Study: Increased farming likely to harm East Africa’s rangelands

Wednesday March 08 2023
Africa rangelands

Camels graze in one of Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project conservancies. PHOTO | NMG


Departure from a nomadic lifestyle could result in harm to East Africa’s iconic rangelands, a new study warns.

Scientists using satellite images to study degradation of rangelands in Tanzania said last week that fragmentation of rangelands, mainly through increasing agriculture, is restricting movement of pastoralists, resulting in declining grassland productivity and increased land degradation.

The analysis covering 20 years of satellite data shows current degraded sites are more sensitive to environmental shocks such as drought.

Read: More hunger pangs in Horn of Africa

“The ability of the savannah to recover quickly from year to year has long been at the core of traditional management of these rangelands as nomadic people moved away for a few years allowing natural recovery. But heavy use over a few years could lead to severe local degradation,” notes the study, published in Scientific Reports.

Home to pastoralists


Covering 47 percent of the earth’s land surface, rangelands develop in semi-arid area, are primarily used for grazing and are home to one-third of the global population, mostly pastoralists. They are highly vulnerable to changes in rainfall and human pressures. In addition, they are now under threat from climate change and human activity, unable to recover from repeated environmental shocks.

However, authors of the study say all is not lost and recovery is still possible.

Study results

Senior author, Dr Colin Beale, from the University of York’s Department of Biology says, “The results show that the ability of these sites to recover if effectively managed is undiminished, with responsible community management being the key if degradation is to be reduced. We can restore and recover these areas if we can give them a break and work out why they are doing worse during those extreme events.”

“Our results point to climate change and societal changes as the main drivers of degradation, with rainfall more unpredictable, droughts longer and the differences between years more extreme,” highlighted first author, PhD student Joris Wiethase from the University of York’s Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity.

“If we are to effectively combat degradation within rangelands, it is important that we understand the drivers of degradation.”

Baringo charcoal

Tree stumps left after trees were cut down to burn charcoal in Marigat Sub- County, Baringo County in Kenya. PHOTO | NMG

Boniface Osujaki, one of the local co-authors, said: “I have first-hand experience of the impacts of climate change and human pressure on our rangelands. The opportunity from this work for successful restoration and rangeland regeneration across the region is really encouraging for the future of the pastoralist Maasai culture.”