Drought hits Kenya's wildlife

NAIROBI, Kenya — “Dozens of animals are dying every day, there are carcasses everywhere,” said Cynthia Moss, a renowned conservationist who studies the elephants of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.

The drought has forced up to 4 million Kenyans to rely on donated food and water for survival as the crops wither and cattle die on the barren land. The international aid group Oxfam warns that close to 23 million people across East Africa face severe hunger after five
years of little or no rain.

Roughly one in 10 Ethiopians and Kenyans, and half of all Somalis, need handouts to survive.

Meanwhile the World Food Program — responsible for feeding many of these people — is struggling to raise funds in the face of the worldwide economic downturn and faces a financial shortfall that means it simply does not have enough food to feed all the hungry.

As the East African savannah dries to a dustbowl, the wildlife with which Kenya is synonymous is also dying in droves threatening the country’s economy which is heavily reliant on tourism for foreign earnings.

The elephants of Amboseli in southern Kenya are one of the iconic images of Africa gracing coffee table books and glossy magazines. In the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent’s highest peak, the herds lumber across the savannah watched by thousands of tourists
every year who pay large sums for the privilege.

This year, however, visitors to the grassless plains are as likely to see the rotting vulture-picked carcasses as the live versions of the “big five” — buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino.

“This is the third year without rain so all the grass is gone. What we’re left with is a barren land of carcasses,” Moss told GlobalPost. “The tourists are appalled. They can’t drive a hundred meters without coming across a dead animal.”

Moss said this year’s drought is about as bad as she has known in 37 years of researching Amboseli’s elephants. “We had very bad droughts in '76, '84 and 2000 but this is the worst I’ve seen. The old Maasai — the wazee — say it hasn’t been this bad since the 1960s.”

Of 170 elephants born in Amboseli in 2008 and 45 more born this year about half have died, “and we’ll lose more before the rains come” said Moss.

Elsewhere the situation is scarcely better. The Maasai people’s traditional ranging lands in southern Kenya are turned to scorched dirt where the hot wind blows tall twisting dust devils across the landscape. And Kenya’s Rift Valley, usually a fertile breadbasket, is a parched dustbowl of withered crops and emaciated cattle.

Nestling in this great geological fissure that runs the length of the country is Lake Nakuru, famous for its flocks of pink flamingos but here the waters have receded as the four rivers that feed the lake are all dry.

In northern Kenya the situation is worse still. North of Mount Kenya is where the worst of the drought is biting for the local Samburu people, semi-nomadic pastoralists. These pastoralists rely on moving with their cattle in search of fresh grazing land, the problem is there’s little left.

Many have lost their entire herds, and therefore their livelihoods and lifestyles. In September there were horrific scenes just outside Nairobi where hundreds of cattle were buried in mass graves — they died of drought and starvation before reaching the slaughterhouse.

“North of Mount Kenya is the worst area, it is dry to the bone,” said Julius Kipngetich, director of Kenya Wildlife Service, the government agency responsible for the country’s many national parks and animals. “I was there last week and I have never seen it so dry, even the rivers have stopped flowing.”

On the edge of this now desolate landscape is Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a 62,000-acre reserve. “As of yet we haven’t lost a single animal but all around Lewa everything is dying,” said Elodie Sampere, a spokesperson for Lewa.

The conservancy’s managers have started a supplementary feeding program for the rhino, buffalo, zebra and eland to help them survive the drought. This is something Lewa can afford to do as a privately run and funded company but as Sampere pointed out: “People are dying as well. It’s difficult to argue that animals should be fed when that is happening.”

Kenya’s cash-strapped government cannot even afford to feed its people, let alone its animals, but with the tourism industry bringing in a little under $500-million a year it cannot be ignored.

“This is the worst drought in recent history and the impact on Kenya’s wildlife has been very severe,” said Kipngetich. “We’ve lost a lot of hippos especially in Tsavo, many antelopes in Amboseli and a high number of elephants to the north of Mount Kenya.” However, it may not be all bad news for Kenya’s wildlife and its tourism industry.

In the Maasai Mara where hundreds of thousands of wildebeest make their annual migration and tens of thousands of tourists come to watch, some paying over $500 a night for luxury accommodation in swish camps, the drought is having less of an impact.

“Here on the western side of the Mara there hasn’t been a drought at all so as a consequence we’ve had one of the best migrations ever with more than half a million wildebeest,” said Brian Heath, chief executive of the privately run Mara Conservancy.

“We haven’t seen any animals die as a result of the drought [but] I think the Mara is better off than most of the rest of the country.”

And even in Amboseli it seems there may be room for optimism as longed-for rains are predicted in the coming weeks. “The drought is a temporary thing,” Moss said, “because what is so amazing about the savannah ecosystem is how quickly it recovers when the rain comes.
I’ve been here for many years and it still amazes me.”