A grueling two-year drought in Kenya has wiped out 2% of the world’s rarest zebra species and also increased elephant deaths as the climate crisis hits the East African nation’s wildlife .
Rotting carcasses of animals, including giraffes and cattle, have become a common sight in northern Kenya, where unprecedented dry spells are destroying already depleted food and water resources.
Grevy’s zebra, the rarest zebra species in the world, has been the species most affected by the drought.
The founder and executive director of the Grevy’s Zebra Trust, Belinda Low Mackey, told CNN that the species’ death rate would only increase if there was no significant rain in the region.
“If the coming rainy season fails, Grevy’s zebra faces a very serious threat of starvation,” he said. “Since June, we have lost 58 Grevy’s zebras and the death toll is increasing as the drought intensifies.”
Even the most drought-resistant animals are affected. One is the camel, which is known to survive long periods without water.
“Camels are a valuable resource for many people in this region,” Suze van Meegen, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s emergency response manager in East Africa, told CNN. “The deserts of Kenya … are now littered with their carcasses.”
Kenya is on the brink of its fifth failed rainy season and its metrological department forecasts “drier than average conditions” during the rest of the year.
Conservationists are worried that many more endangered species will die.
“If the next rains fail … we could expect to see a substantial increase in elephant mortality,” says Frank Pope, who heads the Kenya-based conservation charity Save the Elephants.
“We’re seeing herds split into the smallest units … as they try to make a living,” he said. “Calves are being abandoned and older elephants are dying. Without rain, others will soon follow.”
As the dry season persists, other endangered wildlife are rapidly dying out.
The drought is also worsening bushmeat poaching, which has increased among pastoralist communities in the north as the drought affects other sources of income.
In some areas, Grevy’s zebras are poached in grazing reserves.
“The drought has led to an increase in poaching of Grevy’s zebra due to the large numbers of livestock converging on the grazing reserves,” Mackey said. “This has led to inter-ethnic conflicts (animals are sometimes caught in the crossfire) and poaching, as herders resort to living off wildlife.”
Human-wildlife conflict has also fueled the deaths of dozens of elephants forced into close contact with humans as they chase dwindling sources of food and water, Pope Salvem said the elephants
“Last year, we lost half as many elephants to conflict with people as we did to poaching at the height of the ivory crisis 10 years ago,” he tells CNN.
Nearly 400 elephants were lost to poaching 10 years ago, the highest in Kenya since 2005, according to a 2012 report by the country’s wildlife service.
While the government’s crackdown on the ivory trade has curbed ivory poaching in Kenya, bushmeat poaching has persisted due to drought and rising food prices.
Since October 2020, four consecutive rainy seasons have failed in parts of Kenya and the Great Horn of Africa. The UN says this is the region’s worst drought in 40 years.
More than four million Kenyans are “food insecure” due to the drought and more than 3 million cannot get enough water to drink.
The Grevy’s Zebra Trust says it is helping the endangered species survive the drought through supplementary feeding.
“We have a dedicated feeding team in each of the three national reserves (Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba). On average, we are using 1,500 bales (of supplemental hay) per week,” Mackey said, adding that other species such as oryx and buffalo also benefited.
However, interventions for elephants on a scale that could make an appreciable difference are difficult, says Pope.
“Providing new water sources can be counterproductive, for example causing local desertification,” he said. “Save the Elephants focuses on helping local people protect themselves from conflict (with stray elephants) and helps respond to incidents when conflict occurs.”
Pope also worries that when the rains finally come, there will be less grass due to overgrazing by livestock.
“A bigger concern is overgrazing that is starting to turn the fragile landscape into a desert. When the rains come there will be less grass, although the pressure on the landscape increases.”