By WANJOHI KABUKURU, BRIAN INGANGA and DESMOND TIRO
ARCHERS POST, Kenya (AP) — In Kenya’s scorching northern Samburu province, a devastating drought exacerbated by climate change wreaks havoc on people and wildlife.
After four consecutive years of failed rains that created some of the worst conditions in 40 years, wild animals have become commonplace in the county’s villages as they forage for food. Many do not survive, providing shepherds with an unfortunate lifeline as they cut chunks of meat from their carcasses.
“I’ve been hungry for a long time,” says 37-year-old Samburu resident Frank Aule. “If I came across a carcass like that, I wouldn’t think twice about eating it, because I have to eat to survive.”
Kenyan authorities estimate that the drought has killed more than 200 elephants, nearly 400 common zebras and more than 500 wildebeest in the past nine months. Many of those who survive are starving, weak and frequently come into contact with humans.
How to better protect fragile ecosystems from a warming climate, including Kenya’s savannah grasslands, will be part of discussions at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference this week — known as COP15 — in Montreal, Canada. Governments are building a framework for how the world should protect nature and are striving to set goals for the next decade. Conservation groups say current programs are not working.
The Kenyan government has provided some relief supplies such as water, feed, hay and salt licks for wildlife in the region, but animals are still forced to move further into residential areas in search of food and water.
“Elephants are attracted to the trees I have planted in my abode,” David Lepeenoi, a 54-year-old resident of Samburu, told The Associated Press. “The trees and water points are the main source of conflict between elephants and the community.”
Climate change and poor conservation practices have damaged protected pastures, reserves and national parks in recent years.
“Where we’ve reported cases of wildlife dying, it’s not really in the parks,” said Jim Nyamu, who helps run the Elephant Neighbors Centre. “That tells you that they were actually looking for where they used to forage: the corridors, migration routes that have been blocked by the human interface.”
Data from the conservation organization BirdLife Africa shows that dozens of birds are also dying in northern Kenya, most likely from starvation.
“Carcasses of migratory birds, such as the European roller, could be seen in the vast arid landscapes,” said the charity’s Alex Ngari. More than 300 bird species on the continent are already classified as globally endangered or critically endangered.
The drought has also devastated communities, leading to loss of livelihoods, livestock deaths and crop failures. Instead, farmers are cutting down dried trees to produce and sell charcoal to make ends meet, leading to even more loss of biodiversity in the region, said Paul Gacheru of conservation group Nature Kenya.
“A concerted call is needed to support local communities in coping with the impacts of climate change,” Gacheru said, adding that local people need less destructive ways to adapt to the warmer, drier climate.
Communities across the continent are facing similar losses. Southern Africa’s Okavango Basin, which provides water for one million people and half of the elephant population, has suffered from climate change, urban development and deforestation.
“Encroaching important ecosystems and wildlife negatively impacts people’s lives and livelihoods,” said Vladimir Russo, a consultant for National Geographic’s Okavango Wilderness Project. He said poorly preserved ecosystems cause more human-animal conflict and could lead to more poaching.
But “local community members and policymakers are now having discussions to protect this ecosystem,” said Bogolo Kennewendo, a UN high-level climate champion.
More of that participation is needed at the Montreal summit, policy and wildlife experts say, to preserve the continent’s biodiversity.
Conservation of nature needs to “be on the policy agendas of heads of state, as with climate has become increasingly the norm,” said Linda Kreuger, head of biodiversity policy at The Nature Conservancy.
In Samburu, conservation groups say they are doing what they can now that natural resources are drying up. At an elephant rescue center in Samburu, staff say about 30 out of 40 calves have been rescued due to the prolonged lack of rain.
In addition to the risk of starvation, drought is “a form of stress that lowers the animals’ immunity and contributes to infection,” says veterinarian Isaiah Alolo, who works at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. “In most cases, you find that the animal will die,” leading to many orphaned animals needing to be rescued.
“That puts a lot of pressure” on those who work to conserve species, he said.
Reteti reserve staff brings food and supplements from some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from grasslands around Mount Kenya, said Dorothy Lowakutuk, caretaker at the sanctuary. Those grasslands also threaten to deteriorate if the drought continues.
“At least we make sure our elephants recover what they don’t get in their natural habitat,” Lowakutuk said.
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