of trade for livestock breeders deteriorated dramatically.

" The ICRC bought 30,000 goats and sheep, at a price a little above market value, and distributed the meat to the destitute via the Somali Red Crescent, " recalls Piers Simpkin. A ‘destocking’ operation, which assisted the poor while supporting the local market.

These days, the mysterious camel killer is not the only concern for livestock specialists in Africa. There is also the PPR (from the French " peste des petits ruminants " ), a virus attacking goats endemic to southern Sudan which, through trade and herd-stealing, is now threatening the wider Horn of Africa.

" This virus can kill 80 per cent of your herd. To keep it in check, you need a regional, trans-boundary approach. A country-based policy is simply not enough, " says the ICRC expert.

There are interesting precedents. Rinderpest, a cattle disease, was eradicated in Africa and elsewhere through cross-border cooperation. Paradoxically, if livestock does spur conflict, says Piers Simpkin, " livestock disease can actually help overcome differences " .

He remembers how, in the 1990s, at the height of the conflict between northern and southern Sudan, representatives from both sides met to discuss ways of fighting the Rinderpest. It even works in Darfur, where two vets working for the government could recently access opposition-held areas, in order to have a look at the vaccination programme.

" Both pastoralists and agriculturalists in Darfur have livestock, " underlines Piers Simpkin. And both parties to the conflict have a vested interest in preventing animal disease from spreading, no matter what their political differences.