Marauding cactus species- a threat to pastoralists’ livelihood in Laikipia County


    Fifteen years ago, Mr. John Kuraru, 49, was a darling of Mukurian community.

    In this part of Doldol, Laikipia North, wealth is measured by the number of livestock.

    Mr.Kuraru had 600 goats, and so, he was revered by his peers as a wealthy farmer.

    Of late, Kuraru has been contemplating selling the remaining 200 goats and engage in other income generating activities to fend for his family.

    Worse still, his goats are emaciated due to lack of adequate forage.

    What he has left would fetch him a meagre Sh3, 000.However, a healthy goat at the open Doldol livestock market, he says, goes for up to Sh6, 000.

    “I used to have healthy goats; now look at what is remaining, too thin to fetch good price” said Mr.Kuraru

    His income has dwindled significantly thereby putting pressure on him to care for his family.

    The father of nine has little to celebrate.

    “I wonder whether the remaining goats will sustain my two sons who are studying at Doldol Catholic Mission School because we pay around Sh5, 000 per child per term” said Mr.Kuraru adding that he is left with no choice but to transfer them to another school from next year.

    Armed with a walking stick, the sweat on his face told a story of frustration. Kuraru has been travelling for long distances looking for pasture for his goats.

    Mrs. Ntiipo Kaando, 90years old, has seen dry seasons come and go.

    Of late, the vagaries of weather have affected grazing land next to Loisukut River which used to rescue the community during dry seasons.

    The water level of the river, which also serves the group ranches of Morupusi, Munishoi, Ilpolei, Magurian and Orkinjei, has since diminished thanks to sand mining activities along the river.
    The grass that used to occupy her land too, has been invaded by marauding cactus species.

    Her goats, left with no choice, feed on these plants which have had a devastating effect on the animals.

    Kaando, who depends on livestock as her only form of income, now ponders the next move.

    “If all my goats die due lack of pasture, how will I survive, I don’t have any form of education to look for a job” she wondered!

    A wave of fate has swept through her.

    They are among pastoralists whose livelihoods are threatened by a cactus species thriving in Laikipia County, posing a threat to pasture land in the region.

    There are fears that if unchecked, the cactus-‘Opuntia stricta’-will colonise all grazing lands in the county, thereby threatening the livelihoods of pastoralists in the area.


    The cactus plant, known by locals as ‘Ormatundai’ was apparently introduced by colonialists who used it as a living hedge to protect their homes and gardens from wild animals, said Mr.Kuraru.

    “The colonial officers at Doldol used the plant it as a flower and fence to keep away animals from invading their compound. This is how we inherited this problem” said Kuraru who is alarmed at the rate at which the plant is spreading.

    Opuntia stricta is a species of cactus from Southern America, commonly known as erect prickly pear.

    Effects on the local community

    In the absence of other forage, livestock and other wild animals feed on the cactus something that has left the pastoralist counting loses due to death of their livestock.

    The fruit has small thorns on its surface – called glochids – when animals eat the fruit these glochids lodge in their mouths and apparently also their, stomachs and intestines. The glochids on the fruit cause a condition called “pear mouth” explains senior Centre for Agricultural Biosciences International (CABI) invasive species expert, Dr Arne Witt.

    When lodged in their mouths they cause ‘abscesses’ which can be very painful and may suppress feeding among the livestock.

    “During the last drought, for example, locals found dead young elephants that had been feeding on the fruit; their mouths full of abscesses” said Dr.Witt

    According to the pastoralists, the glochids also perforate the stomach lining and intestines of livestock, with the perforations leading to secondary infections and death.

    The larger spines on the rest of the plant can also pierce the eyes of livestock causing blindness, this happens when they try to access grass under the cactus.

    “Goats that feed on this plant is total waste; the head and intestines can never be consumed thanks to these spines” says Kuraru while showing his goat with abscesses.

    According to Dr.Witt, the cactus is taking up valuable grazing land hence contributing to overgrazing in un-invaded areas contributing to increased land degradation.

