Fulani Herding System




Ismail Iro, Ph.D.








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Having raised livestock for centuries, the Fulani have evolved a herding system that withstands time, weather, social change, and government intervention. The movement of the Fulani over the years has led to a pastoral calendar in which the location and the grazing habits of the Fulani can be predicted. This section examines the occupations of the Fulani. It discusses their movement pattern and herd management system.


The name Fulani has become synonymous with grazing and cattle ownership. Fulbeness, pulaaku, is determined by the extent of Fulani involvement in herding. The primary occupation of the Fulani is herding, followed by farming. Less than a tenth of the Fulani have jobs other than herding or farming. Non-herding jobs are seasonal and opportunistic. For example, during the wet-season, the Fulani take advantage of the abundant rain and manure to plant corn, millet, sorghum, and home gardens in their backyards. 


The Fulani use farming to absorb the excess of labor during the wet-season, to reduce dependence on farmers, to counter food shortages during an impending drought, and to get farm stubble for their animals. A negative value is obtained when the frequency of movement is correlated with the extent of cultivation, indicating that the more mobile the Fulani are the less they engage in farming.


Fulani Diet

Unlike the Masai or the Karimajong, the Fulani do not feed only from the products of their herds. An examination of the Fulani diet reveals that it is identical to that of the sedentary community. Contrary to popular belief, the main food of the Fulani is not milk and meat, although they form a large portion of the menu.


The Fulani's main foods are corn, millet, sorghum, cassava, sugarcane, and nuts and fruits gathered from the wild. The Fulani are increasing their consumption of rice, wheat, and important foods. The Fulani, especially those near permanent settlements, are increasing their intake of canned and processed foods. Many Fulani are having tea and bread for breakfast, and are using seasonings, flavorings, cooking oils, and occasionally soft drinks bought from cities or local retail kiosks.


Herding Task

The household is the simplest, full-time, cattle-breeding unit. Every member of the household contributes to, and benefits from, raising animals (Stenning 1959). Labor is specialized. By assigning labor to gender and age groups, the pastoral Fulani optimize their production methods (Wilson 1985). Although the Fulani share the herding task, men's work differs from women's, as adult's work differs from children's. Labor differentiation is not, however, rigid among this sample of the Fulani. Regardless of age or gender, a member of the household learns all the herding skills.


Men's responsibilities

The management of the herd devolves on the men, but children, in their capacity as apprentices, also contribute to the labor-force. Men, who ensure the corporate existence of the family, are the primary household providers. They protect the animals from carnivores and raiding tribes. They take the animals to long-distance pasturelands. Men also find fodder, dig wells, and make weapons such as guns, knives, swords, herding sticks, and bows and arrows. Among the Fulani, the adult male find the grazing-sites, build the camps and the fences, and perform soil and water tests (Riesman 1977, 64; Fricke 1979; and Michael and others 1991, 22).


Women's work

Culinary responsibility falls on the women who process and cook the food. Girls and women weave mats, spin cotton into thread, make household decorations, and collect herbs and vegetables. They buy food from the market, milk the cows, churn the milk, make the butter, sell milk and butter, and do craft work such as decorating calabashes (Riesman 1977, 64; and Fricke 1979). Women also grow vegetables, and raise poultry and non-ruminant stock. Women and girls clean the compound. They look after the disabled animals, fetch water, collect firewood, collect wild-food, help in making temporary shelter, and bear and nurture the children (de St Croix 1945; Vengroff 1980; and Awogbade 1983).


The role of the elderly

Without a specific retirement age, most Fulani continue herding well past the middle age. When a pastoral Fulani man becomes old and incapable of performing the rigorous herding task, he relinquishes the responsibility to his sons (Fricke 1979). He then settles in the camp and acts as the chief adviser on family and herding matters. His wealth of experience makes him the trainer of the emerging household heads. An important function of the elderly in the Fulani society is making decisions about grazing movement.



About ninety-two percent of the Fulani respondents have a place they consider as a permanent home. Ninety percent of the Fulani household heads are interviewed in their place of birth. Although having fixed residence, the Fulani engage in extensive pastoral movements. Analyses of the Fulani herding system indicate that short- and long-distance trips dominate. These movements are, however, not random, as is the case with pure-nomadic Fulani. 


Reasons for mobility and intended length of stay

More than half of the Fulani in the study area do not plan to relocate. Ninety-eight percent of the respondents say they will remain in their current places if their livestock needs can be met. 


