Page last updated at 15:07 GMT, Monday, 21 September 2009 16:07 UK

Kenya hit by killer drought

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Samburu National Park, Kenya

Dead trees line a river in the Samburu National Park
The region has not had a proper wet season for three years

It was not hard to find the dead elephant.

The stench of the rotting carcass made it easy to track down in the sparse bush. A young male - barely four years old and still an infant by elephant standards - lay on its side in the sand by a river.

Around its feet, the sand had been cleared in small arcs - signs of the animal's thrashing as it struggled to stand and survive.

But there was nothing to eat. Nothing. On the ground, not a blade of grass existed, every green shoot had been stripped from the trees.

For Iain Douglas Hamilton, from the conservation organisation Save The Elephants, it was a heartbreaking sight.

"In all my 12 years here, I've never seen anything as bad as this," he said.

"The last long rains [in April] failed completely, and we haven't had a proper wet season for at least three years. If the rains fail in October and November, we'll go into total crisis. I can't even begin to imagine how awful that would be."

Left rotting

In all, Mr Hamilton's organisation has counted at least 24 elephants that have died over the past two months across Samburu alone.

If the rains fail, we are all in trouble. It's not just going to be the animals dying. We'll die too, and it's not going to take long
Local herder

And like most droughts, it is the old and the young that go first.

That is a worrying trend for the conservationists.

The losses on their own would not have much of an impact on the region's elephant populations, but when the old matriarchs die it is potentially devastating.

"If you get a large-scale mortality, and you get a lot of old matriarchs going, you lose the memory banks. That's the lessons the matriarchs have learned from their own mothers about things like where to go for water," Mr Hamilton said.

"If a matriarch dies before those lessons have been handed down, and the new head of the family makes a mistake in a drought like this, it's potentially very serious for the entire group."

This drought, of course, is not just about elephants. But they are an indicator species.

What happens to them points to trouble right across the spectrum.

David Daballen with a poached elephant
Elephants are now being poached for their meat as well as their tusks

Other less drought-resistant animals like buffalo, warthog, hippopotami and certain species of antelope have been hit hard.

Crocodiles have been forced to migrate sometimes many kilometres in search of water.

Only the predators and scavengers are doing well. In good times, any dead animal would be surrounded by hungry lions, hyenas and vultures. Now most are simply left to rot in the sun. The scavengers simply cannot consume all the meat littering the bush.

Ominous warning

A few kilometres from the first elephant carcass, David Daballen, a researcher with Save the Elephants, found another dead male. This one was the victim of poaching.

The carcass lay on its chest, its legs spread like a spatchcocked chicken - clear evidence, according to Mr Daballen, that it had been shot.

Dead and dying cows lie by the roadside
Other less drought-resistant animals have been hit hard too

"It was probably killed with a couple of bullets in its head. It would have collapsed where it stood," he said.

The ivory had been hacked out of the 10-year-old male, but more disturbingly, each of its feet and its trunk had been removed - clear signs that it had been butchered for meat.

"Normally you only find poaching much further from where it is now, and it looks like people are desperate and going for anything, including the meat. This is not quite normal for people to hunt for elephant meat," Mr Daballen said.

The clash between elephants and humans also now extends more broadly than it might otherwise have done in better times.

The Ewasa Nyiro river runs along the Samburu National Park boundary.

The park rangers say it is only ever dry for a few weeks or perhaps a month out of every year. Now, it is a sea of bleached sand, and it has been that way for most of the past six months.

Each day, the elephants listlessly amble their way to a series of waterholes on a bend in the river.

Local herders dug the wells - perhaps two metres deep - for themselves and their livestock. But as long as the elephants are there, the herders have to wait their turn.

An old lady is philosophical: "We have to live with the elephants out here. When they come, they destroy the wells and fill them with sand, but what can we do? We all share this place."

But she also gave an ominous warning.

"If the rains fail, we are all in trouble. It's not just going to be the animals dying. We'll die too, and it's not going to take long."

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