A severe two-year drought in Kenya has wiped out 2% of the world’s rarest zebra species and increased elephant deaths, as the climate crisis takes its toll on the east African nation’s wildlife.
Decomposing animal carcasses on the ground – including giraffes and cattle – have become commonplace in northern Kenya, where unprecedented droughts are ravaging already depleted food and water resources.
The Grevy Zebra, the rarest zebra species in the world, has been the worst 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 rise if the region did not receive significant rain.
“If the coming rainy season fails, Grevy’s zebra will face a very serious threat of starvation,” he said. “Since June, we have lost 58 Grevy’s zebras and as the drought worsens the mortality rate is increasing.”
Even the most drought-resistant animals are affected. One is the camel, known to survive long seasons without water.
“Camels are a valuable resource for many people in this region,” Suze van Meegen, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s director of emergency response in East Africa, told CNN. “The deserts of Kenya … are now littered with their corpses.”
Kenya is on the brink of its fifth failed rainy season and the metrology department forecasts “Drier than average conditions” for the whole year
Conservationists are concerned that many more endangered species will die out.
“If the next rains fail … we can expect to see a significant increase in elephant mortality,” says Frank Pope, head of the conservation group Save the Elephants in Kenya.
“We’re seeing herds split into smaller units … as they try to make a living,” he said. “Calves are being abandoned, and old elephants are being killed. Without rain, others will come soon.’
As the drought continues, other endangered wildlife are rapidly disappearing.
Drought also worsens bushmeat, which has grown among pastoralist communities in the north as drought affects other sources of income.
Mackey says Grevy’s zebras are being hunted for meat, wandering into community settlements desperate for food.
“Drought has led to an increase in Grevy’s zebra capture, as large numbers of animals flock to grazing reserves,” Mackey said. “This has led to inter-ethnic conflicts (sometimes animals are caught in the crossfire) and poaching, as herders resort to living off wildlife.”
Human-wildlife conflict has also led to the deaths of dozens of elephants, who are forced to come into close contact with humans as they hunt for smaller sources of food and water, the Save the Elephants Pope said.
“Last year, 10 years ago, at the height of the ivory crisis, we lost half an elephant to conflict with people,” he told CNN.
Nearly 400 elephants were lost in the hunt 10 years ago, the largest in Kenya since 2005, according to a 2012 report by the country’s wildlife service.
Although the government’s crackdown on the ivory trade has cracked down on ivory poaching in Kenya, poaching has persisted due to drought and rising food prices.
Since October 2020, four consecutive rainy seasons have failed in Kenya and the Horn of Africa. The UN says it 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 drinking water.
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). We are using an average of 1,500 bales (supplementary grass) per week,” Mackey said, adding that other species such as oryx and the buffalo were also beneficial.
However, interventions for elephants on a scale that can make a significant difference are difficult, says Pope.
“The supply of new water sources can be harmful, for example by causing local desertification,” he said. “Save the Elephants helps protect local people from conflict (with stray elephants) and helps respond to incidents when conflicts do occur.”
Pope also worries that when the rains finally come, there will be less grass because livestock are overgrazing.
“The bigger concern is the overgrazing that is starting to turn the fragile landscape into a desert. When the rains come, there will be less grass, even if the pressure on the landscape increases.’