In part one we explored the humanitarian impact of the drought, now we look at how the drought—and other crises—are affecting Kenya’s wildlife.
Not many years ago if you were planning a trip to Africa to see wildlife, Kenya would be near the top of the list, if not number one. Then violent riots in late 2007 and early 2008 leaving a thousand dead tarnished the country’s image abroad. When calm and stability returned, Kenya was again open for tourism, and it’s true that most travelers were quick to forget: articles earlier this year announced that even with the global economic crisis Kenya was expecting tourism growth. However, a new disaster may not be so quickly overcome.
As reported in our first article on the topic, the drought striking East Africa has left millions hungry, littered landscape with dead and dying livestock, evaporated lakes and streams, and pressed farmers from fields into slums.
However, the disaster has also blasted the usually drought-prone wildlife of East Africa. Elephants, hippos, antelopes, buffalo, rhinos, even flamingoes have all been impacted. But while devastating, it turns out the drought is only the latest in a long list of troubles for Kenya’s wildlife.
Steady decline for decades
Before the drought Kenya’s wildlife, which brings in 70 percent of the nation’s important tourism trade, was already in trouble.
Top: vultures may have plenty to eat during droughts, but their numbers have been severely depleted by poisoning from the agricultural pesticide Furadan. Bottom: emaciated zebras and elephant. Photos courtesy of Wildlife Direct blogs Lion Guardians.
The country has been hemorrhaging between 4 to 5 percent of its wildlife every year. Since 1985 the nation has lost one-third of its wildlife according to the government’s Department of Remote Sensing and Resource Surveys (DRSRS). This is largely due to habitat loss, but also human-animal conflicts, including poaching and poisoning have played a role—one that is increasing.
Kenya’s wildlife is not only vital to the region, but to the world: the East African country has the largest biodiversity of big animals in the world.
Despite the importance of the wildlife for Kenya’s ecosystems and economy, critics say that the government has done little to address the steady decline in wildlife.
Kenyan Wildlife Services (KWS) runs all of Kenya’s parks and reserves, but the organization has no power in Kenya’s many private reserves, and when 65 percent of the nation’s wildlife live in unprotected areas trends that occur outside of parks have a large impact.
In the past KWS has refuted the claims of any wildlife decline. Recently, Corporate Communications Manager for KWS Paul Udoto went one step further, saying that the organization cannot verify whether or not Kenya’s wildlife is in decline.
But everyone else appears to accept that the decline is not only obvious, but massive.
The current drought has only exacerbated the situation: killing animals through lack of water and food, and increasingly complex human-wildlife interactions.
Nairobi National Park may be in the most trouble of all Kenya’s national parks. The reserve’s main water source Athi River has completely dried up.
“Many crocodiles, hippos and fish have died,” Dr. Joseph Ogutu, an ecologist with the International Livestock Research Institute based in Nairobi, told the East African Standard.
While Nairobi National Park has the largest population of wild ostrich in the world, the great birds have not nested this year, and wildlife managers think this is because the cattle have supplanted their habitat.
Dead cattle are a common sight in some areas of Kenya now. Photos courtesy of Wildlife Direct.
Cattle herders desperate to provide their starving herds with food have illegally invaded the park; cutting through fences, they lead their livestock in at night. The invading cattle are picking the pasture—meant for wildlife—clean.
But disease carried by the cattle may be the biggest concern, including foot and mouth, East Coast fever, and anthrax. Already some of these diseases have shown up in wildlife: Nairobi National Park lost two rhinos to anthrax and some antelopes have been found with foot and mouth.
There have been many reports that the majority of cattle are not in fact from the country’s suffering pastoralists, but rather belong to wealthy Kenyans and politicians.
Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks have seen their own incursions of cattle. Park rangers stated that the large numbers of cattle are forcing elephants out of the park and into the surrounding countryside where they are likely to destroy remaining crops and increase the likelihood of human-animal conflict.
The drought has also forced the locals to exploit the park, explains Daniel Woodley who heads the KWS team at Tsavo West: since the local community’s crops didn’t come this year, “their reliance on other natural resources increased: timber, honey, charcoal, which is probably the main cash crop in drought period, bush meat, and illegal fishing.” He estimates there are 200,000 head of cattle coming into Tsavo West.
No park has been spared. “Amboseli is extremely dry […] The place is littered with dead wildlife; buffalo, zebra, wildebeest and sadly elephants are dying too,” writes the conservation organization Lion Guardians on their blog at Wildlife Direct.