A potent mix of politics, drought and land grievances is behind the rising invasion of ranches in Laikipia County, whose effects are being felt beyond the region.
Hundreds of herders have, over the past few months, driven thousands of animals into the ranches, mostly owned by Kenyans of British extraction.
Owners of the ranches say their businesses, which run into billions of shillings and which are based on tourism, are at risk as lodges are damaged and wild animals killed.
Last week, the British High Commission asked the government to address the issue as it denied reports that it had issued a travel ban for its citizens to Laikipia.
But the herders say ranches have pasture and water, yet their animals face death due to the prevailing drought.
Armed with poisonous spears and guns, they have cut through fences in conservancies, making off with wires and posts as they drive in cattle, sheep and goats.
They have ignored government directives, including that of President Uhuru Kenyatta, ordering them to leave the ranches.
In the past four months, an estimated 15,000 pastoralists from the neighbouring counties of Samburu, Isiolo, West Pokot and Baringo have driven more than 140,000 livestock into ranches, conservancies and private farms in Laikipia North and West, threatening wildlife in one of Kenya’s richest biodiversity regions.
BAD FOR TOURISM
The conflict is centred on grazing land and water.
It has not only left behind a trail of destruction and deaths.
In one incident, a relative of former President Mwai Kibaki was injured in an attack by herders who forced their way into a ranch owned by his family.
Samburu herders, who live in Laikipia, have also complained of being targeted by ranchers and farming communities.
Six months ago, Mr Playa Lelekina was shot dead by police during an altercation between police and vigilantes.
The epicenter of the conflict has been in Laikipia North, but the impact has spilled over to Laikipia East and West.
The situation, says Mr Mohamed Abkul, the security manager at Ol Maisor farm in Laikipia North, has worsened over the past three years.
“Laikipia is now like Kismayu. Herders invade ranches and conservancies without any fear. They shoot, loot, and carry out poaching at will,” he said.
Conservancy owners are warning of a severe dent on Kenya’s tourism.
According to the Laikipia Farmers Association, five of the county’s 30 tourism enterprises have closed temporarily.
A Nation team that visited Mugie conservancy came face to face with the destruction.
“We have lost 25 buffaloes, 30 zebras, 10 giraffes and other animals to mysterious killings,” said Mr Solomon Epokor, who is in charge of security.
He knows too well that the elimination of the wildlife means his job is at risk.
At the neighbouring 44,000-acre Suyian ranch, six thatched cottages for tourists were reduced to ashes last week and the ranch closed indefinitely.
There has been speculation concerning the attacks, with some residents claiming the acts were politically motivated and others linking them to land ownership.
A source who sought anonymity told the Nation that some politicians have been inciting locals to drive out the ranchers and take over the land.
“This is a game of exchange of votes for grass and land grabs, the expulsion of rival tribes, ranchers and conservancies,” claimed the source.
But in an interview with the Nation, Laikipia North MP Mathew Lempurlkel, who has been accused of being one of those behind the crisis, dismissed the claims, arguing that the situation in Laikipia was as a result of drought.
“It is unfortunate that anyone can link me to the invasions of private land, conservancies and ranches. That is pure political propaganda by my opponents.
“I believe the herders are searching for water and pasture due to the biting drought in their areas of abode,” said the MP.
Security agencies are on the spot, with ranchers and locals stating that they feel little has been done by the authorities.
The government has indicated that it has reinforced security in the region.
But Laikipia Farmers Association chairman Martin Evans says the Anti-Stock Theft Unit deployed to handle the situation has been unable to do so, with reports that some had withdrawn after being overwhelmed.
“We are private investors bringing businesses worth Sh4 billion annually to the Kenyan economy, and paying Sh800 million a year in salaries to our 5,000 employees, and we are sure that the government has no intention of seeing us fall into ruin,” Mr Evans said regarding the growing crisis.
But Laikipia County commissioner Onesmus Kyatha says the government is keen to bring order in the area.
“We have in the past few months successfully evicted more than 63,000 animals from private land. Security agents have also arrested and prosecuted 150 illegal grazers. An MP accused of incitement has also been charged in court,” Mr Kyatha told the Nation on phone.
Rift Valley regional coordinator Wanyama Musiambo, on the other hand, reiterated that a crackdown started by the government to kick out illegal grazers from private land, ranches and conservancies is still in force.
Mr Musiambo has also warned politicians in the area against politicising the issue of pasture for pastoralist communities.