Chronic fatigue, weight loss and lingering sadness. Mohammed Elmouved does not need a doctor to diagnose his symptoms.
“It’s my animals,” said the livestock owner, at a dusty herders’ camp in R’Kiz, on the edge of the Mauritanian desert.
“They’ve barely had anything to eat or drink in days, so the weakest ones are dying… Whatever they feel, I feel.”
His emaciated goats wobble around a trough half-filled with water, while other smaller bleating competitors try to push to the front for a drink themselves.
With his goats, cows and camels, Elmouved is crossing stretches of arid land in southern Mauritania to reach Senegal, 40 km (25 miles) away on Africa’s west coast, where he plans to sell part of his herd to buy feed for his stronger animals.
“There are no trees, no pastures here but I think I will have more luck on the other side of the (Senegal) river,” said the herder, aged in his fifties and swathed in a long bright blue and gold robe.
For centuries, nomadic herders in Mauritania and across the Sahel, a vast dry region in northwestern Africa, have moved hundreds of miles every year to find pasture for their herds.
But worsening drought depleting traditional grazing areas, forcing pastoralists from Mauritania — a country already nearly three-quarters desert or semi-desert — to travel ever longer distances into neighbouring Mali and Senegal to find fodder and water.
This is causing conflict with farmers along the way — with herds damaging fields and cattle raiders stealing animals — and threatening an age-old way of life as rising poverty forces more herders to sell up and move to cities.
However an innovative project is under way to protect the livestock sector that accounts for 13 per cent of the nation’s economy and provides 75 per cent of the population with income, according to United Nations data.
A team of charities, researchers and local authorities are setting up pastoralist corridors to ensure herders can safely take livestock across national boundaries in Africa’s Sahel.
Key to the success of such corridors is persuading those living along the way that herders bring more benefits than threats.
“If a pastoralist does not move, he dies,” said El Hacen Ould Taleb, head of Groupement National des Associations Pastorales (GNAP), a Mauritanian charity working with pastoralists.
“His animals will become ill or die due to the lack of food and water, and he won’t be able to feed his family,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his office in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital.
But finding precious pasture is tricky when you “have no idea where to start” or when mayors do not allow you to pass through their villages, said Ould Taleb.
His organisation mapped strategic routes along Mauritania’s southern border with Senegal, based on the location of water points, grazing areas and markets where pastoralists can sell their animals and produce.
It then lobbied local authorities to secure the routes and give pastoralists and their herds the right to pass through.
The initiative, led by French charity Acting for Life, is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
“Pastoralism accounts for over 10 per cent of the country’s GDP,” said Kane Aliou Hamadi, a GNAP project coordinator who manages the BRACED programme in Mauritania.
“Helping pastoralists get what they need is not just the right thing to do, it’s smart.”
Herder Ahmed Haibala said knowing where to find resources is critical, having spent three months roaming Mauritania’s southern Gorgol region in search of water for his ailing goats and donkeys.
His 10-square-metre tent is as organised as it is busy, with metal teapots dangling from a black cauldron, bags of sugar and rice stacked up, straw mats rolled up in a corner.
“It’s so I can pack up and leave easily,” said Haibala, who has spent his life herding animals.
Every morning he sets off on a rented horse cart looking for boreholes and — when he is lucky — brings back several containers’ worth of water to the campsite
“My 70 animals are too weak to move so I can neither go home (to neighbouring Brakna region) or travel to Senegal. I am stuck here,” he said, chewing a bit of tobacco.
A few metres outside his tent lies the carcass of a calf, half buried in sand.
Livestock herding is an ancient activity in West Africa’s Sahel, but herders have become increasingly vulnerable as climate change disrupts rain patterns in the region.
Erratic rainfall threatens the pastoralists’ traditional months-long seasonal migration to Mali and Senegal — known as transhumance — and their main source of income, experts say.
“Transhumance allows pastoralists to hit three birds with one stone: find pastures and water, sell their animals at the market and buy produce they need like cereal crops and wood,” Ould Taleb said.
But droughts have become so long they have forced some pastoralists to abandon their way of life entirely, he said.
“Many (pastoralists) had to abandon or sell their animals this year and move to slums near Nouakchott, taking up day jobs like road(side) sellers,” said the head of the pastoralist association.
Giving up the herd is the worst thing that can happen to a pastoralist, Hamadi said. Livestock is so important for herders that community life revolves around the animals.
“Weddings, for example, will only happen in the rainy season, when animals are healthy and well fed,” he explained.
“If the weather continues like this, pastoralism could disappear.”
— Thomson Reuters Foundation