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Kenya throws zebras to the lions

Kenya is rounding up zebras and moving them to drought-stricken Amboseli Park so the lions will have enough food.

SOYSAMBU CONSERVANCY, Kenya — Hidden among the umbrella-shaped acacia trees are walls of dull tarpaulin which form a funnel toward the ramp of a truck that waits with its back door open. It is chilly and quiet in the break-of-dawn light. Khaki-clad wildlife rangers wait in silence clutching long switches hacked from trees.

Suddenly the morning hush is shattered by the thumping blades of a helicopter swooping low over the trees, then the sound of dozens of panicked hooves battering the dusty earth.

Chased by the chopper the zebras charge into the tarpaulin trap. Once inside rangers use sticks and shouts to cajole the frantic wild black and white horses along the narrowing tunnel toward the truck. In this way the first truck is loaded with 21 of the stamping snorting animals and the second with 19.

Herding just 40 of the zebras took an hour and a half of slow, frustrating work as the spooked animals would often scatter before reaching the trap or, spotting the tarpaulin or the rangers, would bolt in another direction.

The early morning expedition was the start of a huge undertaking to transport 7,000 zebras and wildebeest from across to Kenya to the drought-stricken Amboseli National Park in the south.

“We are doing this translocation to restock Amboseli,” said Isaac Lekolool, the vet in charge of animal capture and translocation at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the government body responsible for the country’s diverse animals and 33 national parks and reserves.

“Last year we lost most of the herbivores. It was a bad year for Amboseli and a bad year for Kenya.” This also meant it was a bad year for lions and a bad year for tourism.

Drought has killed off most of the lions’ prey forcing them to hunt outside Amboseli park. They often seize goats and cows, bringing the lions into conflict with farmers and herders who fiercely protect the herds upon whom they also depend for survival.

An estimated 100 lions are killed every year by angry herders and with only 2,000 remaining they are a top conservation priority for KWS.

The drought also hit tourism as horrified visitors to Amboseli saw rotting corpses and whiting bones strewn across the parched landscape while the stench of decomposing animals filled the air.

“Amboseli is a tourist facility and if the tourists come and they don’t see animals they are not happy,” Lekolool told GlobalPost.