Mixed blessing of first rain

The beginning of the rainy season in the arid Sahel region of West Africa is bringing hopes of renewed grazing land and harvests, but also apprehension in Niger as weakened animals are succumbing to the first rains, according to the government, aid workers and herders.

The head of the Niger Association for the Revival of Breeding (AREN), Dodo Boureima, told IRIN the circumstances are “absolutely dramatic”.

“Our generation has never experienced such a situation and it is well beyond anything we anticipated. Thousands of animals [in Dakoro, southern Niger] have already died because of the first rains and we are expecting more losses,” said Boureima. The first heavy rains fell in the southern region on 16 June.

Sudden temperature change, the physiological demands on the digestive system of changing from a fodder to a grass diet, and water-borne diseases are always taxing for the cattle. “Since the animals are already extremely weak, many are expected to die with the first rains,” said NGO Action Against Hunger’s (ACF) West Africa regional representative Patricia Hoorelbeke.

Cattle were hit by last year’s drought, which left the country with limited grazing land and caused the price of animal feed to soar, making it unaffordable for subsistence farmers.

Hoorelbeke said the most at-risk animals - cows and sheep - were also the Sahel’s most common. Camels and goats are generally more resilient and more likely to survive the first rains.

The Ministry of Livestock and Animal Husbandry is currently assessing post-rain fatalities to identify suitable responses.

“The current response is inadequate,” said ACF’s Hoorelbeke. “In the next month of so, there will be grazing land again. It is time to identify those [animals that] have lost too much [weight] to recover and to focus on the future.”

Hoorelbeke noted that recovery can be a lengthy process. During livestock surveys in 2000, she met breeders who said they had still not mananged to build their herds back to the size they were before the 1984 drought.