“There were so many, and now there are so few… It makes me sad when the animals die,” said Sezerina Sake, a young Mundari woman, as she looked on to the community’s cattle camp in Terekeka, 80km north of South Sudan’s capital, Juba, where she has spent her entire life.
Generations here have missed out on schooling to tend to the cattle, milk the cows and burn their dung to use as mosquito repellant.
While Sezerina does not know her age, she is all too aware that she needs to attract a 50-cow dowry if her parents are to allow her to marry when the time comes. She hopes vaccinating the community’s remaining 800 cows will make this more likely.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), estimates that with 11 million cows and 19 million goats and sheep, South Sudan has the fourth-largest herd of livestock in Africa. In the world’s newest nation, the livelihoods of more than 80 percent of the population are based on livestock.
According to a recent report on the economic impact of east coast fever in South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria state, published in the International Research Journal of Agricultural Science and Soil Science, “livestock... are primary investment resources which generate food (meat, milk), cash income, fuel, clothing, employment and capital stock. They provide manure and draught power for crop production. They are stores of wealth which provide a sense of security, prestige, social status and cultural value. In addition, livestock convert crop waste and by-product as well as forages - otherwise useless to man - into useful products.”
The paper found that direct losses attributable to east coast fever outbreaks in just two cattle camps in Juba district in 2011 amounted to more than US$134,000.
“[The] impact of disease on the livelihood of the communities/household might include inadequate access to food, health facilities, educational opportunities, community participation and social interaction. Their chance for combating and reducing poverty is minimized and vulnerability level increases and the response to risk becomes poor, as livestock represent the alternative source in case of crops failure or in the event of disasters,” said the report.
In some regions of South Sudan, calf mortality is as high as 40-50 percent, according to the Netherlands Development Organisation’s Value Chain Study of the Livestock Sector. In mature herds, mortality is 10-15 percent in many areas, it said.
In late September 2011, South Sudan’s government - whose Ministry of Animal Resources and Fisheries took part in the east coast fever study - added animal vaccination to a 100-day plan of state-building initiatives. It hopes vaccination will make the animals more marketable and create a revenue stream to complement the state’s 98 percent dependency on oil.
FAO will spend $1.95 million in South Sudan this year on vaccinating an estimated five million cattle against black quarter fever, east coast fever and haemorrhagic septicemia.
Ideally, 70 percent of the country’s animals (around 21 million head) should be targeted for vaccination against these endemic diseases. But FAO faces a lack of funding, limited local capacity and access constraints due to insecurity.
George Okech, head of FAO in South Sudan, said agro-pastoralist communities such as Terekeka would crumble if they lost their animals.
“First of all they won’t have food. Their livelihoods would be completely destroyed because they would not have any cash to even buy grain, to pay school fees, to buy clothes and basic things,” he said.
“Now the other thing is that these animals are very important to these communities, especially the pastoralists, in terms of marriage, in terms of cultural events,” Okech added.
An FAO Rapid Crop Assessment has predicted severe food shortages next year due to internal insecurity and border closures with Sudan after the South’s secession in July.
The lack of goods crossing South Sudan’s undefined border or floating down the Nile from Sudan caused a 9 percent leap in prices in South Sudan’s first month as a sovereign nation.
Okech said local coping strategies always come down to bartering cows, but with a reduced herd and food shortages driving down the market exchange between cattle and foodstuffs, he fears for their livelihoods.
“If we had cattle now dying, it would be a double blow to these people, a double tragedy to the community, and the impact would be very high for these households,” he said.
Cycle of violence
According to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) internal security problems, notably related to cattle rustling, were a major cause for concern, in addition to the violence in regions to the north of the border with Sudan.
More than 1,000 people were killed and 25,000 head of cattle stolen in two major cattle raids in Jonglei State in 2011, the first in June, the second, a retaliation by the Murle on the Lou Nuer community which carried out the earlier raid.
"In both case we saw very large-scale movement, in army-like fashion. New arms, new weapons, and Thuraya [satellite] phones. So this is not normal cattle rustling. This is something way beyond that and it is something that is extremely worrisome," UNMISS Special Representative Hilde Johnson told reporters in Juba.
"If it gets out of hand, we will be in a situation where the cycle of violence will escalate to unknown proportions in South Sudan," she added.
The impending dry season could lead to an escalation of cattle rustling because of increased competition over access to water holes and grazing land.
In a recent bulletin, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs noted that “tensions also continue to simmer in Jonglei and Upper Nile states due to persistent rumours of impending inter-communal and rebel militia attacks.
“The security situation in Jonglei remains volatile, particularly in northern counties due to alleged rebel militia group recruitment in Duk, Ayod, Pigi, Fangak, Nyirol and Uror. Tensions between groups of Lou Nuer and Murle youth continue to be reported, despite ongoing efforts by government, community and the UN to de-escalate inter-ethnic strains.”