Drought Deepens

Drought Deepens

The drought in Kenya is seriously effecting many game parks, and may be headed for catastrophe by August.

The current drought is not universal across the region, and much of Tanzania seems normal if a bit dry. But Kenya, which is found in the two-rainy-season region of East Africa, is definitely reaching a crisis stage.

Yet there is also the continuing mystery of rains – sometimes heavy – that are falling out of any season over very small areas. Nairobi, the east central Aberdare, and the Chyulu Hills are receiving rain, now, during the normal dry season. This is great for many farmers in the central province, especially tea and coffee. But it’s outside the big game parks.

The two-rainy-season region, locally known as the Short Rains/Long Rains, is normally areas north and east of Nairobi. The single-rainy season region, locally known as the Dry Season/Wet Season, is normally areas south and west of Nairobi, including virtually all of northern Tanzania’s game parks. (You can learn more about the area’s climate, which for years has been misinterpreted by most tour companies, from earlier blogs.)

The huge Ngorongoro/Serengeti/Mara ecosystem – which may account for more than half of the entire region’s tourism – has been OK, at least until now. They are dry, but drought hasn’t yet occurred there as in Kenya.

Most of the entire area of Kenya and Tanzania has had weak rains over the last 2-3 years. It began with the mini-drought of February, 2006. This was normally a wet – although reduced wet – season for northern Tanzania, and virtually no rain fell. It returned to normal by the end of March, 2006, but never recovered the deficit of those previous six weeks.

In Kenya, the first indication was the failure of the Short Rains in central province and areas north of there in November/December 2007. This was exacerbated by the failure of the Long Rains over the same slightly expanded areas in March, 2008. The Long Rains of November, 2008, seemed to be normal in these areas, but just as they failed in other areas, including virtually all of Kenya’s north.

Of Kenya’s principal game parks, Samburu/Shaba/Buffalo Springs and Amboseli are currently the most seriously effected regions. The healthy animals are leaving or sick. The area is dust.

Elephants in Samburu have gone to Baragoi and towards the Aberdare. Hoofed stock and many birds have dispersed widely. Those that have remained are sick and the first dying can be seen. For the first time in my memory, I saw Maasai cows mingling with the last of oryx and Grevy’s zebra, as if they had collected as common refugees from a horrible catastrophe.

The Ewaso Nyiro River (which arises in the Aberdare) is still flowing from time to time, especially east and outside of the park proper, and the Isiolo River (which arises from underground rivers off Mt. Kenya). But this late dose of water can do nothing for the parched landscape that would normally have nutrient grasses and many browsable bushes and trees. Some acacia were trying to bloom, but I saw lots of dead ones.

According to researchers at Cynthia Moss’ elephant camp in Amboseli, only about 10% of the elephants are left there, and most of those are sick or dying. Amboseli is heart-wrenching, mostly dust with its swamps nearly dry. One of the researchers at Moss’ camp wondered if the park can ever recover.

The park’s swamps have never been lower. As much as 80% of the animals have left already, and many can be seen in desperate congregations along the very busy Nairobi/Mombasa highway, breaking farm fences and nibbling the last grasses and leaves in irrigated areas. It’s really rather amazing that we saw ten times as many giraffe at the side of the highway as we raced between 18-wheelers unable to stop to watch, as we did during our full two days in Amboseli.

In two days in Amboseli we counted 8 elephant carcasses and only 48 live elephants. All the swamps are remarkably low, in several cases showing their muddy bottoms. We saw no buffalo carcasses, but I expect that will shortly change as most of the buffalo we saw were sick. No weaver birds remain. The great majority of the park is grassless dust. We found a mysterious exception in the northwest part of the central park near the airstrip, where it must have rained for a day or so about a week ago. There was decent grass, but few animals. The hoofed stock had already left.

Rain will not normally fall anywhere in East Africa, now, until August at the earliest, and November throughout the whole region. If this dynamic holds, Samburu and Amboseli will be bereft of most life by mid-August.

Next worst hit is Tsavo. Tsavo is fed by numerous underground aquifers off Mt. Kilimanjaro, as is Amboseli. But Tsavo’s flow seems normal at places like Mzima Springs. Amboseli’s flows are not normal. It could be that Tsavo is benefitting from being out of the mountain’s rain shadow. Amboseli is just in the mountain’s rain shadow.

So Tsavo is receiving a supply of water the same way that Samburu is receiving some from its sand rivers, but Tsavo has had no rain, so there is no grass. Every hippo we saw was dead or dying, including 3 carcasses at Mzima Springs.

Tsavo is famous for its elephants, and the continuing availability of water might be able to stabilize that population. We saw enormous congregations of elephant by the Kilaguni waterhole and near the Severin Tsavo Camp swamps. They didn’t look particularly healthy, but they weren’t dying.

As were every buffalo we saw and many of the few zebra. We even watched baboon dying. I wonder if this episode will turn Tsavo into an elephant-only park.

The exception to Kenya’s misery is the Mara. At least until now, the rain has been normal or heavier than normal. The Mara and Talek rivers are the lowest anyone can remember, but they both arise out of escarpments to the west and north that are definitely in a drought. But the wildlife here is fabulous and healthy, and the wildebeest migration has arrived more or less on schedule. It’s now just a matter of whether the rains will continue – as they should – through September.

The drought could not have come at a worst time. Tourism is way down because of the economic downturn. We wait anxiously the possibility of the light rains that normally fall in isolated areas in August, and then the beginning of the heavy rains in November. But until that happens, most of Kenya’s prime tourist areas are dust.