meIn single file, women wrapped in colorful Samburu cloth out of a small greenhouse. They carry buckets filled with the only weapon left to them in their fight against an enemy that threatens their very way of life.
They head to a field that, despite its attractive appearance, harbors the invasive tight prickly peara prickly pear cactus that is taking over large tracts of northern Kenya’s grasslands, inhibiting grass growth in a landscape with little rainfall.
Here in Laikipia County, some studies indicate that the cactus has taken over 50-75% of communal grazing fields. It is listed among the 100 worst invasive alien species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
For the largely pastoralist community living within the Naibunga Community Conservancy, the thorny plant is a deadly enemy. It lacerates the mouth of cattle and causes blindness, as its fine spines, or glochids, lodge in the animals’ eyes. The indigestible seeds also clog the intestines of animals and, unable to feed, they become emaciated and die.
“This is our only hope,” says Florence Liosoi, a mother of five from the nearby Il Pollei group ranch as she dips her hand into a bucket of cochineal (Dactylopius opuntiae), a beetle raised in greenhouses here and released to suck the sap from the cactus and kill it.
beetles only eat tight prickly pear and do not harm other forms of vegetation. The insect was imported from South Africa, where it was used to control the spread of the plant in Kruger National Park. In Laikipia, the beetle was quarantined and tests were carried out at the nearby Ol Jogi wildlife conservancy before it was released to the wider areas where the cactus engulfed it.
Liosoi is one of 20 women who collect mealybug-infested plants from the greenhouse and place them alongside uninfected cacti in the fields. They then return to the greenhouse with fresh cacti to cover with cochineal. It is a delicate process that leaves women with itchy hands and legs.
Jacqueline Nalenoi, director of the Northern Grassland Trust, an organization that helps people combat the spread of the plant, says involving women in controlling the plant is crucial as they suffer the most when fragile economies collapse due to land degradation. . She says: “When livestock die, it is the women who lack the daily necessities of life, such as food and adequate shelter. When the children become constipated from eating the fruits of the nopal, it is the women who take care of them. Even when there was little money to combat the invasive plant in the midst of covid-19, it was the women who volunteered to grow cochineal in the greenhouses and take it to the fields.”
Local people say that the cactus was introduced here as an ornamental hedge plant by a British colonial administrator who served in nearby Dol Dol in the 1950s. Unlike the indigenous plants, the cactus has no local name, so that people just call it imatundai, or fruit plant in the Samburu language. “It’s nutritious,” says Nalenoi. “People ate the fruits during the drought, but nobody knew how dangerous it would be for the ecosystem. It is also beautiful and makes for a good potted plant. Now it threatens the existence of an entire community.”
Ironically, the successful elephant conservation program in Laikipia has contributed to the rapid spread of the invader. After feeding on the succulent plant with no observable ill effects, the elephants help spread the seeds through their dung to remote regions. “A single elephant can scatter at least 2,000 seeds a day,” says Nalenoi. “In addition, the small pieces of the cactus that break off from the main plant can grow independently with very little water, hence the spread of the cactus in arid northern Kenya.”
Olive baboons and birds also help spread the seeds after feeding on the plants’ reddish-purple fruits.
Harrison Saikong is walking his sheep down the dusty road past the town of Munishoi, the harsh midday sun shining down on him. It is his third day away from home and he has walked about 50 km in search of water and pasture. In arid Laikipia, both are hard to find, and his cattle want to feed on the cacti.
“This plant has killed my herd,” says Saikong, 32, taking shelter under an acacia tree. He picks up a sheep to show its badly lacerated and smelly mouth. “I used to have 180 sheep before many of them died after consuming this stuff. I have lost 20 sheep on this trip alone. There are only 40 left.”
While elephants have hastened the spread, unsustainable grazing practices and the climate crisis have degraded large sections of grassland, giving cacti room to take root. In an area where cattle determine social status, herders are not easily persuaded to unload their animals during drought and restock when conditions permit.
This becomes evident at George Sintaroi’s house, a few miles down the road. His herd of emaciated cows includes some too skinny to stand for long. Like Saikong, Sintaroi, 68, lost at least 20 cows to the plant. “I’m not sure how long these will stay alive,” he says. “Look at this field. There is not a blade of grass, but bare earth. Opuntia are everywhere, and even the rains might not be much help.” Sintaroi is trying to hold on to his remaining herd, competing for scarce resources with wild animals, including a herd of elephants that feed near his village.
Sammy Leseita, director of livelihoods at the Northern Rangelands Trust, says continued land degradation will lead to unstable economies and resource conflicts. While his organization has been helping local people mitigate the effects of the climate crisis by providing watering holes, Leseita says practicing sustainable farming will help stem the tide.
“Overgrazing leads to poor breeds that sell poorly on the market. You have a herder who keeps 300 cows without enough body mass that butchers prefer. It is better to keep 20 cows which will be more profitable. Large herds only contribute to the degradation of the land, since the grass never has the opportunity to produce seeds, since it is eaten before reproducing”, says Leseita.
But the people at Naibunga Conservancy are at a crossroads. They need cattle to survive, but the animals are victims of cacti. They would like to make money from tourism, but the elephants, which are key attractions in Laikipia, are super spreaders of tight prickly pear seeds “Sometimes it feels like we’re going round and round,” says Priscilla Kilua, one of the women on the team. “There will be no grass with opuntia. No grass means no cattle. Without livestock, we cannot feed or clothe our children.
“Opuntia must go. If not, one day we will tell our children that we used to raise goats.”
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