Kenyan drought wipes out 2% of world’s rarest zebras


A debilitating two-year drought in Kenya has wiped out 2% of the world’s rarest zebra species and also increased elephant deaths as the climate crisis affects the east African country’s wildlife.

Animal carcasses rotting on the ground – including giraffes and cattle – have become a common sight in northern Kenya, where unprecedented droughts are wiping out already depleted food and water resources.

The Grevy Zebra, the rarest zebra species in the world, is the species most affected by the drought.

Grevy’s Zebra Trust founder and executive director Belinda Low Mackey told CNN that the species’ mortality rate will only increase if significant rain does not fall in the region.

“If the coming rainy season fails, Grevy’s zebra faces a very serious threat of starvation,” he said. “Since June, we have lost 58 Grevy’s zebras and the mortality is increasing as the drought intensifies.”

Even the most drought-tolerant 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 Megen, Director of Emergency Response for the Norwegian Refugee Council in East Africa, told CNN. “The deserts of Kenya … are now littered with their carcasses.”

Kenya is on the brink of its fifth failed rainy season and its meteorological department forecasts “Drier than average conditions” for the rest of the year.

Conservationists worry that many more endangered species will die.

“If the next rains fail … we could expect to see a significant increase in elephant mortality,” says Frank Pope, who heads the Kenya-based charity Save the Elephants.

“We see herds breaking up into smaller units … as they try to make a living,” he said. “Calves are abandoned and old elephants die. Without rain, others will soon follow.”

As the drought persists, other endangered wildlife are rapidly disappearing.

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

Mackey says Grevy’s zebras are hunted for meat as they drift into community settlements in desperate search of food.

“The drought has led to increased poaching of Grevy’s zebra due to large numbers of animals converging on 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 fueled the killing of dozens of elephants forced into close contact with humans as they hunt for dwindling sources of food and water, Save the Elephants’ Pope said.

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

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

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

While government action against the ivory trade has clamped down on ivory poaching in Kenya, bushmeat poaching has continued due to drought and soaring food prices.

Since October 2020, four consecutive rainy seasons have failed in parts of Kenya and the Greater Horn of Africa. The UN says this is the region’s worst drought in 40 years.

More than four million Kenyans are “food insecure” due to the drought and over 3 million cannot get enough water to drink.

Grevy’s Zebra Trust says it is helping the endangered species survive the drought through supplementary feeding.

Grevy's Zebra Trust is providing supplementary hay to help the threatened Grevy's zebra survive the drought crisis in Northern Kenya.

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

But interventions for elephants at a scale that could make a noticeable difference are difficult, says Pope.

“Providing 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 conflicts (with stray elephants) and helps to deal with incidents when conflicts do occur.”

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

“Of greater concern is overgrazing which is beginning to turn the fragile landscape into a desert. When the rains come, there will be less grass, even as pressure on the landscape increases.”

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