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Traditional Pastoral Societies and Their Impact on the Environment

Updated on November 8, 2010
Maasai men catching a cow to give it a vaccine
Maasai men catching a cow to give it a vaccine | Source

The Genius in Ecology of Pastoral Nomads

Since the Neolithic Revolution pastoral nomads have roamed along the fringes of settled society. Nomads are able to live and thrive in harsh lands that would otherwise be unsuitable for food production. The only way they have been able to accomplish this task is through the hardiness of their animals. The reliance of the nomads on their animals brings them closer to the land whereas agricultural based society has separated itself from the land. The basis of modern agriculture is in defiance of natural systems and farmers are forced to use fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation to provide for crops. Nomads need only rely on the natural primary production of the land they wander. The land provides for their animals, which in turn provide for them. The harmonious interaction of nomads and their environment is what enables them to live a sustainable existence with little detrimental impacts on local ecosystems. While no system of pastoralism is in perfect symbiosis with their environment the associated ecological problems of their subsistence strategy are far less than that of settled societies. By looking at the strategy employed by traditional pastoral nomads, much can be learned about coexistence with the natural environment. This argument however cannot be discussed without first a description of the actual subsistence strategies some pastoralists engage in. For this purpose I will discuss what it is to be a pastoralist and the associated ecological interactions pastoralists have. I will then introduce two pastoralist societies, the Maasai of east Africa and the Basseri of southern Iran looking specifically at their subsistence strategy.

Maasai men injecting a cow with a vaccine.
Maasai men injecting a cow with a vaccine. | Source

Pastoralism in a traditional economy is the most efficient means of utilizing a grassland environment (Smith in reference to Africa, 10). It arises in areas where conventional agriculture is difficult or impossible, but also in fertile areas (Salzman 32). For example, it seems that pastoralism has developed among the Turkman not for ecological, but political reasons. Typically rainfall is the limiting factor in the production of pastoral lands, with nutrient availability sometimes being a factor. The constraints of the land inhabited by pastoralists, limits group size and are conducive to a loose social organization (Smith, 7). There are few purely pastoralist societies, when rainfall and other conditions allow, rudimentary gardens and fields often develop and the nomads become more sedentary (Smith, 7). Pastoralists may also turn to fishing or hunting to supplement their income (Salzman, 24, Weatherford, 17). Similarly when conditions become less favorable the continuum shifts to more of a hunter and gatherer approach as raising herds becomes impossible (Smith, 8).

Typically a transhumant existence develops among pastoralists, as rainfall comes disproportionately over most regions (Smith, 11). As such with seasonality, wet seasons bring fresh green shoots full of nutrients for livestock, while dry seasons bring harsh conditions for the animals. The mobility of these people allows for a “rapid response” to unpredictable and temporary resources when they are in short supply (Salzman, 23). All else held equal, dry regions typically bring a highly mobile lifestyle and small herd sizes, while wetter regions can withstand larger herd sizes and a more sedentary lifestyle (Galaty and Johnson, 17). Regions allowing little livestock production often bring a diversified economy, while regions with a capacity to carry many animals bring a heavy labor investment in livestock, with little labor devoted to other means of production (Galaty and Johnson, 17). With low livestock production, nomads are typically very self-reliant. Nomads able to maintain larger herds however, often have a semi-commercialized husbandry, heavily reliant on trade (Galaty and Johnson, 17).

All of these environmental factors seem to support a pastoral lifestyle, but how did domestication actually occur? There are many similarities between hunter and pastoral societies, so why would these people take on the responsibility for the animals as opposed to letting them live free range? For one reason it is more practical to have the animals needed for survival at close hand and under careful supervision (Smith, 33). Having control over the animals allows the pastoralists to protect them from outside predation and for a more efficient use of the available grasslands. Herding societies are able to support more people than hunting societies on the same amount of land through management strategies, giving herders a competitive advantage (Smith, 34). Domestication is especially useful in the social context. Pastoralism comes with a connotation of ownership and with ownership social relationships can be built and maintained through gifts of property. In this way domesticated animals become social vessels (Smith, 33). Furthermore cultural development in many pastoral societies requires the need to sacrifice animals for social and ritual purposes (Smith, 33). Having these animals easily accessible makes this a practical endeavor.

