Cattle population dynamics in the Southern Ethiopian Rangelands
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The Borana Plateau of southern Ethiopia is a pastoral region known for producing high-quality cattle. The sustainability of this pastoral system has been recently questioned, however, as livestock losses, poverty, and food insecurity are increasing. We used rainfall records and herd-history data from 56 pastoral households to characterize cattle population trends on the Borana Plateau during 1980-97. We supplemented these data with other findings to update the record through 1999. We wanted to learn to what extent drought and high stocking rates contribute to the high rates of cattle mortality in recent years. We also wanted to estimate economic losses from cattle deaths. Cattle population dynamics resembled a "boom and bust" pattern where longer periods of gradual herd growth were punctuated by sharp crashes in 1983-5, 1991-2, and 1998-9 when 37 to 62% of the cattle population perished. Cattle losses due to periodic starvation regulated the population -- net sales or numbers slaughtered were relatively small. When extrapolated to the entire Borana Plateau, the monetary losses of cattle deaths may have exceeded USD 300 million from 1980 to 1997. Separating out the inter-twined effects of high stocking rates and drought on cattle mortality is difficult. We believe, however, that high stocking rates predispose the system to crash when a dry or drought year happens to occur. The higher the stocking rate and larger the annual rainfall deficit, the larger the crash. In some cases a high stocking rate only needs a slightly dry year to cause a crash. System stability appears to be decreasing because drought grazing reserves are reportedly being lost to cultivation, bush encroachment, insecurity, and over-population. We believe that a cattle crash occurs once every 5 to 6 years because this is the time required for the regional herd to grow to over 20 head per square kilometer, and this increases vulnerability. We thus expect the next cattle crash to occur no earlier than 2005. Capturing some of the wealth lost from cattle mortality is important, but the process is difficult. Development solutions could involve aspects of economic diversification for pastoral households if it is sustainable. Improved risk management could involve more timely livestock sales before crisis occurs and investment of some of the revenue into entrepreneurial ventures or community projects. Such system change requires improvements in education, marketing, and rural financial systems.