    Up to 80% of the land will be lost, without proper management of the already invaded pastureland.

    “It is important to acknowledge that we will in all likelihood lose more than 70% of our natural grazing lands in Kenya if invasive species are not managed” said Dr.Witt

    And it is not Doldol alone that has been affected; Ol Jogi and other conservancies are under threat too.

    Dr.Margaret Kinnaird from Mpala Ranch explains that the cactus plant is difficult to manage and that it spreads very fast. It has now made parts of the region its home.

    “We are working with other stakeholders to map out all affected areas in Laikipia County to get rid or control the plant” said Dr.Kinnaird the executive director, Mpala research center.

    Biological Control

    Dr. Witt confirms that the marauding plant can be managed through biological control since it was a safe and effective way of controlling invasive species.

    The practice has been used around the world for more than 150 years, with hundreds of host specific and damaging bio-control agents being released in that time.

    For example, South Africa which has very strict environmental legislation, he says, has released more than 100 bio-control agents (species) against more than 50 invasive plant species.

    Failure to embrace and facilitate the introduction of host specific and damaging biocontrol agents will have a very significant impact on livelihoods and biodiversity in Kenya.

    “If we don’t embrace bio-control we are going to drown in a sea of invasives because we don’t have the resources for chemical and manual control” said Dr. Witt

    According to Witt, about 20% or more of plant-eating insects on the planet are ‘monophagous’ – which means that they can only feed and develop on one or a few closely related plant species.

    He was optimistic that the cactus can be controlled through introduction of the sap-sucking bug known as ‘cochineal’ which evolved with the cactus species.

    This insect (Dactylopius opuntiae ‘stricta’ biotype),he says, is so host specific that it will not even be able to feed or develop on other cactus species in Kenya, even the most closely related ones.

    “This insect is completely safe – it poses absolutely no threat to any other plant species in Africa – crop or native.”

    “It should also be recognised that many herbivorous insects have evolved with their host plants over millions of years – they are co-evolved and have an extremely “intimate” relationship, none of them have the ability to attack any other species” confirmed Dr. Witt.

    Bottlenecks in acquiring the sap-sucking insect

    A quarantine culture from South Africa (ARC-PPRI) was imported into a quarantine glasshouse at KARLO Muguga, a few years ago. Additional tests to confirm the cochineal’s host specificity were undertaken–that it only feeds and develops on Opuntia stricta and not on any other species, explains Witt

    “When those studies were completed a revised Risk Assessment (RA) was submitted to KEPHIS and permission granted for a trial release at a subsequent KTSCIE meeting provided that permission was also granted by NEMA”

    While waiting for permission to release CABI had to maintain the culture in quarantine while waiting for NEMA to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA’s).

    After many delays, says Witt, an EIA was undertaken and based on that, permission was granted to release the bug on trial basis in Doldol, Ol Jogi and surrounding lands.

    “We are now waiting for formal approval from NEMA to release the bug more widely, in areas outside of Laikipia where Opuntia stricta is also a serious problem” Dr.Witt said.

    Promising results

    Mr. Francis Merinyi, who raised awareness as to the threats of the cactus in 2006, said that the plant spreads very fast making it difficult to control.

    “The fruit has around 50 seeds, when animals feed on it-that means we could potentially have another 50 cactus plants”Mr.Merinyi said.

    Austrocylindropuntia subalata-(Cylindrical or Colville cactus) locally known as ‘Orkurasi’, however, is only spread through budding and has not colonized as much grazing land as Opuntia stricta but is already problematic in low-lying areas.

    The community, with the help of CABI and Ol Jogi who funded the project, are conducting trials on the effects of cochineal on the cactus.

    According to Merinyi, the initial results are promising and all what remains is to disseminate the cochineal to the affected group ranches in the region.

    Kipaya Kasali ole Legei, 72years, a caretaker of the warehouse where the cochineal breeding is taking place confirms that the insect will save the community from the invasive plant.

    “Our livelihoods will be restored back when we get rid of the cactus”Mr.Kasali ole Legei noted.

    Written by Clifford Akummu