The livestock held by pastoralists vary in bred and species depending on climate and culture, but cattle, camels, goats and sheep are generally the species kept for subsistence. To maintain a herd of cattle they must be led to water at least every couple of days depending on their condition, any longer and they may risk overly stressing the animal, particularly in the dry months (Smith, 105). Cattle are mainly grazers, but will occasionally browse under story shrubs if grasses are in short supply (Smith, 106). This means there is a need to provide ample grazing for the cattle to survive. Camels are used mainly in dryer regions and are capable of going months without water after a rainy spell. They are able to use the desert vegetation not only for nutrition, but also as their predominant source of water as long as it remains lush (Smith, 107). Unlike cattle, camels are excellent browsers having a preference for acacia trees. One problem in particular that pastoralists may encounter with the raising of camels is including salt in their diet. All animals require salt, but camels are in particularly need of its supplementation. Many herders offset this problem by supplementing their diet with salt licks or salt water, but some simply lead them to salt shrubs to graze (Smith, 108). Finally, goats and sheep categorized as small stock, require similar access to water as cattle. Sheep have been observed to be mostly grazers, occasionally browsing on shrubs, while goats diets seem to have an even mix of the two feeding strategies (Smith, 109). Because of the differing approaches to feeding, mixing of livestock into a common herd and keeping a variety of animals allows for maximum vegetation utilization (Smith, 125).

While the lands carrying capacity, limits in water and vegetation, may be a general factor in the regulation of herd size, available labor may also play a major role. The ability of a herdsman is aided by his cultural practices and belief systems (Smith, 124). For example the common practice of limiting male livestock while maximizing females makes for more efficient use of resources (Smith 124). Investing in females means more milk production and new births, while males only bring meat. In the end herd sizes are limited by both environmental constraints and the pastoralist’s ability to optimizing his herd.

Many ecologists suggest that large herds, what a pastoralist strives for, are environmentally detrimental (Galvin, Coppock, Leslie, 113). However keeping a large herd of adult animals may be more ecologically viable than producing and selling young animals. In a stable ecosystem, biomass is maintained, but early successional ecosystems are undergoing maximum production (Galvin, Coppock, Leslie, 114). As with many other ecosystems, disturbances may be healthy for the grassland environments inhabited by pastoralists. Heavy foraging by herds, acts as a disturbance resetting the successional clock and in fact increases primary production. By keeping a large and mobile herd, pastoralists optimize their grasslands by creating disturbances that reset succession then move on before any catastrophic damage is done.

Herd size also has a profound effect on the size of human populations. With the dependence of pastoralists on their animals for their very subsistence, if a herd drops below the minimum level to support the herdsman, the pastoralist population must decrease. In the simplest and perhaps most unfortunate scenario these nomads would starve, but there may be many other factors influencing the dynamics of human populations. A more in-depth study of which will come with the discussion of the Basseri later in this paper.

Another issue put forth by ecologists is that wild animals often regulate their populations well below the carrying capacity due to limiting factors such as predation (Smith, 113). Domestic animals are however protected by their human herders and can potentially bypass the natural carrying capacity. As this occurs vegetation is over utilized and soil erosion may occur, degrading the land (Smith, 114). In his book Pastoralism in Africa, Smith possess the question of whether or not domestic animals directly compete with wild ungulates for vegetation because of differences in feeding preference (Smith, 114). Evolving under heavy pressure from herbivores has aided in the development of secondary compounds as a defense in plants. The natural herbivores in many regions may have evolved in relation to these secondary compounds and developed niches in their feeding preference for their particular environment. The differing ability of ungulates to digest plants containing secondary compounds influences which plants are utilized in a particular environment and by whom (Smith 113). Theoretically, domestic animals may have acquired the capacity to digest plants off limits to their wild counterparts. Unfortunately there is little evidence to support domestic animals being able to overcome secondary compounds anymore than their wild equivalents, leaving the question of competition unanswered. Domestic populations may have another control however that is not so apparent in wild herbivores populations. Having a genetic origin in regions typically different than where they are being raised, domestic animals are highly susceptible to local diseases and parasites. For example, evolving alongside the tsetse fly, wild ungulates have developed a tolerance for the illness that it can inflict. Domestic herds however are extremely susceptible because they have not evolved the proper defenses (Smith, 114). Such illnesses may also limit the land utilized by herders to areas free of these pests, leaving such areas free of competition from domestic herbivores.

