Camel industry booms in Kenya

Thilo Thielke & Juergen Baetz  –

Peter Ekua does find it rather strange that he now has to look after a herd of bleating camels.
But thanks to climate change, the land here in northern Kenya has become bone dry, and the cattle herds which were once a source of pride and wealth in the region can no longer be sustained.
Camels, however, can survive and thrive on prickly acacia, which is often all that’s left to graze on.
Ekua, 32, carries a G3 assault rifle to protect himself and his herd of 18 animals, because violence is commonplace in the region.
Weapons are everywhere – they come from neighbouring conflict-ridden countries such as South Sudan and Somalia.
Kenya’s cattle breeders have been fighting bitterly for generations, but in times of drought, such as the country is currently experiencing, the situation tends to escalate.
Attacks by armed cattle raiders have become increasingly common in Isiolo, 200 kilometres north of the capital Nairobi. Only in April, there was a fierce gun battle in which 100 cattle were stolen and ten people killed.
This conflict goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, unless it affects the mostly white farmers who, for example, run luxury tourist camps in nearby Laikipia.
Many of the properties owned by Ekua’s Samburu tribe or the Pokot and Massai tribes have been burnt to the ground. But in March, the killing of former tour guide and British army veteran Tristan Voorspuy in a hail of bullets made headlines around the world.
More publicity came at the end of April when the famous conservationist and writer Kuki Gallmann – whose autobiography “I Dreamed of Africa” was filmed in 2000 with Kim Basinger in the lead role – was shot by raiders at her property.
“But who would steal a camel,” wonders Ekua. “The fighters from the neighbouring tribe laugh at us when they see us.”
As climate change has made water and meadowland scarce in East Africa, many local tribes who have traditionally raised cattle and goats are changing their customs. Those who breed camels have less to worry about, because camels hardly need any water.
Climate change is having a varied effect on the region, but experts are unanimous in their belief that already dry areas and semi-arid land will become even drier, making life harder for man and beast.
“Because of rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall there will likely be an enormous deterioration in farming conditions,” says Swiss ecologist Andreas Fischlin.
That’s why the organization Veterinarians Without Borders (VSF) has spent the past six years encouraging farmers in Kenya to switch to camel breeding.
“People have recognized the camel’s uses,” says Davis Ikiror, who coordinates VSF’s camel programme from Nairobi. “More and more tribes are making the switch. We could be on the verge of a breakthrough.”
Figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) bear him out. While there were around 700,000 camels in Kenya in 2000, in 2014 that number had climbed to more than 2.9 million.
It’s now over 3 million.
Because of the country’s ongoing drought, 2.6 million Kenyans out of a population of 45 million are forced to rely on food handouts, according to UN figures.
In northern Kenya, hundreds of thousands of people don’t have access to clean drinking water, and every fifth child in Isiolo suffers from malnutrition.
But camel milk is particularly nourishing – it contains significantly more vitamin C than cow’s milk and less sugar. Ikiror calls it “a real magic potion.” Even in Nairobi’s cafes, people are starting to drink “camelchinos.”
“During the last drought, countless cow died in Kenya, but the camels survived and always gave milk,” says Ikiror.
British camel expert Piers Simpkin, who previously worked for the FAO and now has his own herd of camels, agrees. “Whereas up to 80 per cent of cattle herds can die in a severe drought, only ten to 16 per cent of camels will die,” he says.
In Isiolo, Muktar Ibrahim, a 41-year-old Kenyan-Somali, is responsible for persuading people to switch from cattle to camels.
He grew up with the animals, as Somalis are some of the only people in the region who have traditionally kept camels. Together with VSF, he has given hundreds of camels to local tribes over the past years.
The milk is taken to Nairobi and mostly sold to Somalis, though some is made into local yoghurt.
“At the beginning people were sceptical,” says Ibrahim. “Cows are sacred to them and they still pay for their wives with cows when they marry. But they have begun to accept the animals.”
Anab Kassim certainly has. The 37-year-old Samburu mother of six and her family have four camels. “They give three litres a day,” she says. “Even in the worst drought.”
A milk cow with calf costs around 20,000 shillings (190 dollars) but a camel costs almost three times as much.
It’s still worth it, though.
Every morning, Kassim sets off to the milk cooperative in the centre of Isiolo with her buckets. Camels give less milk than cows, but it’s worth more. She makes around 100 shillings per litre of camel milk.
“That’s almost twice as much as for a litre of cow’s milk,” she says. “And the cattle raiders leave us in peace now.” — dpa