The Fulani movement varies according to individual circumstances, dictated by the seasonal distribution of grass and water. Mobility is necessary because pastoral resources are non-static and access to them requires movement. The pastoralists move to avoid harmful insects, abominable weather , livestock thieves, tax assessors, and hostile social environment (de St Croix 1945; Gulliver 1952; Konczacki 1978; Fricke 1979; Salzman 1980b; and Awogbade 1983).


Animals raised under sedentary conditions are more likely to be hit by natural or artificial disasters. To avoid the transmission of epizootic diseases among the herds, the Fulani steer clear of the herds suspected of carrying diseases (Riesman 1977; Sandford 1982; Meir 1987; and Ellis and Swift 1988). By extensive spatial grazing, the pastoralists optimize spatial resource use, allow the soil to rejuvenate, and prevent permanent land damage (Bennet 1990).


Local politics and ethnic pressure could preempt out-migration. For instance, before the European pacification of Northern Nigeria that promoted the security and freedom of movement, tribal raiding and warfare were major inhibitors of pastoral mobility (Stenning 1959; and Niamir 1990). By adopting several migratory pathways, the pastoralists were able to avoid conflicts.


The choice of suitable location

When asked how they know about the suitability of a site, the overwhelming majority of the Fulani say that they rely on information gathered by their young adult scouts. Friends and relatives also provide valuable hints about the places they visited. Having lived and grazed for many years, the Fulani have sufficient knowledge of seasonal and grazing conditions in their areas of operation. Prospecting for a grazing space by the Fulani is not a matter of discovering new areas, but of making sure that the areas are unoccupied, are free from recent outbreak of diseases, and are not cutoff by encroaching farmers.


Migration starts with a reconnaissance by the household head or his appointee, who, in deploying the herd, primarily considers water, grass, market, safety, diseases, access to roads, and socioecological conditions, though not necessarily in that order (Niamir 1990). It is not, however, uncommon for a pastoralist to base his choice of a location or migratory route on triviality such as closeness to a suitor (Stenning 1959). For collective security, the Fulani man will also consult his neighbors, relatives, and close friends from several camping groups before he moves (Gulliver 1952; and Waters-Bayer and Taylor-Powell 1986).


Change of location

The weather dictates the actual time of departure, but an imminent danger can hasten the out-migration. As the day of the exodus nears, the Fulani women start washing the pots, mortars, pestles, calabashes, and beds and bedding. The Fulani men begin packing household goods, dismantling the makeshift camps, and preparing the pack bulls. A team is sent to the new site to build the stockades, tithe poles, and beehive huts. Sometimes, the team also digs a well.


Early in the morning, on the day of moving, the Fulani load the household utensils on the backs of the pack bulls. The elderly, the children, the disabled persons, and the sick animals with a chance of recovery ride on the bull's back (Fricke 1979). The eight-kilometer-an-hour foot journey begins.


Using a cane, sign language, and verbal command, the Fulani drive the animals to the new camp. During the journey, the Fulani instruct their animal to lie, slow, swim, sleep, or stand still (de St Croix 1945). With faster animals occupying the front row, a migrating herd comprising of several family units move in a column of up to five meters wide and two kilometers long. By the time this column passes a given point, everything that stand at that point is destroyed (Fricke 1979; and Vengroff 1980).


Although many pastoral families migrate together, herds from different families never mix or get lost during migration. A Fulani man can identify his animal by its name, color, hair, spots, patches, twist of the horn, or shape of breast (de St Croix 1945). Because they breed their animals in a different ways, the Fulani cattleman easily recognizes an animal from another man's stock.



Herding is a monumental task for the Fulani who are always trying to get the best grazing condition for their animals. Contrary to popular belief, moving with animals is not the delight of the pastoralists. The migrant Fulani in Nigeria move because they have no choice. Three-quarters of the mobile Fulani in the sample report that herding is not only toilsome, it is becoming more strenuous. Nevertheless, about ten percent of the Fulani, mostly who are near dams and grazing reserves, say herding is becoming easier. Ninety-seven percent, including those who say herding is becoming less laborious, prefer raising animals within the precinct of the homestead.


Pastoral Calendar

At sunrise, the Fulani free the animals from the tether and take them out to graze. In the afternoon, the herders return the animals to the camp for milking and watering. The animals are taken back to graze until sunset. Throughout the night, the pastoral Fulani musk keep vigil on the animals, protecting them from night marauders. Daily herding tasks vary according to seasonal changes. The section that follows summarizes the annual pastoral cycle.


End of wet-season (October to December)

October to December marks the end of the wet-season and the beginning of the dry-season. Relative humidity is low; so is insect population. The dry soil allows the animals to move without becoming stuck in the mud. Some water and grass in isolated places are present for pastoral use. The Fulani begin their southward migration or start moving along the rivers and stream valleys.