For a practical example of the relationships between pastoralists and wildlife we can look to the Maasai tribe of east Africa. The Maasai are herders of cattle, donkeys, and small stock including goats and sheep. Today they are a tribe located throughout Kenya and Tanzania around an area known as the Rift Valley. Along the floor of the Rift Valley as little at 17 to 20 inches of rain may fall in a year, while the higher altitudes can get anywhere from 20 to 30 inches of rainfall. With this regions close proximity to the equator, two rainy seasons occur, the first between March and May and the second coming in November and December. This rainfall however, is not only seasonal, but also very unpredictable in amount and location (Nyamweru, 2). Rainfall is often localized and can occur in scattered locations across the land. With this climate in mind, it is easy to see how pastoral nomadism may have developed as the dominant subsistence strategy here. The carrying capacity of this region is estimated to be at one livestock per 40 ha (Smith, 132). In addition to climatic conditions, the Maasai land utilization is also limited to areas unaffected by the tsetse fly because it can be extremely debilitating to their herds (Galaty and Johnson, 70).

The traditional Maasai primarily subside off the fresh and sour milk drawn from their livestock. Blood is also commonly consumed, being drained from a vein in the neck of living animals. While meat is also eaten, it is less common as it would be rare for a healthy animal to be slaughtered. There is also a carbohydrate component of their diet stemming from maize or millet the Maasai trade for with a tribe known as the Kikuyu (Nyamweru, 6).

As pastoralists, cattle form the majority of the Maasai economy. The more cattle a Maasai man owns, the richer he is. The Maasai use a bred of cattle known as zebu, which generally have a low milk yield, but are very hearty and can survive the shortages of water and grass faced in the region (Nyamweru, 7). Other animals are also held such as sheep, goats, and donkeys, which are more transferable and bred faster than the valuable zebus. The livestock is often separated by species (with goats and sheep being grouped together) and are cared for by different age groups of tribesmen. Young children take care of the small stock and calves, while the warrior class looks after the adults. Sources of water and pasture are often in short supply and in remote locations, requiring animals and their keepers to travel some distance (Nyamweru, 8).

It is the their migrations however that define the Maasai as nomads. In traditional movements they typically move anywhere from every few months to every seven years depending on the region and circumstance (Nyamweru, 14). These movements are primarily due to the exhaustion of grazing and water in the area (Nyamweru, 10). By moving away, the Maasai prevent the total depletion of natural resources and give the land a chance to recover.The elders of the village hold the responsibility of community planning, movement, and livestock management (Nyamweru, 9). They direct the grazing strategy for their animals as well as the migratory pattern. This centralized authority brings order to the grazing strategy and prevents over utilization of the land. There are even pockets of land that are protected from grazing and only utilized in times of drought or when a herdsman has sick animals.

While the Maasai do approach their livelihoods in a relatively ecological manner, there is some impact on their environment. The first and foremost influence is found in their suppression of trees and shrubs. The Maasai both intentionally suppress trees to increase grazing land and unintentionally for wood use in fire, altering the vegetative cover of the land. Often times the Maasai set controlled fires to kill old vegetation and allow for fresh growth to occur, keeping the grasslands in early succession. There also may be some competition between the livestock of the herdsmen and the natural herbivores of the region. Wild herbivores however are typically not hunted and otherwise go unharmed. Wild predators however have not been so lucky in their dealings with the Maasai. Traditionally, if a predator was seen and deemed a threat to their livestock, it was killed. While this results in a drop in predator populations, they were never hunted for the purpose of eradication and thus avoided total removal from the area (Nyamweru, 3).

