- The use of mobile bomas, or corrals, to keep livestock safe from predators has shown a wide range of benefits for both pastoral communities and wildlife in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
- The bomas reduce the risk of disease and predation among livestock, while allowing for the regeneration of degraded grazing land, which in turn draws in more wild herbivores to the area.
- The increased wildlife presence has led to a rise in wildlife tourism, valued at $7.5 million annually in the 2,400-hectare (6,000-acre) Enonkishu Conservancy.
- Observers warn of potential downsides, however, including food insecurity as community members abandon farming in favor of more lucrative tourism work, and a rise in human-wildlife conflict as the area’s wildlife population grows.
ENONKISHU, Kenya — Bernard Leshinga, a Maasai pastoralist from southern Kenya, likes an easy day running his herding business.
But until recently, Leshinga hadn’t figured out how to help his livestock compete for pasture with wildlife, or stay safe from predators; while settled pastoralists here often build a boma (a permanent corral or shed) to protect their herds at night, people like him who range farther from home often struggle to prevent predation. And when rangelands become degraded and wild grazers lessen in number, the predators in Kenya’s complex Maasai Mara food chain target livestock more frequently.
A breakthrough for herders like Leshinga came in 2017, when mobile bomas were introduced at Enonkishu Conservancy. These are movable, wire-meshed enclosures in which pastoralists keep their livestock at night, safe from predators. Every 10 days during the dry season, locals responsible for a boma pool their labor to manually move the sheds to a new site, usually with hand carts or carrying the pieces by hand. During rains, they carry out this task every fortnight.
“In the past, there were increased attacks by predators on our livestock because grazers and browsers were becoming few in number, and the traditional sheds could not hold the wildlife back. The improved sheds are preventing these attacks,” Leshinga said.
He said the reason for declining herbivores in the past decade was shrinking pasture as worsening dry spells scorched grasslands. According to ReliefWeb, severe drought hit the arid and semiarid regions of Kenya from 2010-2011, 2016-2017 and 2020-2022.
But scientists have also linked the decline of hoofed wildlife to threats facing the country’s five migration corridors; and one of them, the Mara-Loita route, has nearly disappeared. The other four, including the Mara-Serengeti, the Greater Amboseli, the Manyara-Tarangire and the Africa Plains route from Nairobi National Park, are also almost extinct, according to Nicholas Oguge, the environmental policy director at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Environmental Law and Policy (CASELAP) at the University of Nairobi.
There are a couple of reasons why wildlife migration corridors are facing increasing pressure, including climate change. But Oguge said the most troubling one is real estate development and infrastructure expansion, as land moves from communal to individual ownership. This is an observation that Mongabay confirmed when visiting the region recently.
Traveling from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara’s eastern gate, it was easy to see acres of land that have been fenced off now awaiting sale for property development. Local livestock, unable to pass through the barriers, are forced to graze by the roadside.
This pattern is replicated throughout the rolling plains, until the road dissolves into the Mara ecosystem. Here, locals have been dismantling fences and restoring land back to the traditional free-range system, and for a good reason.
With mobile bomas, locals have discovered they can combine their individual parcels of land into a conservancy, let the vegetation recharge by moving herds around, and earn ongoing revenue from wildlife tourism, versus profit from property sales that leave families destitute after the money is spent.
Not only do the sheds, which range from a tennis court to half a soccer field in size, help in pasture management and vegetation regrowth, they also protect livestock from wildlife attacks at night, Leshinga said.
The trick is to keep moving with the bomas and placing them at degraded sites, as livestock graze away at another site that has pasture. In the evening, the herders bring their flock to rest for the night, repeating the pattern for about four days before moving to another site, he said.
“Even a lion cannot easily break into the boma, because it is well protected by the metal fencing around it,” Leshinga said as he shoved his weight into the shed, which didn’t budge.
