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On the domestic and the wild by Kevin Jablonski

On the domestic and the wild

by Kevin Jablonski

Large carnivores eat large herbivores. Humans also eat large herbivores. Beginning around 10,000 years ago, the long coevolutionary process of domestication enabled humans to largely shift away from hunting wild herbivores for sustenance. However, in domesticating cows, sheep, goats, and others to make it easier for us to access their meat, milk, and fiber we also reduced their capacity to defend themselves from predation. This means that, among other things, these animals need humans to protect them from being eaten by the large carnivores that also recognize them as an excellent food source.

photo credit: Stephanie Dolrenry

In many places humans have addressed this challenge by exterminating carnivores, especially the biggest and scariest of them–wolves, grizzlies, tigers, jaguars, lions. This has been the pathway in North America. In other places, though, herding has persisted as the means of protection and, in these places, one is much more likely to find large carnivores. The Amboseli ecosystem of southern Kenya is one such place. There, the Maasai people maintain a pastoralist culture, raising large numbers of livestock in the presence of hyenas, cheetahs, leopards, and lions.

Lion Guardians, my collaborative partner, has succeeded at lion conservation in the Amboseli ecosystem where others have failed because they recognize the importance of a vibrant pastoralist culture to lion conservation. When they noticed a steady increase in the number of lost livestock, which are strongly linked to lion-livestock conflict, it was thus no surprise that they sought to identify how improved pastoral practices could help. That was where I came in.

In the past year-and-a-half, John Merishi, Luke Maamai (both Maasai staff members of Lion Guardians), and I have talked to hundreds of people to better understand herding practices and how they might be changing as Maasai culture changes. In doing so, we have identified root causes of increased lost livestock and changing herding practices, as well as areas of the ecosystem where change is happening most rapidly. Additionally, we have developed a list of five herding best practices and five herder mentor best practices.

Discussing challenges and solutions with the Lion Guardians team
photo credit: Philip Briggs

We are now working on a plan to disseminate and discuss these best practices with local communities. In doing so, we know we will be largely reminding people of what they already know, but we also hope to help re-establish what might be called a “best-practice herding culture” wherein herders take pride in their task and the community assists them in growing into excellent stewards of their animals and the land. That this is important should not need saying but, as the Western world increasingly disparages land-based livelihoods, it becomes important to remind people that we cannot claim to support carnivore conservation if we do not support pastoralism.

I am excited to share the five best practice lists not because they will be useful to many here in the United States, but rather because they represent how science, properly and respectfully deployed, can help to distill complex traditional knowledge. As an outsider in so many ways, I do not expect these lists to be definitive. Instead, I hope that they are merely helpful, and contribute to our growing recognition of the capacity of place-based human cultures to thrive alongside wildlife, including the species that frighten, and awe, us.


Herder best practices

  • Value and know your herd (be an Abarani not a Mankalioni)
    • Know the matrilineal houses
    • Focus on markings/colors
    • Track breeding status and health
    • Know your leaders and laggards
    • Use bells on indicator animals
  • Have a morning routine
    • Awaken early
    • Examine the herd- are all present and healthy?
    • Update potential laggards
    • Discuss the daily route
  • Keep the herd close (physically and mentally)
    • Carry a stick and be active
    • Position strategically
      • Lead through dense brush
      • Push away from water from the back
      • Be at side/middle in open areas
      • Always stay in sight of herd
    • Keep herd as close together as pasture allows
    • Whistle all day
    • Shout in dense areas
    • Count/identify regularly, especially when arriving at pasture
    • Be predator aware
    • Report lost livestock immediately
  • Return early with full bellies
    • Count/identify carefully
    • Monitor laggards
  • Have an evening routine
    • Review the day- be honest
    • Report pasture conditions
    • Count the herd and observe health

Owners/mentor best practices

  • The right herder for the right herd
    • No more than 200 cows per good herder
      • Can add a younger herder who is being mentored
    • Strategic splitting/mixing of herds
    • Place bells on indicator animals
    • Give herders a phone
    • Paid herders rewarded with livestock for good performance
  • Mentorship
    • Start young to inspire passion for livestock
      • Teach the value livestock give to the family and community
    • Assign a mentor for each herder
    • Guide young herders through learning
      • Baby shoats-calves-shoats-cows
    • Train on bush skills
      • Predator awareness
    • Ensure all herders know the herd
      • Categories: houses, markings/color, herd position
    • Spend the time needed to make a good herder
  • Have a morning routine
    • Discuss and observe herd health
      • Hold back sick animals and those very close to giving birth
    • Discuss the grazing route
      • Trust the herder- a two-way communication
    • Walk out with herder, observe the herd while walking
  • Have an evening routine
    • Meet herders as they come in, walk in with herd
    • Count/identify livestock
    • Check for full bellies
    • Review the day, discuss pasture condition
  • Respect grazing committees/restricted areas
    • Follow rules
    • Report violations
    • Provide input