The harmattan season (January to February)

January to February is the harmattan season. Relative humidity nears zero, and the tsetse population is reduced by extreme dryness. During the dry period, fodder quality and quantity fall, compelling animals to intensify bush-stubble grazing. Bushfires that destroy extensive pasturelands are common. Water becomes scarce and animals lose weight. Uncertainty of food and water necessitates longer grazing hours, splitting of the herd, and frequent visits to permanent water sources. Southward migration increases.


The beginning of the hot-season (March to April)

March and April are the hottest and toughest months for the Fulani. The condition of the bovine is at its sub-optimal level. The Fulani are in their southernmost locations. Widespread fires in the range worsen the pasture situation. Herds no longer select grass but make do with what is available. Because of insufficient rains, animals' urine and feces 'burn' the soil, further reducing the amount of forage (Riesman 1977, 14). Excessive ambient heat compels the Fulani to graze only in the evening and at night.


The end of the hot-season (May to June)

May to June is the end of the hot season and the beginning of the rainy season. Vegetation begins to appear. The cattle stop eating the old, dry grass. The Fulani start moving northward, with the cloud. The rate of reappearance of the grass determines the northward movement. Herders take precaution against animals wandering in the cropfield.


The rainy-season (June to September)

June to September is the peak of the rainy-season. The Fulani reach their northernmost homes in July. A resting period for the Fulani, this is also the cattle-breeding season. The herders engage in shorter grazing hours (10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.). The Fulani get the highest milk yields in this period.



The seasonal calendar of the Fulani affects the stock pressure. The seasonal carrying capacity of the land determines the latitudinal location and the extent of dispersion or congregation of the Fulani. Because water and grass can support a large crowd of people and animals, the pastoral Fulani congregate in the wet-season. The Fulani also converge to flood plain (fadama) in the dry-season. Up to five family units can be found within a kilometer radius from water-points in the dry-season, although a few herders may also be seen grazing solo.

In severe weather, even the strongest agnatic lineage among the Fulani disintegrates, occasionally, to go on separate survival missions (Grayzel 1986). In bad times, the Fulani with large herd size move more rapidly and further into the bush. 


During the tough months, herd-split herd-spliting and regrouping becomes an important survival strategy. By grouping, the Fulani reinforce reciprocity, camaraderie, and collective defenses against aggression. Stock association allows members to invest in friends and neighbors, to use food which cannot be consumed or stored by a single family, to request collective capital to restock after loss from disaster, and to share moments of distress or happiness. Institutionalized stock association among indigenous pastoralists hinges on a system of loaning (stock patronage or clientage) and gift-giving (stock alliance) (Dahl and Hjort 1979). The system helps the Fulani to reduce risk and to absorb the effects of localized misfortunes by reassembling assets scattered among the group.


Even when it looks static, the herd is dynamically reconstituted. The management of the herds is always in many hands. The Fulani keep more than ninety percent of their herds at the camp-sites. Although the stock belongs to the whole family, each animal in the kraal has a designated owner or inheritor. The section that follows discusses herd composition, ownership pattern, and herd size among the pastoral Fulani of Nigeria.


Herd Composition

A survey of 588 Fulani households reveals that cattle are the dominant non-ruminant herd. The camel is the least popular domestic stock of the Fulani. The Fulani in the study area have less than a thousand camels combined. An examination of stock composition shows a gender imbalance, with a preponderance of the female stock at a ratio of 4:1. On the average, the female species constitute sixty to seventy-three percent in each herd type. The advantages of keeping more female variety in the herd are obvious. A simulation of herd dynamics proves that the rate of growth of the herds peaks when female calves dominate the kraal.

Most Fulani livestock in the same ecological region are genotypically identical. For example, sheep are more common in northern Nigeria, while goats are the preferred stock in the south. Monospecies herding and species specialization are the result of a long history of inbreeding among the Fulani. The failure of the exotic species to adapt to the environment, their susceptibility to diseases, and their demand for large space and special care discourage the Fulani from species diversification.


The government tries to alter the stocking rates and attempts to generate an admixture of genotypes by selective species breeding and manipulating mating among the herds have been unsuccessful. The government, however, continues to encourage the Fulani to improve the stock by hybridization. However, stock improvement is being realized slowly, and by natural selection rather than by embryo transfer or chromosomal improvement. The main method available to preventing inbreeding is for a Fulani man to arrange with a friend or neighbor for a temporary exchange of mating herds.


