Elephants and livestock battle for water in East Africa

Story highlights

Drought means people and elephants are having to use the same water points

Elephants are some of the first animals to feel the effects of drought

Livestock herders forced to take their animals to water holes in protected areas

Elephants are destroying farmers' crops as they search for food, says expert

CNN  — 

As the Horn of Africa suffers its worst drought for 60 years, there are reports of growing conflict between people and wildlife over the region’s limited resources.

Conservationists say that in Kenya livestock herders and their animals are encroaching on water sources in protected areas, which is having a potentially devastating impact on the wildlife there – particularly elephants.

With the region getting hotter and dryer the battle for water is going to become even more of a problem in the future, says Angela Sheldrick, director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), an organization that protects animals in Kenya.

“The incursion of livestock into Kenya’s protected areas in search of pasture has in recent years put additional strain on the wildlife numbers,” Sheldrick said.

“Areas that in the past might have sustained the wildlife through the tougher years no longer can, with the added impact of domestic stock,” she continued.

One group that has traditionally lived in harmony with wildlife is Kenya’s semi-nomadic Maasai people. But even that relationship is shifting.

Uneasy truce between Maasai and nature

Sheldrick says that in recent years the Maasai have sold much of their land to other tribes who are now cultivating and irrigating strategic water points that have been on elephants’ migratory routes for millions of years.

She points out that farming and elephants are never a good mix, with the mammal capable of destroying a farmer’s crop in just a few hours.

“In drought conditions, when water points are few and possessively guarded, the Maasai and wildlife do come into regular conflict – particularly elephants,” she said.

Jan de Leeuw, from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), says during periods of drought people get desperate.

“Herders have animals which are thirsty and because these are areas which have very few water points if wells don’t have water they might have to walk 50-100 kilometers to find another,” he said.

Leeuw says that Ethiopian herders have told him that during times of drought rules about certain areas being protected for livestock in their opinion can be broken.

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But it’s not just the livestock that’s using areas it shouldn’t says Leeuw.

“Based on aerial surveys in Kenya we see that two thirds of the wildlife wanders out of the protected areas during dry seasons in search of water,” he said.

“In areas with crops elephants tend to eat these, which is leading to reactions of people,” he continued.

In the Tsavo conservation area, home to the country’s largest population of elephants, the DSWT has helped the Kenyan Wildlife Service set up some artificial water points.

The new water sources, in the form of boreholes and windmills that pump water, are intended to provide much-needed relief to the herds of elephants.

But Sheldrick says water issues need to be dealt with carefully as what seems like a quick fix can actually become damaging in the longer term.

“For example, when considering water points in a national park, this can attract more livestock and more human pressure to the area, and ultimately be more detrimental than beneficial,” she said.

“However, with many rivers that used to flow all year round now drying up for months at a time this has had to be addressed,” she continued.

The DSWT is famous in particular for hand rearing orphaned elephants and it runs what has been described as the world’s most successful rescue and rehabilitation center for orphaned elephants.

But these are difficult times for Kenya’s elephants.

“They are always first to feel the effects of drought, due to their inefficient digestive system, with much passing straight through them, and because they impact the vegetation as they do,” explained Sheldrick. “Nature has made them fragile.”

Edwin Lusichi is head keeper of the Nairobi Elephant Orphanage; he’s concerned that if the drought persists the land will no longer be able to sustain the elephant population that’s already dwindling under threat from loss of habitat and human pressures.

“Kenya cannot afford to lose more elephants, as already our elephant populations are significantly less than they were years ago, and Kenya relies very heavily on our unique tourism product,” he said.

Disease is also a cause for concern as the threat is amplified in dry periods. The DSWT says many diseases are carried by livestock, which then transmit them to wildlife, which is not protected by vaccinations.

“As the putrid water points slowly dry with huge pressure on them daily from domestic livestock, many half dead from the drought conditions, the threat of disease mounts,” Sheldrick said.

One initiative that’s easing the tension between wildlife and animals is to provide farmers with incentives to protect areas of their land for wildlife.

“If you create incentives for people to protect wildlife they become much more positive about it,” Leeuw said.

Leeuw says that there are still many farmers in Kenya who aren’t getting these incentives and should be. Herders can earn money managing pieces of land for conservation and find other places to graze their livestock.

“While their livestock might not produce milk, they will still get money from tourism and wildlife preservation so it’s giving them stability in their income,” he added.

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For the DSWT, protecting the country’s wildlife is its number one priority.

“When it boils down to the equation of wildlife versus human pressure wildlife tends to come off second best,” Sheldrick said.

“If Kenya wants to save its most valuable asset, its wildlife heritage, these issues need to be addressed before it all slowly whittles away.”