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Last Updated: Monday, 7 August 2006, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Killer weed hits Kenyan herders
By Anne Mawathe
BBC News, Kenya

A toothless goat is not a common sight in Kenyan courtrooms.

Removing a thorn from a person's foot
The plant's thorns harm both people and livestock
But the appearance of the animal before Nairobi judges in July was a sign of how desperate some Kenyans have become in their battle against the invasive "mathenge" plant, known by its scientific name of prosopis juliflora.

When the plant was introduced to Kenya 20 years ago, it was supposed to stop the deserts in their track.

But 20 years later, it has become a nightmare for residents of Kenya's dry lands, who say the weed has overgrown the local landscape and continues to spread at an alarming rate.

Baringo residents say that the plant is not only poisonous but also hazardous to their livestock.

Residents say the mathenge seeds of the plant stick in the gums of their animals, eventually causing their teeth to fall out.

Mistake

Since they survive by raising livestock, any threat to their animals is unwelcome, but their attempts to sue the government were unsuccessful.

Trees
How could they allow the introduction of this tree without knowing the repercussions or the side effects?
Joseph Taparkwe
The goat squatted calmly in the unfamiliar surroundings of the courtroom, but the judge threw out the case.

Yet environmentalists still believe the goat is a victim of a fatal mistake made by the government in conjunction with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation 20 years ago, when it introduced the plant with an aim of stopping the spread of deserts.

A cool breeze welcomes you to Ng'ambo division in Baringo district with the last rays of the setting sun penetrating through a canopy of shady trees.

But that shade is something that the residents of Baringo would rather do without, and some of them blame themselves for having taken part in the whole project.

There was a time when they welcomed the new species, toiling in their dry lands planting this tree in a food-for-work project.

They had been told that they were saying goodbye to the searing heat which sometimes reaches 40C.

"We are now feeling let down by the government," says Joseph Taparkwe.

"It should have tested the species before it introduced it to this area. How could they allow the introduction of this tree without knowing the repercussions or the side effects?"

Mr Taparkwe was among those who tirelessly planted the highly invasive species. Little did he know that 20 years on, he would be advocating the removal of the mathenge.

Hoofless and toothless

His neighbour, Edward Tamar, shows a goat whose hooves have been cut off.

Woman cutting wood
One advantage of the tree is as a source of firewood
The thorns of the plant are said to be poisonous and so once an animal is pricked, the solution is to cut off the affected area.

He also says he has lost about 50 goats that have been left toothless from eating the pods of prosopis juliflora.

"The pods are very sweet to the mouth of the goats and as they continue to chew them the seeds go in between their teeth then they cause the teeth to rot. With time they fall off and they are unable to graze. Can you imagine goats unable to graze? Eventually they die.''

And that has been the story of many pastoralists who live in Baringo district.

Residents argue that the government should eliminate the plant that is causing havoc in their home area.

Some have even had to move home, as the mathenge roots have destroyed their houses.

Roselyn Nabwori, the wife of a paramount chief, who is now living in the town centre, regrets the loss of her house.

"We built it as our family home. I never thought I would be living in a rented house in town, whereas I have a good home," she says.

Threat

The plant is also blamed for making the soil loose and unable to sustain water.

The twice-yearly rains have not been yielding much as flooding is now a common phenomenon in this area.

The government admits that mathenge is a threat to the ecosystem.

Although the plant has successfully curbed desertification in some areas, the plans backfired in Kenya because there were no natural enemies to control its spread.

"It will cover our grazing lands so it excludes our animals and since they can't feed on it, because of the thorns and its size, there is a big threat," says Muusya Mwinzi, Director General of the National Environmental Management Authority.

"Not even an elephant can penetrate through a field of prosopis juliflora. It is threatening our range lands especially those near water sources."

The government has already formed a ministerial task force to look into the menace.

The plant does have its advantages: With proper management, the pods can be processed to provide commercial livestock feeds, provide, wood fuel, timber, construction posts as well as wood for carving.

However, it may take time before a long lasting solution is found to rescue the residents of the affected areas from the jaws of the killer weed.




SEE ALSO
Alien species 'cost Africa billions'
05 Feb 03 |  Science/Nature

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