August 31, 2009

Hippos Hurt By Kenyan Drought

According to an AFP report, Kenya's drought is having an impact on the country's wildlife, causing the Kenya Wildlife Service to feed hippos to keep them alive.

In Tsavo West national park hippos are dying in large numbers, and other species are being forced to change their diet.

About 15 hippos have been found dead in the park within the last few weeks due to the lack of grass to graze on around the pools they submerge themselves in.

"For the past one month, the research team has recommended that in order to have the hippos in (good) condition... we give them four bales of hay every two days," KWS ranger Edward Njuguna told AFP.

Edward, along with his colleagues, have spread out the hay on the bank of a small pool where about a dozen hippos are, just yards away from the remains of one of their groups that died a month ago.

"It has been a challenge to remove the carcass. The other hippos are very defensive, one in particular - we suspect him to be a son of the dead hippo," Njuguna said.

Some of the park's lodges have followed KWS's lead by also spreading hay or vegetable peelings to feed the hippos and keep them in the vicinity of the park so visitors can still enjoy watching the animals.

KWS research scientist Cedric Khayale said that hippos have been hit hard by the drought because other animals that normally graze further away came closer to the banks to feed on the grass that hippos would normally eat.

This makes the hippos look for grass further away, which causes many to succumb to exhaustion.  A healthy hippo can look for food within about a 4-mile radius from the river or lake bank.

Other plant-eating animals responded to the absence of grazing land by changing what they eat.

"When the situation worsens buffaloes start eating leaves and branches and elephants uproot trees and strip the bark from acacias. That's not something you see often when there's rain," Njuguna said.

This is not an uncommon situation to Tsavo.  In the last year the parks and reserves of the Samburu region farther north have had 38 recorded deaths of elephants directly linked to the drought.

KWS has set up artificial water points in the park on the banks of Lank Nakuru, which is famous for its flamingos.  The lake water is too salty for the animals and the rivers that normally flow into the lake have also dried up.

The drought has sparked illegal intrusions of livestock into the country's national parks.

"What is happening now is the result of three consecutive failed rainy seasons," said Daniel Woodley who heads the KWS team at Tsavo West.

"The communities around Tsavo didn't get crops... Their reliance on other natural resources increased: timber, honey, charcoal, which is probably the main cash crop in drought period, bush meat, and illegal fishing."

According to Woodley, during a drought, people take their livestock wherever they find a patch of green and some water.

"It's easy to manage the communities that are living outside our boundaries through community programs, rotation grazing," Woodley said.

However, once the number of head of livestock reaches 200,00 in Tsavo West park then it disrupts the environment, he said.

Some of the cattle that were brought into Tsavo were herded hundreds of miles in search of grass and watering points.

The more cattle herded into the park, the more elephants that moved out.  This destroyed the already poor harvests of local farmers.

"Helicopters, aircraft, rangers... We put a lot of effort into getting livestock out of the park and elephants back into it," Woodley said.

Woodley said that Kenya is normally hit by severe drought every 10 to 15 years one time. 

"But not on this scale. We've never had such a huge livestock invasion... nor were the population around the park so reliant on other natural resources. And nor was the country was so economically week."


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