A single bite — taken by a cow out of a plant. What could be more ordinary?
Now imagine having the patience to record and analyze 50,000 of those bites — out of various plants in Kenya, in nine landscape-scale experimental plots. In order to figure out how zebra and other wildlife species might be affecting cattle grazing there.
That’s the research NatureNet Fellow Wilfred Odadi did for his master’s thesis — exemplary of the kind of zeal and ingenious science Odadi brings to optimizing both livestock management and wildlife conservation. A fellow rangeland ecologist called the work “some of the most detailed and extensive foraging ecology ever done on cattle in Africa.”
The findings strongly suggested that cattle and wildlife were in competition over the same forging resources — but they weren’t conclusive, because they didn’t include actual indicators of competition such as weight change, birth rate and milk yield for the cattle. So to test whether or not shared grazing with wild ungulates leads to reduced cattle weight gain, Odadi again set up large-scale experimental plots in the Laikipia Rangeland area of Kenya that allowed or excluded different combinations of ungulates.
The results were surprising: Based on the weight gains, he found that while wildlife compete with cattle during the dry season, they facilitate their growth during the wet season. (He also conducted a separate study to test whether these patterns were largely attributable to zebras, the most frequent wild ungulates in the study area. The results showed that both cattle and zebras performed better grazed together than when grazed separately.)
Odadi’s results were published in Science and Evolutionary Ecology Research — a huge accomplishment for any young researcher. But even more importantly, they could be persuasive to ranchers who believe that no wildlife is good wildlife.
“At the end of the day, the rancher wants to know: Are my cattle gaining weight?” he says. “And it turns out that wildlife can improve weight gains, and that can mean a better attitude among these ranchers for conservation.”
Now, as a NatureNet Fellow associated with Princeton University, Odadi hopes to tackle one of the biggest challenges for conservation in northern Kenya: How to reduce livestock pressures on the area’s rangeland ecology while still maximizing yields for ranchers.
The problem is two-fold: While livestock densities in the area have increased dramatically over the past century, a number of factors (politics, demographics and socioeconomics) are keeping pastoralists from moving their stocks as they traditionally did.
That double whammy results in year-round grazing that pushes rangeland degradation to catastrophic levels and often results in livestock losses and reduced income for pastoralists.
Odadi wants to use his Fellowship to research and develop data-based livestock off-take and grazing management schemes that benefit both pastoralists and the environment. He’ll be working directly with the pastoralists from research design to data collection, drawing on the trust he’s gained in these communities in his more than a decade working in the northern Kenyan rangelands.
“The inhabitants of these rangelands are some of the most marginalized people in the country,” Odadi says. “There have been interventions in the past to solve the problems of rangeland degradation and poverty, but most of these interventions have ignored these pastoralists.”
“I’m really excited about the fact that the Fellowship gives me an opportunity to do applied research and find ways of helping them with their problems while also contributing to conservation.”
Odadi, a native Kenyan, says the light-bulb moment that led to his latest research came when he was driving to the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia in the northern Kenyan rangeland, and saw an expansive cattle ranch adjacent to the road fenced to completely exclude wildlife.
“And I asked someone who knows the area very well, and he told me this particular ranch shoots wildlife on sight,” Odadi says. “So I wondered: What will be the future of wildlife and biodiversity here? That was the moment when I said, OK, we need more research to find out what the real cost of wildlife is to cattle ranchers.”
But he has no patience for the idea of fencing off nature from people, either.
“Conservation cannot succeed in isolation — it has to be in the presence of humans, you know?” Odadi says.
“I consider myself as someone who is between an ecologist and a conservationist. I am really a rangeland ecologist, but a rangeland ecology that takes into account human needs and the fact that humans will be the key determinants of whether or not conservation succeeds.”