Rare zebras killed by anthrax in Kenyan drought

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The Independent Online

Kenya's prolonged drought has sparked an outbreak of anthrax among the country's most endangered wildlife.

At least 20 rare Grevy's zebras have died from the disease in the Samburu National Reserve, located in one of the driest parts of the country. One rhino in Nairobi National Park, on the outskirts of the capital, has also been infected.

The animals caught anthrax from cattle brought into national parks by herdsmen looking for fertile grazing grounds for their livestock, after the rains failed on their usual pastures.

Grevy's zebras, distinguished by their narrow stripes and large ears, are listed as an endangered species. Wildlife experts fear that anthrax could wipe out the entire 5,000-strong population.

Kenya is suffering from its worst drought in 22 years, and more than four million people have been hit by food shortages. Aid agencies and the Kenyan government have begun transporting food to the worst-hit areas, but they have been unable to save the livestock that are crucial to many people's livelihoods. Thousands of cattle and goats have died as grazing grounds become parched and water holes dry up.

"With this drought, wildlife are moving out of the parks looking for food, and people are bringing cattle into the reserves, also looking for food," said Amanda Koech, of Kenya Wildlife Services. "Diseases are spreading very fast as livestock and wildlife move closer and closer together."

Last month, one person died and several more were hospitalised after eating beef infected with anthrax in the central Kenyan town of Nyeri. A publicity campaign warning people not to eat infected meat appears to have halted the spread of the disease among the human population, but Ms Koech warned that the disease could still affect people. "We are trying to persuade herdsmen to leave the national parks for their own safety as well as that of the animals, but we have not been very successful yet," she said.

"There is a real danger that as more animals become infected by anthrax, there is a greater likelihood that people will eat infected meat."

The prolonged drought has brought out tensions between Kenya's wild animals and the farmers living on the boundaries of the national parks. Elephants leaving their usual habitats in search of food have crushed at least two villagers to death, destroyed acres of crops and killed dozens of cattle. Buffalo have also attacked people outside the national parks. Only carnivores and antelopes, which depend on dew and young shoots for moisture, have stayed behind - along with giraffes, which are still able to reach the most succulent leaves on the tops of trees.

Tourist destinations such as the Masai Mara, the two Tsavo national parks and the Laikipia Plateau have all been hit hard by the drought; in the Masai Mara, it has caused the deaths of more than 80 hippos.

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