Types of Species

The Fulani maintain a balanced, functional stock composition, consisting of beefers, milkers, breeders, carriers, laborers, cash generators, and stock beautifiers. The slow-maturing Sokoto Red cow and the lyre-horned White Fulani cattle are the mainstay of pastoral Fulani holdings. The Kano Brown cattle are hardy, prolific breeders, and voracious eaters (White and Wickens 1976). Their extensive use for plowing and carting makes them a popular breed among agro-pastoralists. The White Fulani, though less hardy, has higher milk and beef yields compared with the Sokoto Red (White and Wickens 1976).


Distribution of species

The bovine population is compartmentalized. Fifty percent in the Sahel and Sudan Savannas, forty percent in the Guinea Savanna, and ten percent in the Rain Forest. Ruminant is similarly distribution into zoogeographic regions. The northwestern part of Nigeria breeds the Red Sokoto Goat. Kano breeds the Brown Goat, and the Middle-Belt raises the "Dwarf Plateau Goat." (Fricke 1979, 7). When livestock traverse different ecological niches, the fraction of the stock in each zone changes.


The Fulani, most of whom are Muslims, do not raise pigs because Islam forbids the eating of swine. The non-Fulani breed most of the pigs in the north and send them to southern Nigeria where they are a major delicacy. Even people who breed the pigs dislike their management. Hogs bring dirt and stench, bore holes in the ground, litter the refuse damp, and live in the gutters where they obstruct the flow of household wastes. Shoat-breeders in residential areas are constantly quarrelling with their neighbors over damage to property. At Unguwan Rimi, Kaduna, women traders have once reported that a pig nearly swallowed a baby alive in the market.


The Small Ruminants

Many Fulani keep goats for many reasons. Embouche caprine require less water and care. They are easily conveyed and sold in the market. Goats mature quickly, reproduce rapidly, and produce high quality protein from low-quality feed (Cisse 1980; and Waters-Bayer 1986). Small ruminants scavenge and browse efficiently on herbs, leaves, shrubs, and trees. A goat can stretch its body 1.5 meters to reach a leaf, jumping or climbing a tree if possible to get its food. The West African Dwarf (WAD) sheep and goats are trypanotolerant, although highly susceptible to the deadly Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR).


The advantages of ruminant stock

Small ungulates provide red meat for a family (Cisse 1980). The slaughter of a ruminant can prevent the slaughter of a whole cow that cannot be stored or consumed by a small festive group. In Northern Nigeria, sheep rather than goats are used for religious sacrifices, naming ceremonies, and marriage festivities (Swinton 1988). Sheep and goats provide the initial capital among drought veterans for the purchase of foundation cows to rebuild a herd (Fricke 1979; and Bates and Conant 1980).



By selling or slaughtering, the Fulani eliminate most of the sterile animals from the herd. For aesthetic reason, the Fulani keep a few sterile animals. Castration is done by crushing the scrotum with a stone or metal (Awogbade 1983, 64-65). The beast is released after a few days of nursing. Less painful and faster healing veterinary procedures are replacing the traditional method of sterilization (Awogbade 1983).


Pattern of herd-ownership

Animals belonging to individual family members are tended together. The Fulani men assume the de facto rights of all the animals. Since the men hold the collective title to the family herds, it is difficult to ascertain the ownership of animals belonging to the women. A scrutiny indicates that the Fulani women own a sizable stock, especially of the monogastric animals and nearly all of the poultry in the household. A Fulani man with less than twenty cows is considered poor, but a Fulani woman with six cows is considered rich. 


The arithmetic of stocking among the Fulani is an area for future research. A correlation analysis of the field data suggests an increase in the number of ruminant stock among the pastoral Fulani stationed near heavily cultivated land.


Estimated Livestock Population in the Study Area

Accurate livestock statistics are difficult to get. Even in the best responses, the Fulani should be expected to under report their livestock size. Despite the waiver of the cattle tax, questions about herd count rise suspicion and anxiety among the Fulani. Although efforts are made to reassure the Fulani before asking them about their livestock possession, experience calls for cautious treatment of the data. 


Per capita herd size

Although cattle size ranges from 3 and 339, the average Fulani household owns about forty-eight cattle. This number compares with the average household holding for cattle among semi-sedentary Fulani in the Savanna. Taking 6.15 as the average number of people in a household, the per capita holding for cattle in this population is 8.29. Anthropologists believe that this number is just adequate to sustain a pastoralist for one year.


Optimum herd size

Many variables must be included to estimate the optimum herd size for an area and for a population. A theoretical concept, optimum herd size takes account of the prevailing environmental condition, biological capacity (performance) of the species, herd management practice, and resource use and distribution. For the Fulani of northern Nigeria, none of these factors are static, therefore, optimum herd size is dynamic, varying by a wide margin, depending on the circumstance of the individual Fulani.