The science behind vegetation recharge is based on livestock droppings, their hoof power, and rain, according to Daniel Sayialel, the community liaison officer for the roughly 2,400-hectare (6,000-acre) Enonkishu Conservancy. Livestock droppings enrich the soil wherever the bomas are temporarily placed, and undigested seeds that the animal may have ingested are spread.
And their hooves also make small indentations on the soil surface inside the bomas, which help rain seep into the ground, where seeds can use it to germinate, instead of draining away as runoff.
“Recharged by rainfall, the site forms its own life bubbles, which seed the land into fresh pasture and vegetation,” Sayialel said, adding that a single boma can hold 400 to 1,000 domestic animals, depending on size.
While mobile bomas began to appear here in southern Kenya six years ago, the International Livestock Research Institute’s (ILRI) 53-year-old Kapiti Research Station and wildlife conservancy, which borders Nairobi National Park to the southeast, has been studying the effectiveness of mobile bomas for more than seven years.
Nehemiah Kimengich, the ranch manager at Kapiti, said establishment of the bomas was mainly for research purposes, and that they’ve discovered additional benefits to the sheds. The regular movement of bomas and livestock from one site to another — at least every 10 days during the dry season and about every fortnight during the rainy season — also seems to help control the spread of animal diseases. When herds are kept in permanent corrals, their close proximity and the accumulation of manure creates conditions where pathogens responsible for livestock diseases like East Coast fever can breed and multiply.
Another benefit is control of invasive plant species that choke ecosystems: when a mobile boma is placed on a site that such plants have colonized, the intense animal traffic often stamps out the weeds.
Yet another positive aspect of the roving bomas is preventing inbreeding among grazing wildlife, by attracting them to freshly regenerated areas of grass across the landscape and away from controlled systems like Nairobi National Park, allowing them to find new mates.
“The kind of pasture that comes out on a seeded site grows fast, is sweet and tasty for herbivores. This attracts wildlife from other ecosystems to move into these grazing areas,” Kimengich said, adding that their grazing plan sets aside 40% of pasture for wildlife and 60% for livestock.
Attractive to tourists, too
The positive results of mobile bomas have also attracted people from afar. At Enonkishu, the success of their innovations has boosted local tourism and created more than 2,000 jobs, according to the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA).
A 2021 study by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) investigated the economic value of East Africa’s natural assets and estimated Kenya’s Mara Ecosystem to be worth about $6.5 billion to communities annually. At Leshinga’s community, this value is estimated to be about $7.5 million in annual revenue from tourism, which has been boosted by the return of rare wildlife species like the “big five” (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo) and the African wild dog.
However, the increased wildlife activity in Enonkishu Conservancy due to these successes is causing a rise in human-wildlife conflict, according to senior sergeant Francis Dapash, a ranger serving in Maasai Mara.
The presence of big cats like lions has increased attacks on domestic animals as they graze during the day, while heavy grazers like elephants have been raiding crops flanking the conservancy, he said.
“Pasture in Enonkishu is always available throughout the year, even during the dry season. This is evolving to become a problem because we have no control of the growing numbers of wildlife that are coming here,” Dapash said.
Another factor is that locals within the conservancy have been switching their land use from crop farming into conservation, because conservation tourism earns them more revenue, according the MMWCA.
While wildlife raids and worsening dry spells are causing low crop yields, turning land into conservation use has immediate and long-term monetary returns, said Daniel Sopia, chief executive of the MMWCA.
More than 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) of land were under crop farming at Enonkishu and its neighboring conservancies, but some 3,200 hectares (8,000 acres) have been converted into conservation zones after mobile bomas were introduced there, according to the nonprofit’s members during an interview.
This could lead to a decline in food sovereignty because nutritious staples that were once available locally could in the future fail to make it to the dinner plate with less crop cultivation, Million Belay, the coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, warned.
However, if people in the conservancy who benefit from using their land to attract wildlife can buy food from elsewhere, this may not be a concern, and on balance, the simple solution of mobile bomas appears to be strongly positive for both communities and conservation.
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