Illegal ivory poaching once posed a significant threat to Kenya’s elephants. But now the giants of the animal kingdom are facing an even bigger risk: climate change.
As Kenya battles its worst drought in four decades, the crisis is killing 20 times more elephants than poaching, according to officials. They cite desiccated carcasses found in Tsavo National Park, where much wildlife has fled in recent years in search of water.
To survive, elephants require vast landscapes for foraging. Adults can consume 300 pounds of food and more than 50 gallons of water a day. But rivers, soil and grassland are drying up, resulting in a barren and deadly environment.
In the last year, at least 179 elephants have died of thirst, whereas poaching has claimed the lives of fewer than 10, Kenyan Tourism and Wildlife Secretary Najib Balala told the BBC. “It is a red alarm,” he said of the crisis.
Balala suggested that so much time and effort has been spent tackling the issue of poaching that environmental issues have been neglected.
“We have forgotten to invest into biodiversity management and ecosystems,” he said. “We have invested only in illegal wildlife trade and poaching.”
In recent years, Kenyan officials have clamped down on poaching, which has targeted giraffes for their meat, bones and hair and elephants for their ivory tusks.
Heftier penalties for poachers, traders and financiers were introduced under an updated wildlife and conservation management act that took effect in 2014. It was hailed for deterring criminals as wildlife populations rebounded.
In September, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared the drought sweeping parts of the country a national disaster, with millions facing food instability and malnutrition.
Last week, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said it would provide almost $255 million in aid to Kenya, including emergency food and support for farmers. They say they have lost up to the 70 percent of their crops, along with their livestock.
The agency said it would assist communities in Kenya’s arid and semiarid counties, which are experiencing the worst effects of the drought.
More than 4 million people in Kenya are facing acute food shortages. In recent months, child malnutrition cases have surged by half, to 942,000, Reuters reported.
And it’s not just elephants that are dying as a result of human-caused climate change.
Seven million livestock in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have died since last fall, according to a recent report by USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
The carcasses of giraffes, goats, camels and droves of cattle have also been found in villages after starving to death in northern Kenya. Such losses can be ruinous for families, which face food insecurity as a result, The Washington Post reported last year.
Rangers and hunters have tried to help the animals by supplying water and planting drought-resistant trees, but the dry spell has been relentless. Exacerbating the food crisis has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has driven up the prices of wheat and maize.
And while Kenya continues to face a punishing drought, the United States and Britain are also battling rising temperatures and scorched landscapes amid record heat.
In the United States, several states including California, which is enduring its third consecutive year of drought, have introduced water restrictions. In Britain, officials have warned of a drought and more wildfires in August following the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the country this month.