Kenya’s drought wipes out 2% of the world’s rarest zebras



A debilitating two-year drought in Kenya has wiped out 2% of the world’s rarest zebra species and also killed more elephants as the climate crisis takes its toll on the East African country’s wildlife.

Carcasses rotting on the ground – including giraffes and cattle – have become a common sight in northern Kenya, where unprecedented dry spells are affecting already depleted food and water resources.

The Grevy’s Zebra, the world’s rarest zebra species, is the species hardest hit by the drought.

Founder and Executive Director of the Grevy’s Zebra TrustBelinda Low Mackey told CNN that the species’ mortality rate would only rise if there was no significant rainfall in the region.

“If the approaching rainy season does not continue, Grevy’s zebras face a very serious threat of starvation,” she said. “We have lost 58 Grevy’s zebras since June and the number of deaths 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, an Emergency Response Manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in East Africa, told CNN. “Kenya’s deserts … are now littered with their carcasses.”

Kenya is on the verge of the fifth failed rainy season and the forecasts of the metrology department “dryer than average conditions” for the rest of the year.

Conservationists fear that many more endangered species will become extinct.

“If the next rains fail… we can expect a significant spike in elephant mortality,” says Frank Pope, head of the Kenya-based conservation charity Save the elephants.

“We see herds fragmented into the tiniest units… as they try to make a living,” he said. “Calves are abandoned and older elephants die. Without rain, others soon follow.”

As the dry spell continues, other endangered wildlife is rapidly dying out.

The drought is also exacerbating bushmeat poaching, which has increased among herding communities in the north as the drought hits other sources of income.

In some areas, Grevy’s zebras are poached in grazing reserves.

“The drought has led to increased poaching of Grevy’s zebras as large numbers of livestock converge on grazing reserves,” Mackey said. “This has led to inter-ethnic conflict (sometimes animals get caught in crossfire) and poaching, as herders resort to taking the lives of wildlife.”

The human-wildlife conflict has also led to the killing of dozens of elephants who are forced to come into close contact with humans as they hunt dwindling food and water resources, Save the Elephants Pope said.

An elephant walking towards a nearby river at the Kimana Reserve in Kajiado, Kenya on September 25, 2022.

“Last year we lost half as many elephants to human conflict as to poaching at the height of the ivory crisis 10 years ago,” he told CNN.

Nearly 400 elephants were lost to poaching 10 years ago, the highest number in Kenya since 2005, according to a report from 2012 by the country’s conservation agency.

While government action against ivory trade has stopped ivory poaching in Kenya, poaching for bushmeat has persisted due to drought and rising food prices.

As of October 2020, four consecutive rainy seasons have failed in parts of Kenya and the Great Horn of Africa. The UN says this belongs to the region 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 endangered species survive the drought through supplemental nutrition.

The Grevy's Zebra Trust is providing supplemental hay to help the endangered Grevy's zebra survive the drought crisis in northern Kenya.

“We have one dedicated feeding team in each of the three national reserves (Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba). On average, we use 1,500 bales (supplementary hay) per week,” Mackey said, adding that other species such as oryx and buffalo also benefited.

However, interventions for elephants on a scale that can make a noticeable difference are difficult, Pope says.

“Building new water sources can be counterproductive, for example by 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 arises.”

Pope also worries that when the rains finally come, there might be less grass due to overgrazing by livestock.

“A bigger concern is the overgrazing that is beginning to turn the fragile landscape into desert. When it rains, there will be less grass, even though the pressure on the landscape increases.”

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