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Extreme drought alert
The Amboseli Conservation Program (ACP) began posting early warnings of hard times ahead in March of this year, based on a count of livestock and wildlife in eastern Kajiado. Until then, despite poor short rains, unseasonal showers in January and February, and grazing rotation plans on the group ranches, there remained sufficient reserve to see resident livestock and wildlife herds well through the year. The March count presented a far more pessimistic outlook. Over 150,000 cattle had moved into the Amboseli region from across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The influx doubled the resident cattle population and used up the surplus grazing. The outlook quickly worsened. If the long rains in April and May were poor, Amboseli would face a severe long dry season. When it became evident that the long rains were faltering, ACP issued an extreme drought alert in May. The alert showed pasture condition worsening rapidly and approaching those of 2009 drought when three quarters of the cattle, two thirds of sheep and goats, over ninety five percent of the wildebeest and two thirds of the zebras died of starvation.
In response to ACP’s extreme drought alert, the Amboseli Ecosystem Trust (AET) convened an emergency response of group ranch representatives and conservation partners. The upshot was a school food program funded by Big Life and others to ensure children were fed and able to continue classes.
The ACP report was also delivered to Kajiado County governor, Joseph Ole Lenku, who, at his re-inauguration in August, announced the drought as top priority for his new administration. The governor followed through with a meeting of 160 politicians, county and government agencies and conservation organizations to take stock of the drought and take mitigating steps. Victor Mose presented a summary of ACP’s data on the long-term trends in livestock and wildlife and the deteriorating rangeland conditions. He showed that the 2009 drought in Amboseli alone amounted to over Ksh 3 billion in livestock losses. In response to the findings, the governor set up a task force to ensure such droughts would not recur.
An expanded version of the ACP report to the governor also became the focal point of a meeting convened by the Southern Rangeland Coalition over the following two days. The meeting brought together the Taita-Taveta, Amboseli, South Rift and Mara lands owners associations, county officers, KWS and conservation bodies. The meeting concluded that the ACP monitoring and communication protocols should form a common platform for collecting, collating and communicating information for range management. As with the Amboseli Nongotiak Center, each association is urged to set up a community resource center where meetings can be held to amalgamate information and define responses.
Fuller reports on both the Nongotiak and SRC meetings will be issued shortly.
Conditions in Amboseli and across the southern rangelands have continued to decline sharply since the ACP’s May drought alert and follow-up report in August.
By September wildebeest calves and zebra colts were beginning to die of starvation, accelerated perhaps by disease and heavy parasite infestations. The early deaths were largely those of animals born this year, and most were picked clean by predators and vultures. By late September when David Western began a systematic count of dead and live animals, wildebeest deaths were around 10 percent of the population and zebra 6 to 7 percent. David Maitumo began a biweekly count two weeks late by which time the toll of wildebeest was 15 to 20 percent and zebra 10 percent. David will conduct a more accurate sample count of the entire Amboseli basin shortly.
The swamp sedges have been grazed so short that even the smaller species, including Thomson’s gazelle and warthog, have moved deep into the swamps to find grazing. The sparsity of forage in the national park has seen elephant numbers fall sharply as herds moved out in search of forage in the surrounding bushlands. Family herds have split up into small female and calf groups, sometimes only a mother and infant. The large buffalo herds have also split into small groups foraging widely on the sparse grazing lawns around and in the swamps. The large clusters of zebra and wildebeest found around the swamps late dry season are spaced out widely on the sparse pastures.
The weather forecasts for southern Kenya predict no rain through late October. What is the outlook for wildlife and livestock in the event that rains don’t fall until mid-November, as they did in breaking the drought in 2009?
We can only offer a tentative projection based on a comparison of present conditions with the 2009 drought.
By early October of 2009 over 55 percent of the wildebeest and 40 percent of the zebra had died, compared to 20 percent of wildebeest and 10 percent of zebra by the same date in 2022. This suggests that the losses will be far less than in 2009. Another contributing difference is the far higher populations in Amboseli now than in 2009. In 2022 the drought began with roughly 10,000 wildebeest and zebra compared to 7,000 in 2009. Further, the swamps were far smaller and shrinking fast in October 2009. In 2022 they are twice as large and still spreading with fresh inflows into the Longinye and Enkongo Narok springheads. The differences from 2009 suggest several thousand wildebeest and zebra will survive to mid-November, compared to fewer than 200 wildebeest, and 1,500 zebras in 2009. We also anticipate that as in 2009, the grasses will begin to bounce back and provide enough fodder to see the remaining herds as the populations fall. We are seeing a certain amount of “surplus killing” though, meaning lions and hyenas killing several animals and barely eating any. Though accounting for a small percentage of the deaths so far, the rate could accelerate as the herds decline and become weaker.
The outlook for livestock is very different in 2022 from 2009 due to the responses of herders in feeding their herds at home. By October 2009 most cattle calves had died and over 50 percent of the herd had succumbed to drought. In early October 2022 the death rate among cattle was still relatively low according to most field reports. Most animals will survive to mid-November if herders are able to afford supplementary feeding in the face of rapidly rising prices.
The next steps
ACP will continue to post regular bulletins and alerts and to engage KWS, community members around Amboseli and the Kajiado County government in the outlook and possible responses.
As ACP pointed out at the Nongotiak and SRC meeting, the pivotal point in the drought outlook will fall in mid-November. If the short rains look unpromising by then, the following few months will see huge losses of wildlife and livestock in Amboseli. If substantial rains have fallen or look likely by mid-November, the outlook will improve and post-drought recovery measures can begin. We do point out though that the start of the rains is likely to see a surge of new livestock and wildlife deaths due to cold stress and bloat on the fresh forage before a recovery begins. It will also be a year or so before emaciated animals recover sufficient to give birth, meaning milk yields will take months to recover.
ACP will present the current situation and projected outlook for wildlife and livestock at the mid-November meetings of AET and SRC to determine what action can and should be taken.