Drought threatens East Africa's wildlife

A searing drought has killed dozens of wild animals in Kenya and neighbouring Tanzania, and has partially disrupted the annual migration of wildebeest and zebras between the two East African nations, conservation officials said.

Maasai warriors and others are driving tens of thousands of cattle inside Kenya’s wildlife sanctuaries in search of pastures and water—risking attacks by wild animals, Kenya Wildlife Service spokesperson Connie Maina said on Saturday.

The incursion also threatens to spread diseases to wildlife whose immune systems are not used to infections carried by domesticated animals, Maina said.

The drought has so far killed at least 60 hippopotamuses in Kenya’s wildlife sanctuaries. The animals—the third-largest living land mammals, after elephants and white rhinos—need large quantities of water or mud to cool bodies, which can weigh up to 3,2 tonnes.

“Whenever there is a drought, the first casualties are usually hippos who live in the water,” Maina said.

About 40 endangered Grevys zebra—the largest, wildest and most untamable of the three zebra species remaining in Africa—have died from anthrax near the Samburu Game Reserve, Maina said.

Natural anthrax is common in parts of Africa, where its bacillus spores can live for decades in dry soil and are ingested by animals rummaging for vegetation during droughts.

Hundreds of buffaloes, water bucks, elephants and other large animals that need plenty of water are suffering in the drought, wildlife officials in Kenya and Tanzania said.

“We see the physical appearance of the big herbivores like elephants and buffaloes getting worse,” said Samson Lenjir, deputy senior warden of Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve. “The situation is expected to get worse because the rains are expected in mid-March.”

The drought has partially disrupted the migration of more than 1,5-million wildebeest, zebras and other herbivores from the Maasai Mara to Tanzania’s fabled Serengeti National Park.

The annual migration has been described as the most spectacular wildlife spectacle on Earth.

The animals thunder into the Serengeti plains to feed off the new grass and calve “because the grass is more nutritious, with a lot of calcium, which is crucial for milk production”, said Titus Mlengeya, chief veterinary officer with the Tanzania National Parks Authority.

The animals migrate into the Serengeti through the western, central and eastern corridors.
The rains, however, ended prematurely along all routes except for the west, the only area where animals have calved well, wildlife officials said.

The rain failure triggered a critical shortage of pastures and water for the large herds of animals that had begun to calf.

“They have no milk and are forced to move frequently. In that confusion, many calves are lost and die because they cannot survive on anything other than milk,” Mlengeya said.

But all is not lost because the “calving season is not over” until April, he said. “Adult animals have not begun to die. The grass is still available, but it is rather dry. But if the rain will fail, we should prepare for their deaths.”

In the Tsavo west and east national parks, half of their more than 10 000 elephants have left the sanctuaries to search for water in the nearby hills.

“We have warned people not to go out at night. And when they have to, they should not go out alone,” Maina said.

In Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, the drought has reduced large parts of the land into a dusty field. Visitors see elephants use their massive feet to scrape dry grass off the parched earth, use their trunks to roll the grass into tiny balls and deftly pop them into their mouths.

Desperate Maasai herdsmen try to take their cattle into the Tsavo, Maasai Mara, Amboseli and other wildlife sanctuaries to graze and water.

“In Tsavo, we have almost 100 000 cattle that we are dealing with,” Maina said. “It is like we are playing a cat-and-mouse game. We chase them from an area and then we leave to go chase others from elsewhere, and the cattle return from the area we have just left.

“We are using a lot of resources on air and ground patrols—draining precious resources from other conservation work.”—Sapa-AP