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Drought hits Kenya's wildlife

Millions in East Africa are on food aid, but the animals are still dying.

Female white rhinos are seen after their release from a cage at Nairobi National Park, Sept. 1, 2009, during the movement of 10 rare white rhinos from the drought-stricken Lake Nakuru national park in the Rift valley. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

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.