All across the arid and semi-arid landscapes of Africa, grasslands meet the eye. These ecosystems provide a wealth of environmental services, sequestering immense amounts of carbon (grazing lands store up to 30% of the world’s soil carbon, by one estimate) and harboring tremendous biodiversity. This includes some of the world’s most iconic remaining megafauna, such as elephants, rhinos and lions, and epic annual migrations of 1.5 million thundering wildebeest.

These immense swaths of grass also sustain people practicing one of the world’s most ancient occupations: livestock herding. Some 268 million pastoralists live in Africa, contributing an estimated 10-44% of the GDP of African nations, according to a 2013 African Union report. Out of necessity, herders are resourceful, innovative and resilient. They require large areas of land to graze their livestock, which is why many pastoral communities across the world are nomadic or semi-nomadic. Their cows, goats, camels and sheep convert what other people may dismiss as wasteland into milk and meat. At times, these animals are the only viable way to make a living in remote, dry landscapes.

Yet as populations of both people and their animals burgeon, as grasslands become segmented through fencing, property privatization, development projects and extractive industries, and as government policies encourage shifts away from pastoral livelihoods, both herders and the grasslands they depend on are facing new challenges. At the same time, pastoralists often take much of the blame for declining grasslands. Conservationists and farmers accuse herders of having too many livestock that trample sensitive vegetation and edge wildlife out as they overgraze the landscape.

Susanne Vetter, an associate professor of plant ecology at Rhodes University in South Africa, studies these rangeland dynamics across arid and semi-arid parts of the country. Much of her research and teaching focuses on plant adaptations and vegetation dynamics. But she says she has always been fascinated by people’s deeper relationship with plants and nature, and this theme has taken root in her studies as well. Through her work she has gained a rosier view of pastoralism than many conservationists and policymakers take.

“I believe that pastoralism and wildlife are compatible and probably the combination is the most ecologically appropriate form of land use in these parts,” Vetter says. She adds that she believes traditional methods of herding are a more sustainable and ecologically appropriate way to manage drylands than the main alternatives: “fenced-in” ranching and other intensive forms of farming.

Vetter also notes that people often misunderstand the intrinsic productivity of grasslands and their utility to local communities, and that this often manifests in ecologically inappropriate development strategies that threaten both grasslands and pastoral livelihoods, such as attempts to convert grassy biomes into agricultural plots or forests.

Mongabay contributor Kang-Chun Cheng recently interviewed Susanne Vetter via email about common misconceptions of African grasslands and the pastoralist communities who depend on them. The interview was edited for length, clarity and style.

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