By Ayenat Mersie
It is starving Kenya‘s famous wildlife from normal outdoor food sources, driving them into deadly conflicts with humans as they roam farther to the outskirts of towns and villages in their desperate search for food.
Without intervention to protect wildlife, or if the approaching rainy season fails again, wildlife could face an existential crisis in many parts of the east African country, conservationists say.
“This is a serious threat to us,” said Andrew Letura, a surveillance officer at Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT). Grevy’s zebras, which are larger than a normal plains zebra and have narrower stripes and broader ears, are the rarest of the species: there are 3,000 specimens left in the world, including 2,500 in Kenya.
Drought has killed about 40 Grevys since June – that’s how many would die in a full year, said Letura, squinting under the scorching sun in Samburu National Reserve in arid northern Kenya.
“If we lose 40 in three months, what would that mean for the remaining population?”
GZT has started feeding Grevy’s zebras hay poured over a mixture of molasses, salt and calcium, which is helping to reduce deaths but not eliminate them, the Trust says.
The situation in southern Kenya is also bleak.
The carcass of an endangered Grevy’s zebra that died during the drought is seen in Buffalo Springs National Reserve, Isiolo County
The carcass of an endangered Grevy’s zebra that died during the drought can be seen in Samburu National Park
Endangered Grevy’s zebras search for food during drought in Samburu National Park
“Rangers counted eight times as many dead or weak animals compared to a normal September. The Amboseli Trust for Elephants has registered 50 dead or missing elephants,” said Benson Leyian, executive director of the Big Life Foundation, which works with local landowners to protect wildlife sanctuaries and open rangelands of the Amboseli ecosystem.
At nearby Kitenden Conservancy, the stench of decomposing animal carcasses is so strong that some tourists have started wearing protective masks, a local ranger said.
Some wild animals die at the hands of humans.
“Compared to other dry seasons, we’re seeing a five-fold increase in incidents of people poaching for bushmeat,” Leyian said.
Save the Elephants, meanwhile, said it is finding growing numbers of elephants that have been killed by guns or spears but with their tusks intact – a sign they have fallen victim to conflict with people in populated areas rather than poaching.
According to experts, the crisis is not solely due to the drought. Overgrazing by livestock is depleting rangeland and making it harder for ecosystems to recover from drought, said Save the Elephants field operations chief David Daballen.
Just the thought of the possibility that the next rains, which are expected in October-November, fail to materialise, is frightening, GZT’s Letura said. “The situation is already bad. But that would make it a serious crisis,” he said.
“The first word anyone says now is they are praying for rain.”