Shifts in settlement and grazing patterns, rising human populations, and increasing climate variability have significantly reduced the productivity of the rangelands of northern Kenya in recent decades. The proliferation of invasive species such as Acacia reficiens has also taken its toll. In a region where livelihoods are inextricably linked to livestock and the land, this poses a major threat to both wildlife and people.  

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It is a complex issue, and solutions require a long-term outlook, but conservancies are seeking to address these challenges primarily through better land-use planning and rangeland rehabilitation. Each conservancy has a rangeland coordinator who leads a grazing committee elected from the community. They help develop and implement conservancy grazing plans and in some conservancies, coordinate initiatives to remove invasive plants and replant perennial grasses.

But mass-movements of livestock across the landscape challenges conservancy-level grazing plans, and NRT is now working with the conservancies to focus on landscape-level rangelands coordination.

Rangeland Rehabilitation

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Acacia reficiens is a tree that spreads rapidly on degraded land. As overgrazing and erosion have taken their toll on much of north Kenya’s rangelands, Acacia reficiens is becoming more prolific. It has no value to either livestock or wildlife, and what’s worse, it displaces other, more valuable forage species. Conservancies badly affected by Acacia reficiens have been taking action - engaging the community, with the support of donors and partners, to help clear the trees from the land they rely upon, and which provides such valuable habitat to wildlife. When trees are cut as part of rehabilitation projects, the branches are spread over the earth, helping prevent further erosion during rain, and also protect grass seeds sprinkled amongst them from herbivores. In 2018, 1,478 acres were cleared of damaging tree species in three conservancies, and this work continues in 2019.

Vegetation monitoring

To better understand the effect of people on vegetation and soils, the NRT rangelands team have partnered with Soils for the Future to conduct remote rangeland health monitoring in 14 conservancies, as part of a soil carbon project due to launch in 2018. Using satellite imagery, they have been able to identify degraded areas, areas vulnerable to further degradation, and areas that have improved in condition over 15-20 years. The results are sobering. There has been a decline in NDVI (a measure of greenness and land productivity) of over 30% in 40% of the landscape between 2002 to 2016. 53% of the land is either experiencing ongoing erosion or is at high risk of erosion.

This data was verified with field data from 168 sampling sites across these conservancies, and data from 121 sites where conservancy rangeland coordinators carry out bi-annual vegetation monitoring using NRT's simple paper-based data collection system known as Vegetation CoMMS. 

Veg-CoMMS data collected between 2011 – 2017 shows that the average total plant cover in all conservancy zones (core, buffer, settlement) increased between 2011 – 2014, but decreased from 2014 – 2016. It also shows that while the area at risk of erosion in settlement and buffer zones increased, core conservation areas remained relatively stable and at just over 10% in 2016.