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    April 10, 2012 | 9:47 AM

    Fewer cows and a shortage of flowers: How climate change impacts the Maasai in Kenya

    This March, Climate Reality Project Presenters (and mother and daughter team) Hilde Binford and Elna Otter, along with Elna's partner Jimmy McPherson, went on an expedition to the Dupoto Forest in southern Kenya. They spent four days with Maasai elders active in the Dupoto Forest and Wildlife Association, who are living with the impacts of climate change. Hilde and Elna sent us a journal entry to let us know what they found.

    © 2012 Hilde Binford / Elna Otter

    Most indigenous peoples live close to the land, and the Maasai of Kenya are no exception. Semi-nomadic, most of the Maasai are living in bomas (traditional homesteads) and grazing their livestock on group ranches. They are perhaps the best-known of the African pastoral nomads with their unique dress and customs. We visited a community of Maasai who are already suffering from impacts of climate change as droughts have become more frequent and severe. Normally the short rainy season occurs from late October through November, and the long rains go from March through June. We arrived just after the long rains had started. Even so, the local papers were again warning that there will be food shortages because of drier conditions. In the past ten years, Maasai have lost as many as half of their livestock to drought. By way of adaptation, they have been forced to grow some vegetables and maize for subsistence, using small plots in the villages. From returning visitors who had been on safari in 2011, we learned that it was commonplace to see dead cows littering the landscape during the worst of the drought. From Nairobi, we took a six-hour shuttle bus ride to Kilgoris, where we were met by Samwel Naikada, a member of the Dupoto Forest and Wildlife Association and representative to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on behalf of indigenous peoples. From Kilgoris, we traveled two hours off road until we reached Samwel's community, just outside of the Masai Mara game reserve. A Life that Depends on Cows

    © 2012 Hilde Binford / Elna Otter

    Cows are essential to the Maasai's world and critical for their livelihood. Each young boy is given a cow, and as the cows give birth, the boy's herd grows. Samwel's two young sons, both under eight, know which cows are theirs. With luck, the boys' herds will grow to nearly 50 cows and calves by the time the boys reach maturity. As adults, the men will continue to manage their herds, selling the animals as needed to provide for their families' needs. A one-year calf may sell for 15,000 Ksh (approximately $180) and a cow may sell for 30,000 Ksh (approximately $360). When a man marries, there is a bride price payable to the bride's family, which can also be paid in livestock. Traditionally, the young men training to become warriors eat and drink only meat, milk and blood. In the community where we stayed, there was a limited amount of meat since they were far from the village with no refrigeration. Their diet relied on milk, ugali (made from maize), potatoes, and cabbage. In addition to livestock, the Maasai are dependent on the natural world for other resources, especially honey, wild fruits, and medicinal supplies from the forest. A food supply under stress

    © 2012 Hilde Binford / Elna Otter

    In a meeting with the elders of the community, we talked about the changes in climate that they have witnessed and discussed the impacts of climate change on their community. At this point, the men all agreed that climate change is the greatest threat to their way of life. In addition to the livestock dying for lack of water, the stressed cows are producing less milk. There are fewer flowers and thus fewer bees, making it difficult to find honey, and wild fruits are disappearing. There have also been problems with invasive species, especially a particularly hard grass which destroys the teeth of the cows. Even when there are rains, they are shorter, and the quality of the cattle is diminishing. Because of the financial strains, individuals have considered leasing land to farmers or agriculturalists for full-scale production of maize, which impacts the Maasai community at large because the land is no longer available for communal grazing. Other outside groups are interested in leveling the forest for agriculture and timber, which concerns the elders greatly. In addition to providing fruits, medicines, and honey, the forest also serves as an elephant maternity ward for breeding. At this point, the community forest association believes it is important to organize and find other ways to sustain their families and culture while protecting the forest and traditional ways. What the community can do

    © 2012 Hilde Binford / Elna Otter

    The Nyakweri forest is the only remaining indigenous forest in the Transmara district, and the Dupoto forest is the area inhabited by the Maasai people. Currently, the Maasai have started a scout program, where the scouts patrol the forest, largely to prevent poaching. In addition, they have begun an eco-tourism program, designed to provide income to the community while raising awareness about the ecosystem and teaching outsiders about the Maasai culture. Samwel Naikada has been to three of the annual UN conferences on climate change (Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban), so it is no surprise that he understands climate change. The elders in the community association also understand. They state clearly that climate change is caused by pollution all over the world, including factories and charcoal burning. They believe it is unfair that the pollution caused by others has impacted their way of life, and they remember when they were young and there was lots of honey and wild foods. Now they report a lot of suffering. With a united voice, they call on America to take action with the rest of the world to reduce the pollution in the atmosphere. For more information about the Dupoto Forest and Wildlife Association, contact them at This year, we're inviting people to write about the impacts of climate change around the world. Read about more of these journeys here.

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