This survey attempts to find the optimum cattle size, by asking the Fulani rather than by computing it from the data. The optimum herd size according to the Fulani in this sample lies between eighty and one hundred cattle. This range is well above the average household holding, but is less than the 100-150 found by Cunninson (1966) and Grayzel (1975). That the Fulani think of eighty or a hundred as the optimum cattle size underscores their need to increase the number of their stock.


Livestock increase

Ninety-five percent of the Fulani would like to increase their herd size. Three-quarters of the Fulani in this sample report an increase in their herd sizes compared to five years ago. Less than a fifth of the respondents report a decrease, and one-twentieth report no change in herd size. Considering the losses through droughts, diseases, offtakes, and natural deaths, even a small increase in herd size will bring a significant growth.


Livestock population in Nigeria

Nigeria is one of the four leading livestock producers in Sub-Sahara. In 1988, the country had over 12,200,000 cattle, 1,220,000 milking cows, 13,200,000 sheep, 26,000,000 goats, and 18,000 camels.


Ground truth data from the fieldwork by RIM show five trends. First, the population of cattle has either been static or has been declining due to the out-migration of herdsmen from Nigeria. Second, animals are drifting southward. Third, the number of pigs and rabbits is growing because of the increase in supplementary feed from agro-industrial by-products. Fourth, the poultry enterprise is decreasing due to the scarcity of chicken feed. Fifth, more herds are being raised under sedentary condition.


Livestock Distribution in Nigeria

Livestock species tend to distribute themselves according to vegetation and agroclimatic zones. The semi-desert is the camel zone, the semi-arid is the cattle zone, and the sub-humid the goat zone. In Nigeria, livestock follow the more conventional divisions of naisseur, the breeding areas in the north; engraisseur, the fattening areas in the middle; and consommateur, the consumption areas in the south (Horowitz 1980). These divisions coincide roughly with the Sudan, Guinea, and Forest zones, respectively. The table below gives the population of livestock in Nigeria.



State  Cattle Goats Sheep Camels
Abuja  7,000 816,000 480,000 ....
Anambra  64,000 1,467,000 426,000 ....
Bauchi  1,732,000 3,465,000 2,811,000 4,000
Bendel  47,000 1,748,000 737,000 ....
Benue  146,000 2,432,000 864,000 ....
Borno  2,727,000 3,188,000 2,424,000 27,000
C/River  10,000 351,000 117,000 ....
Gongola  1,503,000 1,970,000 1,324,000 ....
Imo  13,000 1,281,000 495,000 ....
Kaduna  998,000 866,000 441,000 ....
Kano  999,000 2,490,000 2,059,000 6,000
Katsina  626,000 2,009,000 1,553,000 7,000
Kwara  563,000 1,132,000 843,000 ....
Lagos  3,000  158,000 57,000 ....
Niger  1,165,000 969,000 752,000 ....
Ogun  27,000 905,000 340,000 ....
Ondo  9,000 1,747,000 589,000 ....
Oyo  296,000 1,889,000 863,000 ....
Plateau  1,054,000 1,865,000 964,000 ....
Rivers  3,000 670,000 509,000 ....
Sokoto  1,769,000 2,449,000 2,546,000 43,000
Total  13,761,000 33,867,000 21,230,000 87,000

*Figures were preliminary at the time of fieldwork. SOURCE: (N.P.D.L. record 1992).

Seasonality also affects the distribution of livestock in Nigeria. Figure 12 shows the wet-season distribution of cattle in Nigeria. The figure indicates that the most of the cattle are in the north, when moisture is still present. Figure 13 shows that livestock distribution in Nigeria.



To sum up, within a family, the herding responsibilities are shared among different age and gender groups. The tasks are discharged on specific pastoral calendar that runs on a one-year-cycle. The herd is dynamically constituted to suit the climatic and vegetal cycles. Animal species and types are distributed according to agro-climatic zones. The family owns the herd, although every animal has a designated owner. Resource Inventory Management data suggest that livestock population is either static or declining due to the emigration of Nigeria's herdsmen, who, as the next chapter shows, are experiencing more problems in raising their livestock.


The next section will focus on development constraints nomadic pastoralism. I will discuss the core of pastoral problems in Nigeria. I will examine livestock diseases and insect control, access to water and grazing land, commericial ranching and livestock improvement centers. I will also discuss the issues of rapid disappearance of the stock-routes before concluding with a discussion on failures of traditional pastoralism, institutional failures related to fodder bank, supplementary feed, animal traction, and livestock credit.



Ismail Iro works as a Programmer/Data Analyst in Washington, D.C. USA