Killer drought threatens East Africa

The wildlife in East Africa is dying of thirst and starvation, the people are suffering - and now the lack of rain threatens even the Serengeti migrations
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The Independent Online

East Africa should now be preparing for the migration of the wildebeest - the biggest movement of wildlife in the world - but instead, the animals are slowly starving. The people are suffering too. The UN estimates that 11 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Burundi will need food airlifts to survive this drought.

Soon, more than one million wildebeest are due to thunder their way through the Mara River, on their Spring migration through the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania and onto the golden expanse of the Masai Mara in Kenya.

Hidden in the dust kicked up by their hooves 200,000 zebras and 300,000 Thomson's gazelles will run alongside. On the fringes there should be an army of predators, waiting to pick off the weakest as they stumble in the vast crowds. But this year, there is nowhere for the animals to go.

The Masai Mara, dry at the best of times, is a dustbowl - parched from a season of pitiful rains that has driven many animals out of their natural homes in search of water. The few wild animals that remain are spooked by Masai herdsmen who have driven their cattle into the nature reserves searching for a few patches of grass where their livestock can feed.

The wildebeest, zebras and gazelles know to follow the rains, to feed off the young grass, rich in potassium and calcium that will give them healthy calves. But right now the pastures along most of the migratory corridors are dry and the wildlife have no sense of where to go for better grazing. The few calves that are born do not have enough food or water to survive. Unless the rains arrive before the calving season ends in April, this year's birthrate will be dangerously low.

"There are certainly fewer births this year," said Amanda Koech at Kenya Wildlife Services. "We are also worried that the animals have become confused and forgotten their migratory routes. They are staying where they are, because they do not feel there is better grazing elsewhere."

The annual migration of the wildebeest is a crucial part of the Serengeti and Masai Mara ecosystem and allows animals to make the best of the grasslands and savannahs around them. If the migratory patterns are disrupted, the vegetation will suffer for years to come.

The rich fauna of the Rift Valley in East Africa is already under threat. Animals are disorientated by the worst drought to hit the region in more than three decades. More than 70 per cent of domestic animals in northern Kenya have died from thirst or starvation, and now, the wildlife is dying too. Hippos, who need large quantities of mud to cool their bodies, have begun to die - 60 bodies have already been found. Anthrax has killed off herds of the endangered Grevy's zebras. The zebras are thought to have caught the disease from cattle grazing near their habitats.

Wildlife rangers have tried to protect wild animals by stopping pastoralists driving their cattle into the national parks, but these people who live alongside the animals are desperate too.

For weeks, charities and UN agencies have been trying to raise the alarm about the urgency of steps to save lives across a wide swathe of East Africa. In the worst hit regions of Somalia, people are already surviving on three cups of water a day for washing and drinking - one 20th of the recommended daily minimum.

Most families across the region have now lost all the cows that were their only source of wealth. Even if they make it to the next harvest, they will be impoverished for many years to come. The people in the lawless expanses of northern Kenya, northern Uganda and southern Somalia also have to deal with increasing violence, as tribes raid one another's remaining livestock armed with spears and Kalashnikovs. The drought has so far only killed about 40 people in Kenya, but many more have died in tribal warfare over grazing lands and water sources.

"We all need to eat and our cows need to eat but there is not enough to feed us all," said Johnston Chepkwoy, a herdsman in Marakwet, northern Kenya. "People steal from us because they are starving. Soon we will attack them because we are starving too. Only rains can stop this."

Across East Africa there is little sympathy for the wildlife. At the vast Tsavo national parks, more than half the elephant population has wandered out of the park looking for food. As they search, they trample through crops and houses. Kenya Wildlife Services sympathises but offers no compensation or help with rebuilding.

"We implement programmes that aim to stop elephants going onto private lands, but we cannot do anything about it if they do go," said Ms Koech. "We only offer compensation if a human is killed or injured by an elephant - we cannot do any more."

The World Meteorological Association warned that the rains in East Africa may not arrive until April, by which time the few remaining grasslands and water holes will have dried up too. Already, the landscape is scattered with the carcasses of cows and goats, abandoned by their owners after they buckled in the heat. Soon, the bodies of the wild animals that have become so symbolic of East Africa will be laying alongside them.

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