Don’t feed the animals. That’s the classic wisdom dispensed by park rangers around the world. But now wildlife officials in Kenya are going against their own advice. The Kenyan government has announced that it will start providing food and water for wildlife in the national parks worst affected by the drought now gripping much of East Africa. It’s a desperate attempt to save the iconic animals that attract over a million camera-toting tourists every year to the birthplace of the safari.
According to The Nairobian, hundreds of animals in the country’s famed parks are facing starvation after the failure of the “long rains” this year — the vital precipitation that usually bathes the country between March and June. The situation is most serious in the northeast of the country in well-known parks such as Samburu National Park and Meru National Park. The “short rains” of October through November were also weaker than usual last fall.
“Five years ago we had a similar problem where we ended up providing fodder and water for the wild animals and if the situation prevails we shall be forced to do so again,” said Dr Richard Lesiyamp, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Environment at a conference on sustainable land management in Naivasha.
Tourism is the second largest sector in the Kenyan economy, topped only by agriculture. Tourism accounts for 21 percent of total foreign exchange earnings and 12 percent of the country’s GDP. According to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) the country’s 22 National Parks and 28 National Reserves generate 75 percent of total tourist revenue.
Kenya’s wildlife is already severely threatened by the recent surge in poaching activity across Africa. According to KWS, 97 elephants and 20 rhinos have been killed in the country so far this year. Across Africa, at least 20,000 elephants were killed last year as the price of ivory has soared past gold.
The ongoing drought just puts that much more pressure on an already precarious situation in the country’s parks.
Of course, it’s not just the nation’s money-making giraffes and elephants that are threatened by the drought. At least half a million people in the Turkana region of northern Kenya are at risk of famine. According to the Kenya Food Security Steering Group the country’s acutely food insecure population has increased from 850,000 in August 2013, to over 1.3 million.
Droughts are nothing new in East Africa, but evidence is mounting that a warming climate may increase the frequency and severity of drought in the region. Climate projections estimate that East Africa will be 3–4°C warmer by the end of the 21st century — a warming rate nearly 1.5 times the global average. As the Indian Ocean warms, it creates conditions that pull moisture away from East Africa.
In 2011, the worst drought in 60 years hit East Africa, killing an estimated 50,000 people and leaving 13 million in need of food assistance. Research conducted by scientists at the UK’s Met Office revealed a clear link between climate change and the devastating drought. While the failure of the short rains that year can be attributed to La Niña, the researchers found that climate change increased the risk of the dry conditions seen during the long rains season of 2011 by 24 to 99 percent.
“We found that the particularly dry short rains in 2010 were most likely caused by natural variability,” said Dr. Fraser Lott, lead author on the paper in a press release. “However, the chances of long rains as dry, or drier, as those of 2011 were found to have increased due to human influence.”