Ranchers in Laikipia County have become prisoners in their own homes, not daring to venture out in their vast farmlands as illegal herders armed with AK-47 rifles, spears, and poisoned arrows take over their land.
The herders are having a field day intimidating the owners of the ranches, firing their weapons, burning down lodges, looting, and partying.
Not even the police deployed ostensibly to drive the herders away can scare them off the ranches they have taken over. They are staying put, clutching their rifles, and daring the officers to a shooting contest.
“We are not moving. Wacha wakuje (Let them (police) come),” said a man clutching an AK-47 deep inside Sosian ranch, where one of the directors, Tristan Voorspuy, was shot and killed while inspecting cottages burnt down by the invaders.
Instead of moving out, the herders seem to be calling for back-up. In the past six months, more herdsmen have been arriving in occupied ranches and spilling over into previously unaffected ones.
“They are upping their numbers, their cattle, their guns,” said a ranch owner who did not want to be named for fear of being targeted.
At Mugie, Posta, and Mowiaraak, dozens of morans were moving towards Sosian, the recent epicentre of the conflict between ranchers and illegal grazers. The herders allowed The Standard team to spend a day and night with them at the ranch. Here, the young and the old freely graze their animals as armed sentries stand guard in strategic positions, on the lookout for police officers, whom the government claims it has instructed to evict them from private farms.
The sentries scan the horizon for anyone approaching, their fingers on the trigger. And when night falls, they change shifts. Those not on night shift hold feasts, encouraging one another to stay firm.
The cows, goats, and sheep chew cud as they rest in the many bomas that now dot the private ranches, waiting for daybreak to feed in the once well-regulated grass paddocks.
ORDER TO LEAVE
During a night vigil last Thursday, which this writer was allowed to sit through, a few hundred metres from where Voorspuy was killed, two cows were slaughtered and the more than 200 men clad in red shukas feasted.
They make no effort to hide, holding loud conversations. They do not move discreetly in the darkness. Instead, they switch on their bright spotlights which can be spotted kilometres away. They do not muffle their motorcycles, instead revving them up.
Earlier in the day, we had requested the police commanding the officers stationed at Sosian to provide us with a security escort to the scene of the killing. He flatly refused. Instead, he ordered our team out.
“This is an order. Leave immediately. It is an order,” he thundered, as he took position, holding his G3 rifle as if he was ready to pull the trigger if we dared to defy the order. We left.
When we asked the herders to take us to the scene of the murder, they gladly obliged. They later brought us back without any incident.
They are, after all, daredevils who have turned the wilds of Laikipia plateau, known for its timeless beauty and open spaces, into a lawless land akin to the infamous American wild west of yesteryear.
Their cows, goats, and sheep, which ranch owners estimate to be in their hundreds of thousands, have reduced the grass plains to tufts of dry grass, stubble, spike thorn, acacia, and shimmering bushes.
“You can see for yourselves the havoc they are wreaking. We are helpless and we have been left on our own,” said Josh Perret, a manager at the 22,000-acre Mugie ranch.
“Life has been very hard here. No peace. They cut the wires, remove the poles, steal our animals, and kill the wildlife. They are simply a law unto themselves,” he says in an almost resigned tone.
His ranch was the first to be overrun by the migrant grazers from parts of Baringo and Samburu counties.
“They refused to listen to us when we organised meetings to resolve the matter. Instead they destroyed anything they came across on the ranch. They burnt our houses,” he says.
After the pasture is depleted, the herders simply move to the next ranch — Jennings, Sosian, Suyian, and Kifuku — to cause heartache for another rancher.
When we visited Jennings, the proprietor, Harry Jennings, was too pained to speak to us. Instead, he left his wife, Lucy, to do the interview.
His 10,000-acre ranch is run down, forcing the family to sell over 1,000 head of cattle after the herders invaded the farm and started stealing the livestock.
“We tried to negotiate but they threatened us. They refused and would in defiance graze their animals on our doorstep,” says Lucy.
The couple has been to many government offices, begging for help to drive out the herders. All in vain. That is why they see a powerful hand behind the invasions.
“It is not about grazing land. It is pure occupation and nothing else. They are using the herders to intimidate us, hoping we pack and go,” says Lucy.
The allegation seems credible. At the periphery of the farm, homes have sprung up, some permanent but mostly semi-permanent, to the dismay of the ranch owners. Some of the invaders are farming on the ranches, using water from Engare Narok river to irrigate their tomatoes, kales, cabbages, and maize.
“We are not leaving. This is not their (mzungus) land but ours. Let the government come and show us where to go if we are to move out,” said Joseph Nandei, who says he moved from Samburu in the mid-1990s.
Tears trickle down Lucy’s face as a truck drives past, loaded with tomatoes harvested from her farm. The transporters say they were businessmen from Ol Kalou.
“This is impunity,” says Lucy.
The invasions are no longer about drought. The herders seem to be employing a scorched earth policy: As soon as they move into a ranch, they sweep everything clean - cutting fences, carting away poles which they use as firewood in their night feasts, and burning down houses in an effort to intimidate and chase away the ranch owners.
Maria Dodds, who manages Kifuku Borans cattle ranch, says the owners are living on the edge.
She says she has been playing cat-and-mouse games with the illegal herders.
“They cut my fence and we embarked on using stones, arranging them to provide a compact fence. They, of course, come and remove the stones-one at a time and they also get frustrated,” she says.
A few metres from her house is a store that she has turned into a police post. Here, police officers deployed to provide security are preparing their meals. But, like their host, they dare not venture far from the compound.
“They have positioned themselves in strategic position, monitoring our every move. Any mistake to try and confront them will be disastrous,” said a jovial police officer in his vest, his G3 rifle within easy reach — just in case.
Dodds has resorted to blogging to share with other ranch owners her predicament.
“Where will this end? Who else can we talk to? Who could help to resolve this issue of chaos, violence, mayhem, shooting, and now murder?” she asks.
Richard Constant, a director at Sosian ranch, says though the grazers argue that the drought is forcing them to invade their farms, he has no doubt it is political.
“They have said they are not going anywhere. Why such brazen attacks during an electioneering period? Why kill when the solution is in talking? They just want to intimidate us to surrender but let them know we are not going anywhere,” he says.
His cottage, which stood near the spot where Voorspuy was killed, was razed down.
Traversing through the plateau’s varied landscape of high plains and low valleys that are home to some of the finest wildlife sanctuaries in the world, one gets the grim picture of what the future holds for private ranch owners.
The conflict and clash between the ranch owners and the herders is of monumental proportions, yet it has been downplayed for many months.
Despite the public tough talk of some senior government officials, police officers deployed to guard the ranches are under instructions not to use force. And the herders seem to know this.
“We are here as the government tries to find an amicable solution between the ranch owners and the grazers,” said one officer who did not want to be identified.
For now, Laikipia’s priceless wild heritage faces the prospect of extinction. The tough talk at press conferences calculated to suggest that action is being taken is quite different from the reality on the ground.