Alarm as devastating drought takes toll on Kenya’s iconic species


Gilbert Koech, The Star

Date Published

See link for photo. 

A conservationist has raised a red flag over the devastating drought currently sweeping the Greater Amboseli ecosystem and other parts of the country, leaving trails of deaths. 

In a vivid and shocking description of what is happening in the greater Amboseli, Big Life Foundation’s co-founder Richard Bonham says the impact has been—and continues to be—devastating. 

“There is a commotion on the bone-dry Amboseli lakebed, as a herd of elephants gathers around a small shape. From a distance, it looks like the celebration that follows birth. Getting closer, it is clear that it is the opposite. The small shape is an elephant calf in trouble,” he says. 

Bonham says starved and dehydrated, the calf is too weak to stand, and family members are taking turns trying to lift it to its feet. 

“But there is nothing the other elephants can do, and eventually the calf goes still, the life drained from its small body. The herd mourns but must slowly move off, leaving behind another victim of the drought that is currently sweeping the Greater Amboseli ecosystem,” Bonham says. 

Bonham was one of the co-founders of Big Life Foundation in September 2010 with the photographer Nick Brandt and entrepreneur Tom Hill. He says the “long rains” that they should have received earlier this year largely failed, with some areas of the ecosystem only receiving 15 per cent of the rains expected. 

“Without rain, grass cannot grow. The Amboseli swamps, normally the last refuge during dry times, have been stripped of vegetation. Countless animals have already died of starvation, many ironically within reach of a limitless supply of drinking water,” he says. 

Bonham says the remaining food is in places that are farthest from water, leaving animals with a terrible decision as they can use what little energy they have to walk to these far-off areas, knowing that they will have to trek back for water. 

Alternatively, he says, they can stay close to water, but risk starvation. 

Bonham says those who decide to make the life-threatening journey are venturing much further into the fringes of the ecosystem, and in some cases beyond the protection of the safe zone that has been created by Big Life’s anti-poaching rangers. 

Here, humans are hungry, too, and poachers are lying in wait, taking advantage of the weakened animals which are now so easy to kill. 

He says that compared to 2021, poaching of wildlife for bush meat has doubled in July and August. 

Bonham says with natural resources under such tremendous stress, conflict over what remains is huge. This is because farmers’ crops are a magnet for elephants and other wildlife, some of whom are desperate enough to take the shock of Big Life’s electric crop-protection fence to break through to reach sustenance on the other side. 

He says community water points are straining under the pressure of the need to deliver water for livestock as well as the wildlife that is lining up behind.

Bonham says if elephants arrive at a trough without water, they will break tanks and pipes to get at it, exacerbating the problem. He says livestock are suffering in the same ways. 

“Weak and easily separated from their herds while walking to and from grazing areas, they become easy pickings for lions, hyenas, and other predators. Stress levels are high for all, and Big Life’s rangers are carrying a huge burden on their shoulders,” he says. 

Bonham says droughts are natural in these semi-arid systems, but the impacts being seen are certainly not. 

Human-induced climate change and overgrazing by livestock have left this landscape extremely vulnerable. 

 “We have not seen anything like this since 2009. By the time that drought broke, at least 300 elephants were dead and over three-quarters of the wildebeest and zebra populations had been wiped out. Things are not that bad, yet. But we are heading in that direction and each day, Big Life’s rangers are counting the increasing toll of the weak and the dead,” he says. 

Bonham says the ecosystem’s “short rains” ordinarily would arrive in about six weeks. However, there is no guarantee when the rains will arrive or if they come at all. 

“For now, each passing day is a struggle for survival,” he says. 

Bonham says they cannot save all of the animals. However, they can only try to keep the strongest alive, for they will be the ones to regrow the population once the drought is over.

“This presents a daunting challenge, but we stand a chance with your help,” he says appealing to generous donors to help. 

Bonham says the funds will support the provision of water to animals that are travelling to distant grazing areas. 

Already, Big Life has created an emergency plan to respond to the urgent crisis. This includes deploying rangers outside of Big Life’s normal patrol range to stop poachers and illegal killings as animals are now travelling to distant areas in search of food and water. 

It has also created two additional temporary rangers “rapid response units” that will be on the move day and night responding to drought-related emergencies like poaching and conflict threats and animal rescues. 

Big life has also increased its predator compensation fund payments for the community after rapidly escalating verified livestock predation incidents – the only defence against retaliatory lion killings. 

It has also established wildlife feeding points in three strategic locations, where they believe they can have an impact, to boost the chances of survival for some wildlife populations. 

Bonham says its emergency plan hinges on funding, and due to unexpected global inflation, the cost of our operations has skyrocketed since the start of the year.  “Core expenses like fuel for ranger vehicles have risen 43%. Ranger rations have jumped 55%. PCF payouts have increased by 60%. Fence breakage repairs and maintenance cost 40% more. And new wildlife feeding points will add an additional $35,000 to our already stretched budget.” 

In July this year, the outgoing Tourism CS Najib Balala revealed that over 179 jumbos have died in eight months due to drought. Balala said climate change was taking a toll on Kenya’s iconic species. “The big elephant in the room is climate change. We cannot be protecting our elephants only to be affected by the drought,” Balala said at Safari Park hotel, Nairobi during the honorary warden conference.

According to census results released last year, there are 36,280 jumbos in the country. 

Balala said the other challenge facing the wildlife sector is human-wildlife conflict.