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