Though the Maasai had changed the natural environment, they still lived in a relatively sustainable and harmonious method.These vegetative and faunal changes do have some impact on the ecology of the region, but the effects are small and in many cases beneficial to the local fauna. Burned grass brings forth fresh foliage and may kill disease carrying organisms such as ticks, not only benefiting livestock, but also wild herbivores. Maasai management does not only enhance their productivity, but may also increase the productivity of the land as a whole. The Maasai have even found an economic benefit and rational for the protection of wildlife in the modern era. Ecotourism is a rising industry among African nations and can mean survival for many struggling native tribes. Unfortunately the Maasai have been forced into group ranches to help the government to manage the land. These ranches restrict the movement of the Maasai, disallowing their traditional migrations. Furthermore there is a push towards sedentarization among the Maasai. With these modern changes many of the measures balancing the ecology and culture of the Maasai have been destroyed causing a great deal of turmoil in their homeland.

The second society I would like to put forward is that of the Basseri in southern Iran. This tribe migrates around the arid steppes of the region living out of tents and herding small livestock (Barth, 1). Their territory is made up of high regions, which accumulate some amounts of snow during winter allowing for a short growing season and low regions which can only support harsh desert plants beyond the short rainy season of winter and early spring (Barth, 4). While the other inhabitants of the area are able to subsist off of agriculture, it is almost completely supported by irrigation (Barth, 4). Apart from some wells to provide drinking water the Basseri are able to subsist without such irrigation (Barth 4). They instead survive on the utilization of extensive pastures within their territory. Each of the differing sections of the Basseri travels a different migratory route between the high and the low lands (Barth, 5). There is a tradition of differing locations stayed, time occupied, and times of departure. Along these routes it is considered the right of a tribesman to graze his flocks in uncultivated lands and draw water from all but private wells (Barth, 5).

The central authority that enforces and organizes the migratory routes is based around a chief (Barth, 62). This chief is the embodiment of what is known as the corporate body of the Basseri. A chief holds a unique position among the Basseri as being the only member of the tribe that makes decisions beyond what concerns his own tent (Barth, 74). He holds the right to administer taxation and regulate land use (Barth, 74). Below this executive position there are headmen, which represent the different oulads that make up the tribe (Barth, 55). The headmen can be equated to a camp leader in his camp, but is also responsible for the other camps designated within his oulad (Barth, 55). The actual communities the Basseri live in though are at the level of separate camps, differing components of an oulad (Barth, 58). An individual’s membership in his respective oulad is a result of his patrilineal decent and gives him right to the land allotted by the chief (Barth, 55). This right is however limited only to that tribesman’s assigned migration route and time (Barth, 55). He may not graze freely, preventing differing sections from utilizing the same location at the same time.

While land of the Basseri can be considered a corporate entity, the livestock can be considered an individual possession. The individual in Basseri society is not what we may consider an individual to be by western standards. An individual is not one person, but the elementary family unit that lives together in a common tent (Barth, 11). The livestock owned by the members of the tent produces the food and economic capital the family uses for subsistence (Barth, 13). There is a division of labor held within each tent that reflects each individual’s abilities and the chores each tent must accomplish (Barth, 14). Each tent has a recognized head, usually the husband or senior male, but each adult member has more or less an equal say in the decisions that greatly affect the family (Barth, 14). Each tent is generally re-pitched an average of 120 times a year as the individual nomads migrate (Barth, 15).

The dependence of the individual on the animal, as mentioned before, binds their population sizes together. A small population of nomads cannot support a large herd because of restrictions on labor and a small herd cannot support a large human population because not enough food can be produced. Therefore a balance must always occur for these two populations to be stable. Baring any external pressures this equilibrium can be maintained. However this is often not the case as scenarios such as a major drought can devastate herds. Furthermore there is a high rate of growth among the Basseri, which without any checks on population would certainly lead to the depletion of resources (Barth, 125). However as herd sizes increase with the increasing human population, negative feedbacks are enacted and begin to lessen the growth rate. More animals being forced to live closer and closer together can led to higher rates of disease and parasites among the animals, reducing their populations (Barth, 126). In a final control, if populations approach the carrying capacity, resources will be depleted and they will return to a more stable state through starvation. A healthy herd holds somewhat of a buffer to allow for some loss in size before the critical point where it can no longer support the pastoralists dependant upon it (Barth, 124). If this point is reached the pastoralists are forced to sell their remaining herd and become sedentary as village peasants (Barth, 126). Many herdsman may to avoid this fate and immigrate to neighboring regions before resource competition can take its tole (Barth, 116). Similarly there is a check on the pastoralist populations coming through success. If a pastoralist begins to grow too much he may sell some animals and begin to accumulate wealth in the form of money. Many pastoralists use this money to buy land which is a much more stable commodity than livestock (Barth, 125). As these pastoralists accumulate land they begin to become more sedentary in order to manage their property. Eventually they permanent landlords and leave the pastures, decreasing the pastoral population.

