An isolated remnant of an ice spire in the crater of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.  (Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University)

Published: May 25, 2010

AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK, Kenya – … When the rains failed for the second straight year in 2009, plants withered to their roots in this critical dry-season refuge. Marshes and the shallow bed of Lake Amboseli, usually fed by seasonal rains and runoff from snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, cracked in equatorial sun. With little to eat or drink, more than 70 percent of Amboseli's zebra and wildebeest died of starvation, predation or opportunistic infections. …

Wildebeest and zebra constitute the greatest biomass in Amboseli but suffered the greatest losses during the drought.

The wildebeest population fell by about 83 percent, from 18,538 in 2007 to 3,098 in 2010, according to the aerial counts. Zebra declined by around 71 percent, from 15,328 to 4,432.

The prolonged dry spell also took a heavy toll on livestock.

The area's cattle population is less than half of what it was three years ago, the counts show. Livestock are critical to the Maasai, who build their homes with dung, cover their blades with leather, and fill their bellies with meat, milk and blood. …

The wildlife service estimates that Kenya has about 1,970 lions, down from about 2,750 in 2002. Kahumbu warned that Kenya's wild lions could go extinct within a decade if the cats continue to lose habitat and prey.

Kenya has lost more than 60 percent of its large wildlife since 1977, despite a ban on game hunting, according to government data. Poaching for bush meat and ivory remain lucrative ventures, in poor, rural areas, conservationists say.

Global warming -- and the specter of deeper and more frequent droughts -- is yet another challenge, scientists from the wildlife service and other organizations contend.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that the portion of arid and semiarid areas in Africa is likely to increase 5 to 8 percent by 2080. Between 25 and 40 percent of mammal species in sub-Saharan Africa's national parks will become endangered, according to one study analyzed by the panel.

To cope with the latest drought -- what some are calling the worst in living memory -- the wildlife service spent $250,000 to build dams and dig boreholes in the Maasai Mara reserve and Tsavo West National Park, 50 miles east of Amboseli. … 

"What triggers the migration is when the rainfall starts," WWF's Taye Teferi explained. "When the clouds start gathering, wildlife know which way to go. ... By the time they get to the Mara River, it is in full flood, and the vegetation is quite green."

When the rains failed last year, the river was critically low and the migration was smaller than it had been in the past, Teferi and others recalled. KWS scientist Patrick Omondi guessed that the wildlife were "confused."

To the north, Lake Nakuru receded far from its shore, shrinking critical habitat for pink flamingos, pelicans and hippos. Elsewhere in northern Kenya, watering holes evaporated and hundreds of elephants died of hunger, thirst and exhaustion.

Runoff from more than 19,000-foot-high Kilimanjaro makes Amboseli a critical dry-season refuge, but wildlife service scientist Omondi said he worries whether the park can sustain that role.

"Before, we could predict when we had the long and short rains, but that has changed completely," he added. "Now, we never know when the drought comes."

Drought Spurs Life-Or-Death Struggles in Kilimanjaro's Shadow



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