Photograph by Lisa Hoffner
Published September 21, 2009
This story is part of a special series that explores the global water crisis. For more clean water news, photos, and information, visit National Geographics Freshwater Web site.
More than sixty African elephants and hundreds of other animals have died so far in Kenya amid the worst drought to hit the country in over a decade, conservationists announced. (See pictures of the drought's recent toll, and watch video of the drought's impact on elephants.)
So-called "long rains" that usually fall in March and April failed this year, and some areas have now been in drought conditions for almost three years. No one knows why the drought has been so bad. Many attribute it to global warming, but others say it is simply part of the long-term weather cycle in East Africa.
Since January at least 38 dead elephants have been found in the area around the Laikipia highlands and Samburu National Reserve, officials said. (See pictures of Samburu's elephants.)
In addition 30 baby elephants have been reported dead so far this year in Amboseli National Park, farther south
Some of the animals died of thirst, while others starved due to lack of vegetation or succumbed to diseases or infections due to weakened immune systems, according to wildlife officials
Many of Kenya's other iconic species—including lions, crocodiles, zebra, and wildebeests—are also suffering in drought conditions and could start dying at worrisome rates, wildlife officials say.
"The elephants are very smart animals," said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of the Nairobi-based nonprofit Save The Elephants. "But I think they are going to die in large numbers, and that goes for the other grazers and browsers, too."
Conservation officials have been working to protect some animals from the effects of the drought by feeding or relocating them.
At Mzima Springs in Tsavo West National Park, rangers have been laying out hay for hippopotamuses to eat.
The Kenya Wildlife Service has moved ten white rhinoceroses from Lake Nakuru to Nairobi National Park, in part because the parched land can't support the large animals.
And the Nairobi-based David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust reports that recently it has been bringing an average of seven baby elephants a month to its orphanage. Normally the facility receives seven elephants in a year.
Crops and Cattle
The drought has exacerbated a long-standing conflict between wildlife and the people who live near Kenya's protected lands.
Crop harvests were already expected to be low, because post-election violence in early 2008 prevented many farmers from planting in time.
The United Nations recently estimated that a million people in Kenya are under threat of famine.
Meanwhile, cattle herders have been illegally driving their animals deep into Kenya's parks and reserves in search of water and grazing land.
From the air, massive cattle tracks can be seen leading deep into the Masai Mara National Reserve, and the Kenya Wildlife Service reported that rangers recently pushed ten thousand cattle out of Tsavo West.
"We have been negotiating with the communities to allow wildlife to have a bit of peace in the parks where there is a little water, but there aren't hard and fast measures we can take," wildlife service spokesperson Paul Udoto said.
"It's really been a body blow to our animals."
Some conservationists fear that cattle herders might even start killing wildlife if they continue to be denied access to water and grazing land inside national parks.
"People are asking why should they not be allowed to go into the park in case of unusual circumstances like now?" said Dickson Kaelo, a program officer at BaseCamp Foundation, a community conservation group outside Masai Mara.
"If they aren't allowed to, why should they allow wildlife to come into their land just for the benefit of the tourism industry?"
Any wildlife attacks would be more bad news for species that have already seen drastic declines.
One recent study, for example, found that wildlife numbers both inside and outside Kenya's parks have fallen by 40 percent since the 1970s.
People in Kenya are now waiting for October, when the shorter rainy season normally begins. But some experts worry that Kenya's water woes aren't likely to end anytime soon.
"I think it's probably the worst drought we've seen for quite a long time," Douglas-Hamilton said. "And it's not over, not by a long chalk."
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