The structure of the Basseri tribe maintains both order and flexibility to efficiently utilize their land. At a macro view, the Basseri are controlled by the corporate body that manages the land properly. The ecology of the land only allows for a limited utilization that cannot be sustained over time. The power of the corporate body regulates land usage to ensure that it is not over exploited. On a smaller scale the Basseri operate on their own managing livestock in the way they see fit within the bounds of their oulad. Through the management of the corporate body, the individuals avoid the tragedy of the commons. If allowed to move freely with their livestock, the individual tents will only act in their own interest and the resources at their disposal will be depleted.

By looking at the Basseri we can again see many of the same ecological management practices used by the Maasai. Both have a central authority regulating their use of the land. Cultural practices by both also enhance their utilization from the land. The Basseri also give us a great look into population regulation. But how can this information really be used to create a better system of farming? In 2002 a unique exchange occurred between Maasai men from Kenya and ranchers from the United States. The two groups came together and exchanged land management practices in an attempt to make the pastoralist systems in both areas work more efficiently. One rancher was quoted in saying “It has been my lifelong dream to see the wildlife of East Africa/ Yet now that I am here, though I find the wildlife impressive, it is the Maasai people and their culture and way of life that moves me even more” (Curtin and Western, 872). Not only was this a great experience for the ranchers, but also a very educational one. By avoiding local drought and following the lush grasses through collectively moving herds, the ranches can boost their production and reduce losses (Curtin and Western, 872). Furthermore planned method of reserving special grasslands for sick animals or areas to be utilized during the dry season can have similar effects (Curtin and Western, 873). The idea of diversifying the use of the American rangelands was also brought up by the Maasai. Perhaps the utilization of ecotourism, which is rapidly growing in Kenya and much of Africa, can help farmers make ends meet. While some ranchers do guide hunts or bird watching these efforts could be greatly expanded upon and may help ranchers avoid having to take second jobs away from their farms (Curtin and Western, 873).

The example of such a cultural exchange that I have just given is only the tip of the iceberg in what western farmers may be able to learn from pastoral peoples from around the world. The versatility and mobility of pastoralists allow them to utilize more resources efficiently. These pastoralists are able to live without artificial inputs such as fertilizer or artificial labor such as tractors that westerners need to get by. To pastoralists, their livestock is their life and as such their cultural practices reflect management strategies making the best of their local ecology to maximize production. Perhaps the most valuable lesson we can learn from traditional pastoral practices is that the key to success is finding a balance. By not over utilizing the land and taking advantage of what is offered we can be highly productive, while not destroying the world we live in.


Barth, Fredrik. 1961. Nomads of South Persia: The Basseri tribe of the Khamseh Confederacy. Waveland Press; Long Grove, Illinois.

Curtin, Charles and David Western. 2007. Grasslands, People, and Conservation: Over-the-Horizon Learning Exchanges between African and American Pastoralists.

Fratkin, E, Galvin, K, and Eric Roth. 1994. African Pastoralist Systems. Lynne Rienner Publishers: Boulder.

Galaty, John and Douglas Johnson. 1990. The World of Pastoralism: Herding Systems in

Comparative Perspective. The Guilford Press; New York.

Nyamweru, Celia. 2001. Notes on the History, Society, and Resource Use of the Maasai People. Class Notes.

Smith, Andrew. 1992. Pastoralism in Africa: Origins and Development Ecology. Ohio University Press; Athens.


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      6 years ago


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      Fasinated. Kat 

      8 years ago

      I was fasinated by this education. This really helped me write my argicultural essay for collage my proffesor wass inspired by this article!!

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      8 years ago

      This article was very interesdting did u whittness this?!


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