Everyone wants a tally of the drought’s wildlife destruction now that it seems to be over. Here’s a start, temptingly premature.
Keep in mind that in a normal year we wouldn’t even be having rains yet over much of East Africa, and certainly not as heavy. And also keep in mind that the heavy initial rains of March, 2009, over northern Tanzania flipped off way too early.
Nairobi water works officials yesterday cautioned everyone not to start celebrating. The three dams that supply Nairobi’s public water were all below 35% capacity, and the heavy rains of the last 3 weeks have done little more than stop the continuing decline.
Water rationing in Nairobi continues.
We really won’t know until towards the end of November whether these “short rains” were sufficient to break the drought completely.
Nevertheless, yesterday the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) issued a preliminary report; this simultaneously with National Geographic’s story about lost animals due to the drought.
According to the KWS about 2% of the wildlife north of the equator was lost, and 1% south of the equator.
The 1% figure is a bit misleading, though, because it’s bolstered by the wildebeest migration in the Mara, which originates in Tanzania where the drought was mild or nonexistent. Animals in Kenya’s Tsavo and Amboseli National Parks may have suffered up to a 5% decline. This isn’t because the drought was worse here than in the north, but because the north is a desert habitat to begin with, and the animals living there know how to deal with it better.
These are pretty significant numbers and might actually exceed the droughts of 1983 and 1998.
Most seriously, 40 of Kenya’s very rare 2,000 Grevy’s Zebra succumbed to the drought. “Losing these 40 is a significant loss,” said Mr Patrick Omondi, a KWS Senior Assistant Director.
500-600 hippos were lost. This is about 20% of that population. Their problem was that even in the Mara, which had rains throughout the entire drought, the hippos’ home in the Mara river (which arises in a drought area) fell below the minimum sustainable levels multiple times.
The hippos had to migrate, and there was nowhere to migrate to that was better. They had to fiercely compete for the 200 pounds of grass they needed nightly. Most died of starvation during failed attempts to migrate.
KWS says probably 300 elephants died, the majority of which were juveniles. Normally elephants abort their 22-month long pregnancy when a drought begins, but the explanation is two-fold. First, many of the juveniles were older than 3 years, but of those that weren’t, the three-year drought sort of snuck up on everyone this time. Rather than an all out whammy from the start (the normal pattern in the past), there were two years of declining rains before the door slammed shut this year.
The normal deaths by thirst and starvation were augmented by an increase in active poaching that always occurs during a drought. People need food.
Poaching for bush meat was so prevalent that butchers in large towns like Musoma (near the Serengeti) and Narok (near the Mara) openly hung the carcases of antelopes just as they would have cows.
And I think it was a wise political decision not to prosecute these merchants, as would have been the case had there not been a drought.
Elephant are not normally poached for food, but elephant poaching increased substantially. This is explained by a relaxation of CITIES rules that would probably have resulted in additional poaching even in good times, plus the drought which motivates individuals even further as their economic situation is more threatened.
KWS says that there were 189 confirmed elephant poaching incidents in the north in 2009, alone. NGOs in Amboseli and Tsavo have confirmed an additional 38 in the south.
“That’s the highest number of elephants poached since the international ban on ivory sales in 1999,” Mr Omondi said.
Predators don’t do badly in droughts, and only ten lions have been confirmed dead as a result of the drought. No predator isn’t a scavenger. And the likelihood is that their population actually increased.
If these numbers hold, it’s not so bad. Wild animals are resilient, and many scientists argue that natural culling is actually a necessary process. BUT… let’s just hope the numbers hold, and the drought is really over.