At the start of every dry season fires creep southwards across the Central African Republic (CAR). Kasper Agger, a Dane who works for African Parks, a South Africa-based conservation group, can see them on his laptop thanks to a piece of NASA-made software that plots benign-looking flame symbols like boy scouts’ campfires onto a Google Earth map. Through December and January the fires edge close to Chinko, a vast nature reserve in the CAR. When the fires reach the park boundary, a light aircraft is dispatched to shower leaflets over the smoulder. Below, herders who come from hundreds of miles away receive illustrated messages in Sango (a local language), Arabic and French, warning them not to chop down trees, carry guns, hunt game or poach elephants within the park.
For herders to encroach on government and private land is normal in Africa, but the size of the herds, the involvement of political and military bigwigs as cattle barons, and the proliferation of weapons have all got out of hand. They are increasingly fuelling conflict and eroding authority in states that are already fragile. Pastoralism has had to adapt so radically that it is often barely recognisable as the way of life that has been followed for hundreds of years.
Rapid population growth, the spread of fences and cities, and the annexation of herders’ land have shrunk the space where pastoralists can roam. Governments tend to favour settled farmers over mobile or nomadic ones, and to see food security in terms of maize and cassava rather than meat and milk. Climate change makes herders’ livelihoods ever more precarious. An African Union study in 2010 estimated that 268m Africans (about a quarter of the population at the time) were pastoralists. But that number is steadily shrinking.
In some places, one-time nomads are becoming uncomfortable town-dwellers. Others are paid by wealthy urbanites to fatten their cows on other people’s land.
That trend is starkest in the Sahel, a chronically unstable region that stretches across the continent in an arid band just south of the Sahara. “In the most basic sense we are here to protect the grass,” says Mr Agger. “In each dry season big herds of cattle come down from Chad and Sudan for grazing. We are talking of massive herds, up to 800 cattle, herded by young men.” The men are usually armed, sometimes accompanied by uniformed soldiers, and indifferent to international borders, park boundaries and customary land rights. They both exploit and exacerbate conflict. These armed herders moving through the CAR bear the superficial trappings of pastoralism but have shed their traditional restraints and are freed from social anchors. They rustle livestock from other pastoralists, smuggle alluvial gold and diamonds, poach and trade in ivory and bush meat, says Mr Agger.
The UN’s Economic Commission for Africa shares those fears. This year it reported that pastoralists were involved in the majority of ongoing African conflicts, including those in the CAR, Chad, Mali, north-eastern Kenya, Somalia and Sudan and were implicated in international crime networks. These encompass human trafficking, drugs, illegal migration and jihadist and religious extremist groups.
Conservationists tend to be hostile towards pastoralists, sometimes disparaging them as “parasites” who damage the environment, spread disease, cause desertification and poach Africa’s wildlife, including elephants and rhinos. Earlier this year herds of livestock, reckoned at one point to number as many as 100,000 cattle, invaded private land in the Laikipia region of Kenya. The incursions were encouraged by unscrupulous politicians as well as drought. Scores of people died in the resulting raids and clashes. Eventually the army began to evict the herders and quelled most of the violence.
The loss of family herds due to drought, disease, conflict or theft often leaves the herders with little choice but to offer their services to others more powerful than themselves. It can be hard to identify precisely who owns herds. So they are a convenient means for businessmen and politicians (often one and the same) to store their wealth, avoiding the kind of scrutiny that can be applied to bank accounts or property. Moreover, you do not have to buy the land where the cattle graze. “The rich herders are now in Nairobi,” says Jarso Mokku of the Drylands Learning and Capacity Building Initiative, an NGO based in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, that promotes the cause of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa. “They are here and they are effectively in charge of an army,” he says.