'Catastrophic' wildlife, livestock deaths documented by Nat Geo

Over 300,000 livestock are estimated to have died due to the ongoing drought.

In Summary
  • The Wildlife Research and Training Institute in a recent report has confirmed drought-related mortalities for various species.
  • This includes wildebeest (512), common zebra (381), elephants (205), Grevy’s zebra (49) and buffalo (51).
Dead cows being disposed of in Namelok, Kajiado South subcounty.
DROUGHT CRISIS: Dead cows being disposed of in Namelok, Kajiado South subcounty.
Image: FILE

Thousands of dead wildlife and livestock are littering roadsides and barren landscape of southern Kenya’s Kajiado county, detailing the magnitude of the drought.

National Geographic photographer Charlie Hamilton-James and Paula Kahumbu have spent a week within the ecosystem and have shared shocking images and experiences.

The duo travelled from Nairobi to Ilbissil, then through several southern Kajiado conservancies and Amboseli National Park, to witness and document the drought.

Kahumbu said nothing can prepare one for the sight and smell of hundreds or thousands of the dead wildebeest, zebra, elephants, giraffe, gazelles, cattle sheep and goats.

“These catastrophic deaths come after 18 months of no rain, the result of three failed rainy seasons.  It’s not the first time we’ve seen such low rainfall, but it is the first time such extreme losses have been recorded, and it speaks to three interacting factors,” she said. 

The wildlife conservationist said the persistent overstocking of livestock has reduced grass productivity dramatically.

She added that the destruction of woodlands and streams for charcoal and sand have degraded the habitats, destroying species diversity and making the land far less resilient. 

The other factor, Kahumbu said, is the loss of large acreage of land to industrial scale farming leading to concentration of wildlife in smaller spaces.

“All of these factors make this ecosystem far more vulnerable to shocks like climate change and drought,” she said.

The parks desert-like dry lake bed is spotted with what at first sight looks like termite mounds, but a closer look reveals they are carcasses of animals that collapsed and died quite suddenly.

Kahumbu said though there’s water in the park, there’s not a blade of grass, and survivors stand around listlessly.

“For every four alive there’s one dead. At the waterhole groups of animals arrive one after the other and on shaky weak legs they take watchful sips. Lions, hyenas and vultures are the only winners, for now,” she said. 

Beyond the park are community-owned conservancies, reduced to dusty thorn scrub, are littered with carcasses, mostly livestock.

Kahumbu said the scale of deaths is hard to imagine, with piles of skeletal bodies lying under trees near homesteads, adding that people have given up trying to save them.

The few still living are so weak that they can’t even stand up and eat.

It is estimated that more than 300,000 livestock have since died due to the biting drought.

The backdrop is the famous imposing Mount Kilimanjaro, but the sight of near snow-free peaks are another sign of how serious the scale of the situation is.

Kahumbu said the ongoing drought might have local anthropomorphic and climate change roots, but that doesn’t reduce the suffering.

She said the government has already declared an emergency and together with private sector started providing some communities with food, water and hay, adding that this might ease the pain for now, but it’s too little and too late.

“This drought was predicted in 2018 but nobody predicted that it would get this bad. It’s clear that successive droughts are having deeper and deeper impact on this fragile land, it’s now at breaking point, and this is ecological collapse, a sign that natural resilience is destroyed," said. 

The wildlife conservationist warns that the proud pastoralist culture and wealth of biodiversity, and tourism industry could be lost forever.

“This vicious cycle can be broken by Kenya putting restoration plans in place and enforcing livestock management practices. It will take smart fast action," Kahumbu said. 

"The new government will need to take on this challenge in its first months or lose one of the worlds most beloved wildlife spectacles.” 

The Wildlife Research and Training Institute in a recent report has confirmed drought-related mortalities for various species.

This includes wildebeest (512), common zebra (381), elephants (205), Grevy’s zebra (49) and buffalo (51).

The institute said the most affected ecosystems include Amboseli, Tsavo and Laikipia-Samburu.

The Amboseli and Laikipia-Samburu ecosystems are worst affected by the drought, having recorded more than 70 elephants’ deaths.

The Grevy’s zebra population, which is restricted to the Laikipia-Samburu landscapes, has so far lost 49 Grevy’s zebra, even with the intervention of a feeding programme, which is currently ongoing.

The rhino population remains not seriously affected by the drought as only one rhino aged about two years having died at Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo West National Park.

The drought continues to worsen as days pass as evidenced by the upwards trend of wildlife mortality between February and October this year.

The continued worsening of the drought condition could affect more rhinos in overstocked rhino sanctuaries such as the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, among others.

The institute made some of the recommendations such as the urgent and immediate provision of water as well as salt licks required in the most affected ecosystems like Amboseli, Tsavo, Laikipia-Samburu.

The provision of hay to Grevy’s zebra in northern Kenya should be enhanced over the next two months (November and December to cover a wider area.

The institute also wants support to undertake well-structured monitoring of wildlife mortality in all protected areas and key ecosystems.

The monitoring will help the institution better understand the effects of the drought and recommend future and timely appropriate management action.

The institute said there is need for an urgent total aerial census of wild life in Amboseli ecosystem before the next rain season to determine and evaluate the impact of the current drought on wildlife, among other recommendations.


(edited by Amol Awuor)

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