In a wildlife sanctuary in southern Kenya the relentless sun has
bleached savannah grasses and dried up rivers, turning water holes
first into muddy pits and now, dust bowls.
Herds of elephant, buffalo and zebra have gathered near one of the
holes, where for six months, pea farmer Patrick Mwalua has been
delivering water to them in a rented blue truck.
After the rains failed for the third time in November, Mwalua was so
distressed by the obviously weak and thirsty animals that he began
seeking donations to bring water to the Taita Hills sanctuary.
The 41-year-old was haunted by the memory of a 2009 drought, which the
International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates led to the loss of 40
percent of the animals in the neighbouring Tsavo West National Park.
“It was so sad. I saw it myself and I felt very bad and I said this
thing should never happen again,” he told AFP.
Over his lifetime, Mwalua has seen the climate change drastically,
with droughts causing chronic water shortages and increased conflict
between villagers and wildlife.
Thirsty elephants — which can drink up to 190 litres (400 pints) of
water in one sitting — have in recent months carried out often deadly
raids on villages in search of water.
To the majority of locals struggling to survive the failure of their
crops, these wildlife neighbours are little more than a menace and
competition for land and resources.
– ‘The animals come running‘-
However Mwalua believes it is crucial to protect the wildlife, arguing
“we are the voice of the animals”.
He reached out to foreigners, who had participated in a conservation
programme he runs, to ask for donations to pay for the $250 (237-euro)
truckloads of water.
At first, he would pour it into natural water holes but quickly
realised that much was soaked up by the baking earth, so turned
instead to a cement hole near a tourist lodge.
The animals “come running the moment they see the truck, they even
know the timings. When they are really thirsty they even drink when
the truck is emptying,” the lodge‘s assistant manager Alex Namunje
A GoFundMe crowdfunding page, set up by an American friend, has raised
over $200,000 — most of that in the past two weeks, as word spread
about Mwalua‘s initiative.
“It has blown my mind,” said Mwalua, who plans to buy his own water
truck and dig a borehole in the park.
Meanwhile the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust — famed for rearing
orphan elephants — has now joined him in trucking in water to the
In a sign of the crisis the region faces, the charity has drilled 13
boreholes over the years, Angela Sheldrick, who runs the trust, told
– Snakebites –
While conservationists praise Mwalua‘s efforts, they warn that climate
change and human activity have affected water supply so badly it will
take much more to solve the problem.
“It is a good initiative but how much water can we truck into Tsavo?
How many boreholes can you sink?” asked Jacob Kipongoso, head of the
Tsavo Heritage Foundation.
Conflict between humans and wildlife is only going to get worse, he believes.
One deadly clue is the snakes‘ behaviour.
Every morning, in Kipongoso‘s village, when women go to the water
pumps, they see the swirling snake tracks in the sand.
Desperate for water and a cool place to shelter as drought and climate
change affect their habitat, snakes increasingly come into with
As a result, snakebites have shot up so much in recent years that the
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is trying to amend a law to stop having
to compensate those bitten, which costs millions of euros per year.
– Deadlier than poaching –
The main water source for Tsavo West is Lake Jipe, which straddles the
border with Tanzania. According to Kipongoso, its level has dropped 10
metres (33 feet) in a decade.
“At the same rate it means in another four or five years it will be a
swamp, in another 15 years it will be a dust bowl. That means Tsavo
West is dead, finished,” he warned.
He blames the water problems on “sheer human activity” in catchment areas.
In the nearby Amboseli park, during the 2009 drought, 14 elephants
were killed by poachers, while another 99 died because of lack of
water, according to KWS figures.
“What all that means is we need now to stop focusing on poaching and
start facing the imminent catastrophe which is the mass death of
elephants and wildlife from lack of water,” Kipongoso said.
“The only way you can do that is landscape rehabilitation,” he said,
referring to reverting the land to its state before human activity
Mwalua‘s undertaking is exhausting. Bleary-eyed, he eats a quick
breakfast of Swahili sweet bun and tea before embarking on the
70-kilometre (43-mile) journey.
Delivering the 12,000 litres of water is a slow, hour-long drive that
he sometimes makes several times a day, despite suffering from kidney
failure requiring twice-weekly dialysis.
But he perks up when he sees the waiting animals.
On a February afternoon, clouds gather above the savannah and a rare
burst of rain fills the air with an earthy petrichor but doesn‘t stick
around long enough to penetrate the soil.
Weeks of driving rain are needed to break the drought, and forecasters
are already gloomy about the next rainy season due this month.