“When the well is dry, we will know the worth of water” – Benjamin Franklin
It is October and a few of the migrant and sporadic elephant families are returning to the reserve. They time their seasonal migrations to coincide with the rains and the bounty that they bring. What they have found instead is a parched landscape. Samburu is in the grips of drought. The sun beats down on the reserve, baking the red earth. Game vehicles churn up clouds of red dust, whipped into spiralling columns by dust devils that track invisible paths across the landscape. The Ewaso river has been reduced to a mere trickle, twisting and winding its way through the shadow of its former self.
The prolonged dry season is not just a problem for the elephants, a few of whom also have new-borns who struggle in the intense heat. The communal grazing lands outside the reserve have been stripped of vegetation and sucked dry by many thirsty mouths. For many pastoralists what is left of the Ewaso and Isiolo Rivers is too great a temptation. Livestock numbers in the reserve have been increasing incrementally from month to month, far exceeding the populations of wildlife. Morning sounds have changed from birdsong to the clattering of goat-bells and the braying of donkeys as they are brought down to the river in the early hours to drink. Their adverse impact on the environment could not be more pronounced. Where there are livestock there is little else. Elephants noticeably avoid them and are driven from the river by the sound of approaching livestock. To the west, where a livestock corridor has been established to allow herders to move their cattle through the reserve, the landscape is scoured with only a few dried bushes and the imprints of hundreds of goats and cows left in the red dust.
Tensions mount with each day the rains fail to materialise and many an afternoon is punctuated with gunfire from across the riverbank as conflicts between humans and wildlife escalate. But change is in the nature of things and this too shall pass. There are signs this drought will soon be over; the occasional shower brings a moment’s hope that the rains will come and revitalise the landscape with their restorative powers. Water is the stuff of life in Samburu and the arrival of the rains will rejuvenate the land, the river will swell and the reserve will grow as herders retreat from the reserve with their livestock allowing wildlife to once again flourish and spread. The mornings will be filled with the joyous chorus of birdsong, the afternoons punctuated by the drum of raindrops and the air suffused with petrichor. For now, we can only wait…