When you go on safari to the Maasai Mara you will be able to see for yourself the Big Five and other wild animals in the game reserve and in our conservancies. But with all the excitement of the wildlife, you may also be amazed to see that there are also livestock roaming and grazing freely on the same land.
Sheep are among the livestock which have grown in popularity over the last decade, to now provide a source of almost everything needed in Maasai land. Why?
- Sheep produce the most highly sought-after meat.
- They mature faster compared to cattle.
- Sheep are the merchant’s favorite in all the livestock markets.
- A local saying is: “If you want the best drinking tea prepared, use the sheep’s milk.” Maasai people greatly prefer to use sheep’s milk to make tea.
Red Maasai – Dorper Crossbred Sheep
For many years, the Maasai only owned the popular Red Maasai sheep (an endangered breed) which they then bred with Dorper sheep (a cross of the Dorset Horn and Blackhead Persian) to produce the current favored cross-breed.
This new cross-breed, which some call the Red Maasai Dorper, give much more milk than a cow, are bigger than the Red Maasai sheep, are adapted to the Mara climate, and are more disease-resistant than the Merino. They also gain weight very quickly, making them a sought-after food source. According to Dorper Sheep Breeders Society of Kenya treasurer Jeremiah Sein, “They are able to produce up to 40kg of tender meat within six months.”
These cross-breed sheep are the most peaceful and quiet livestock and they feed purely on plants, grass and forage, which local people feel are plentiful in the Mara. They are also the most hunted domestic animals – probably due to their tender meat.
The reason why sheep are popular among Maasai people in Mara is that the sheep are very cautious and defend themselves in these ways:
- Sheep flock together and run away when there is a predator around.
- They can scan their location with a few movements of their head when grazing and can locate any strange sound very precisely.
However, what local people often don’t realize is that sheep consume a lot of plant life. As Nelson Ole Reiyia says (the Director of the Nashulai Conservancy):
“We are encouraging our Nashulai members to reduce their sheep flocks which are actually depleting grasslands, stripping it bare, and causing difficulties in land regeneration.”
The Co-existence of Sheep and Wildlife on the Mara
The Maasai people around the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and Nashulai Conservancy are trying hard to make wild and domestic animals’ coexistence very comfortable. The grazing lands are left unfenced, to open up migration paths for wild animals. And a very careful shepherd is given the responsibility to look after sheep; as hyenas, lions and leopards will look for opportunities to kill the less-guarded stock.
The sheep enclosures are now made of very strong cedar posts which greatly reduces the trespassing of wild animals; as opposed to our previous structures made of thorns, which gave predators a free pass into the enclosure, with very little struggle.
However, this too presents yet another issue for regions where wildlife and livestock co-exist and the people are concerned with land regeneration and deforestation. As Nelson Ole Reiyia says:
“As a conservancy, we are against fencing using the tall ‘red cedar’ poles due to deforestation. Local people need to plant and manage trees, rather than just cutting them from the ever-shrinking forests.”
Now that the Maasai people depend on sheep for food, money for education, cultural practices (sheep are slaughtered when a woman gives birth and also to initiates), health, and even for fame, they need to be educated on other safety measures to protect their livestock from wild animals.
The Maasai people need a greater understanding of how to have their sheep herds without creating negative effects on the wildlife. The concept of ecosystem balance needs to be put before profit. And the people need to be educated to look at the long-term ramifications, not just how much money they can make now. In this way, wildlife conservation can indeed co-exist successfully with local villagers.
Loss of Ancient Breeds
The other downside to this new cross-breed is the loss of genetic diversity in the indigenous pure Red Maasai sheep. This same issue is occurring in Uganda with the historic Ankole cattle being replaced with American-bred Holsteins; since the Holsteins produce six times more milk than the Ankole. As this detailed article in the New York Times reports:
“No one knows how many Ankole cattle exist. “We’ve been saying the Ankoles are 50 percent of the national herd, but I don’t think that’s true anymore,” said Dr. Denis Mpairwe, an animal scientist at Uganda’s Makerere University. “The crossbreeding the last five years has been so intense.” The International Livestock Research Institute predicts that if present trends continue, the Ankoles could go extinct within 50 years. But Mpairwe says he believes it could happen much sooner.”
But how do you balance genetic diversity (increased disease-resistance, less genetic weakness and mutation) against increased income, especially among people who are struggling just to educate their children and feed them?
Perhaps the solution is to encourage local farmers to keep flocks of both breeds of sheep (or cattle!). This would also be a prudent strategy to protect against a parasite or disease wiping out an entire flock in a short period of time.
But again, for those Maasai that live near the Mara or on the conservancies, the balance with wildlife, ecosystem, plant diversity and forestation must be maintained as a priority. In this way, we can continue to improve our living conditions long-term, not just for the next decade or so.