How herding cattle affected African conservationist David Western’s approach to wildlife

13 05 2009

By Sam Eifling

Years ago, when David Western was a graduate student at the University of Nairobi, he set out to count migratory wildlife, in an effort to track the animals’ movements. A member of the nomadic Maasai tribe approached him and asked what he was doing. Western explained that he was trying to understand the animals. The Maasai man offered a simple solution.

“He said to me, ‘Why don’t you ask us — we know exactly what they’re doing,'” Western recalled recently in an address at the Clinton School of Public Service, in Little Rock, Ark. “So I said, fine. And I began to ask. And I was surprised at the depth of knowledge.”

Western, the founder of the African Conservation Centre in Kenya, spoke about the merits and strategies of community-based conservation — that is, a conservation practice that considers humans as a part of the ecosystem and puts the responsibility for wildlife’s survival primarily in the hands of locals.

It is, perhaps, an idyllic approach to protecting populations of big mammals, but it’s one Western began to develop in those years fresh out of school.

He came to understand and appreciate the gravity of local knowledge when the Maasai gave him cattle to tend. Western had noticed that livestock and wildlife moved in tandem, if separately, through the Amboseli region, which has since been designated a national park. “Seeing Amboseli through the eyes of a cow,” as he puts it, allowed him to observe the cows moving and grazing in relation to wildebeests, elephants and zebras.

The healthiest cattle — those who produced the most milk — were indeed those who fed in concert with, rather than at odds with, the movements of the surrounding wild animals.

“My science was able to tell me that was a good and effective strategy,” he said. “And ultimately the combination of local knowledge and scientific knowledge showed me that there is such a thing as coexistence between people and wildlife.”

At first, seeing preserves and national parks baffled him — why, after all, would wildlife need protecting from people, who lived among wildlife and maintained the herds. “Everywhere you went in Africa, there was wildlife and people,” he said. “There was no separation of people and wildlife.”

But as the years progressed, and the ivory trade ravaged the elephant population — Western said it dropped from 140,000 to 19,000 in Kenya during the ’70s and ’80s — the necessity of national parks became obvious.

Still, Western said, the need to protect large mammals shouldn’t obscure their role in a dynamic ecosystem. Elephants who sought refuge in Amboseli National Park in Kenya trampled plants, dominated the habitat and killed off other species.

The Maasai, who join 3,000 years of tradition in raising livestock on the East Africa grasslands that Western calls “the oldest cattle ranch on earth,” consider wildlife “their second cattle,” he said, to be used in time of drought. They recognize the interplay between livestock and wildlife as beneficial, and through that, they come to understand the land.

“Husbandry is the basis of sustainability,” Western said. “It’s only through learning about the health and patterns of the animals that you learn about the animal’s environment.”

He advocated not a uniform protection policy but “an ecosystem approach” to conservation. That includes interaction between people, livestock and wildlife — and, in the case of Kenya, inviting Kenyans into the national parks where international tourists accounted for some 95 percent of visits. As Western worked to promote the parks to Kenyans, they climbed to 50 percent of visitors.

“If there’s one lesson that I’ve learned, it’s that when people are localized … there is a close connection between the social entity and the environment,” Western said. “Because everyone sooner or later, if they lose the environment, will have a catastrophe, and their society will go bust.”

How does Western, who grew up hunting elephants with his father, see practices honed in east Africa applying to the United States? For one, he sees seasonal trophy hunting as a drawback of American hunting culture. Killing the largest members of a population — he cited bighorn sheep specifically — has led to decreases in overall size of individual animals.

“To me it’s the trophy hunting, done the way it is, that becomes inimical to the long-term sustainability of herds, not hunting in itself,” he said after his prepared remarks, in an interview with

Since hunting is only an occasional pursuit for most American hunters, he said, “The understanding of the animal, the understanding of the nature of the chase, and the understanding of animal in relation to its environment, doesn’t have a chance to build up, for most people.”

In order to maintain biodiversity and overall ecological health of cattle-production grounds, Western said, Americans would do well to turn over cattle production to larger, more varied tracts of land. Ranchers ought to give cattle the opportunity to survive through drought and across different altitudes in different seasons. Not only will the cattle and their environment be healthier, grass-fed beef is more nutritious for humans than corn-fed beef anyway.

“We know (agriculture) is not going to be sustainable in the long run, because we know the impact of massive fertilizers eutrophying rivers, eutrophying coral reefs,” Western said. “We’re only looking at the tip of the iceberg in that way.”

You can view David Western’s speech on the Web site of the Clinton School of Public Service.

Source: ESPN




One response

7 12 2009

This was indeed an insightful read.Coming from kenya am intrigued by the ineraction of the Maasai cattle and Wildlife and moreso on Western’s thinking of the important role they play in conservation.Its ironical that they understand so much on ecology that I almost want to leave class and learn onsite as I herd cattle.

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