The Dying Breeds

By Michael Boyce
Cattle in Burkina Faso

This post originally appeared on the SahelNow blog.

If you drive along the roads of northern Burkina Faso, as my colleagues and I have these past two weeks, you won’t always see the usual signs of human activity. While the population here is growing rapidly, the Sahel remains a sparsely populated region, and desiccated savannah dominates the landscape – stretching for miles into the distance.

But look a bit closer, and you will see that the Sahel is really one big, busy highway - traversed not by humans, but by their massive herds of livestock.

Cattle, sheep, and goats patrol this area year-round in search of grass, leaving in their wake close-shorn fields and huge volumes of manure. For untold generations, people here have consumed their milk and meat or sold it in nearby markets. Now however, as climate change has begun to hit the Sahel, herds are thinning out and their owners are suffering.

Mamadou, who lives in the town of Boulyiba, is one of many residents who lost livestock in the last two years. “Right now it’s so dry that we have a hard time feeding our animals,” he said, walking through a barren, brick-red field. “But if we sell an animal, that’s a year’s worth of work gone. So if you have a bad season and sell a number of animals, it’s almost impossible to recover.”

In centuries past, steady rains from May to September replenished the Sahelian grasslands, turning them from a dusty grey to a lush green. But in the last two decades, the rains have shifted. Now they come early or late, providing either too much water or too little. Good pasture is getting harder to find, and families have to sell their livestock to buy enough food in-between the harvests.

To most people in the West, saving for an emergency means funding a bank account or buying a savings bond. In the Sahel, however, people buy livestock to accumulate and store their wealth. So as people here lose their herds, they become poorer and less able to bounce back after a crisis.

A few hours north of Birguin, the 2,000 residents of Gourtoure are still reeling from an unprecedented flood in 2012 which washed away their entire village.  More than 3,000 goats and sheep were swept up in six-foot-high floodwaters, their carcasses left dangling from the trees. “Things are miserable here,” one of the village elders told us. “AGED [a local aid agency] gave us two animals after the floods, but they can’t give us what we lost.”

If global climate change continues as experts predict, then the Sahel will be badly affected. Weather events that are extreme today will become the norm. Drought will alternate with flood as rains grow more erratic, and rising temperatures will scorch land that was once productive. That will mean more hardships for the people of this region. And as the livestock on which they depend dwindle, they may have no choice but to leave the Sahel for good.