Cloaked in trademark red shawls with layers of brightly colored beads around their necks, hundreds of Maasai herders converge on this dusty town on the southern end of Kenya's portion of the Great Rift Valley for the twice-weekly cattle market.

 

Cows are central to the lives of the nomadic herdsmen who have been deeply disturbed by news that hundreds of thousands of livestock have been killed in faraway Britain in a bid to stamp out an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. 

Tribal tradition holds that these herders are the true custodians of all the world's cows, and the notion of a mass slaughter of otherwise healthy animals is not only horrifying in theory — they take it very personally. 

"If the European people were here in Africa, we could have raided them for this," Nicholas Tanyai said angrily, as he looked over cows for sale at the corral on the edge of town, about 50 miles northwest of the capital, Nairobi. 

"Just bring those animals that you are killing, and we will buy them." 

Foot-and-mouth is endemic in Kenya, as in many other countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America, where an outbreak barely causes a stir. A relatively mild livestock disease which strikes cloven-hoofed animals such as sheep, pigs and cows, foot-and-mouth poses no medical threat to humans. 

The Maasai equate it with a human cold — they use the same word for both illnesses — treating the sores that appear on the hooves and in the mouths of infected animals with boiled herbs and salt and waiting for the disease to pass. 

While the virus can significantly reduce the milk and meat output of selectively bred European cattle, its effects on indigenous breeds are minimal apart from in the very young, which can die, said Brian Perry, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute. 

Kenyan cows are lower-yielding to begin with, and they have also developed greater resistance to the disease, he said. 

The panic that has gripped Britain and other Western countries has more to do with international trade than the nature of the disease. 

A country that imports livestock touched by the highly infectious virus risks infecting its own herds, thereby jeopardizing its own export business. 

British meat and livestock were banned by the European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries after the outbreak was detected Feb. 19. 

The virus can be spread by anything it touches, including truck tires, the soles of shoes, or contaminated hay, water and manure. Wind can carry it up to 40 miles. 

Following on the heels of a mad cow disease scare — a livestock ailment that has been linked to a brain-wasting variant in humans — British officials were quick to impose movement restrictions and a slaughter program. More than 200,000 animals have been killed, their carcasses burned, and the ashes buried in deep pits. Many more could be condemned. 

Movement by people in the countryside has also been discouraged, with officials closing country footpaths, halting horse racing, quarantining suspect farms and slaughterhouses and shutting down parks and nature reserves. 

In the scrubby grasslands around Susua, where zebra and the occasional giraffe mix with the grazing cows, sheep and goats, Nanna Kakatleya's eyes widen in horror at the prospect. 

"If the government tells me to kill my cattle, then they will kill me," said the elderly herder, a member of Kenya's majority Kikuyu tribe, who was armed with clubs and arrows as he watched over his animals. 

Cows are at the heart of the herder society, representing food, wealth, status, and a source of cash for school fees or the price of a bride. 

Slaughter to stave off an outbreak of the disease isn't an option in a country where the government does not have the money to compensate farmers for the loss of their herds. And it wouldn't be effective anyway unless wild animals such as the migrating wildebeest were also culled, Perry said. 

When outbreaks do occur in Kenya, the authorities usually impose a quarantine and vaccinate animals in the affected area. 

In Europe, however, the injections have been discontinued because they are not 100 percent reliable and can hinder tracking of the disease, as vaccinated animals carry the same antibodies as those infected. 

An immunization campaign would also cost European countries — apart from Britain and France, which has also now been touched by the disease — their current foot-and-mouth-free status in world trade markets. 

That is not a concern in Kenya, where most of the meat and dairy production is for domestic consumption. 

Delamere Estates, one of the country's largest beef and dairy producers which operates like western cattle ranches, vaccinates its imported black and white milking cows every four months as a precaution, general manager Renaldo Retief said. 

He admitted to being as puzzled about Britain's handling of the outbreak as the herders in nearby Susua, where Moses Kaleki contemplated the issue from a bench in front of the town's rickety cafe. 

"Maybe the disease is dangerous to you Europeans," he wondered. "Is that why you are killing your cows?"