Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Puzzle of 40 elephant deaths as KWS blames drought

A herd of elephants walk on the plains of Masai Mara game reserve November 14, 2008. More than 40 elephants have died in Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu in the past two months. PHOTO/REUTERS

A herd of elephants walk on the plains of Masai Mara game reserve November 14, 2008. More than 40 elephants have died in Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu in the past two months. PHOTO/REUTERS 

By MWANGI NDIRANGU

The drought currently ravaging the country has not spared wildlife especially in Northern Kenya.

In the past two months, over 40 elephants have died in Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu districts in what was initially thought to be a disease outbreak.

However, several laboratory tests carried out by Kenya Wildlife Service veterinary officers have not detected any disease so far.

KWS officials fear that if it does not rain soon, more may die due to malnutrition.

“Initially, we thought there was an anthrax outbreak but so far, the tests we have conducted have ruled this out and there is no cause for alarm,” said senior KWS scientist in charge of elephant programme, Mr Moses Litoloh.

Mr Litoloh, who together with veterinary doctors camped in the region for two weeks where the deaths have been reported, said the only probable reason the animals were dying is drought.

“Preliminary investigations reveal that the elephants have not been getting enough fodder especially the young ones. But we are doing more investigations and we have taken samples from sickly animals in Doldol area, Mpala and Borana Ranches,” he said.

He added that they have also taken away carcasses for post-mortem examinations.

The affliction is mostly affecting elephants aged between two and eight years leading to conclusions that they are unable to get enough feed.

“Young elephants are unable to keep up the pace with their mothers while grazing. They are also not able to browse tall trees which are the only source of food left,” noted the scientist.

The death of the elephants have been reported in Ol Donyiro division in Isiolo district, Mukogondo division of Laikipia North district and Waso division in Samburu East district. Last week, two more young elephants died in Makurian area.

An adult elephant consumes about 300kg of food daily.

Laikipia has the largest number of wildlife outside national parks in the country. The animals roam freely in the plateau and compete for fodder with livestock.

But in the past few months, the ground has been left bare by domestic animals that have been driven into the region by pastoralists migrating from Samburu and Isiolo in search of pasture.

The herdsmen with over 100,000 animals are now grazing in Mt Kenya.

Mr Litoloh said the deaths are only being experienced in the region and attributes this to the prevailing weather in the three districts.

He added that there is nothing KWS can do at the moment to stop further deaths but expressed optimism that it would rain soon to solve the natural calamity.

However, residents of Laikipia believe that the young elephants are dying after consuming a fruit from a cactus plant found in the area.

The purplish prickly fruit has been blamed for deaths of goats and locals have been urging the Government to eradicate the succulent plant.

“For many years, we have been appealing to the Government to eradicate this destructive cactus but our pleas have been ignored. Now that elephants are dying, we are hopeful that something will be done,” said a herdsman Mr Leshoko ole Nasipa as he pointed at a carcass of a young elephant at Makurian Community Ranch.

Cause of death
Mr Ole Nasipa who witnessed the baby elephant die, said diarrhoea was the cause of death.

 “It is not normal for elephants to feed on the cactus fruits. But since there is no grass here, they have no choice but to feed on these fruits,” the herdsman said as he showed a purplish elephant dung.

The herdsman added that the elephant deaths were a major blow to the community which benefits through eco-tourism.

Though laboratory tests have not been conducted to determine if the wild fruit is capable of causing death to either domestic or wild animals, the pastoralists blame the fruit on animal deaths especially during drought.

“The spikes of this fruit cause damage to the animals’ digestive system especially when there is no other feed to supplement. We have witnessed this over the years but the Government has never taken our complaints seriously,” said a local resident Mr Peter Kilesi.

The elephant deaths have caused alarm among conservationists, coming at a time when there is an upsurge of poaching in the region.

In the past few months, more than a dozen animals have been killed by poachers. According to a census done by KWS last year, there are slightly over 7,000 elephants in the Laikipia, Samburu and Isiolo ecosystems.

At Laikipia Nature Conservancy, ten elephants have been killed since April plus one black rhino.

However, at the conservancy owned by Ms Kuki Gallmann, the poachers did not manage to get the tusks which were collected by game rangers who normally patrol the 45,000-hectare ranch.

Injured jumbos
“Poachers normally shoot the animals indiscriminately and then wait for them to die. In most cases they are unable to track the injured jumbos which eventually die in the bush,” said the conservationist.

Ms Gallmann, however, praised KWS rangers who shot dead the poacher who had killed the black rhino she had named “Kamau” but said security agents should put in more efforts in fighting poaching.

“The names of those involved in this illegal trade are known to some security agents and it is high time they were stopped. And to show the seriousness, tusks and rhino horns in the custody of Government should be set ablaze like what happened in July 1989 at Nairobi National Park,” she said.

Other areas hit by poaching in recent times in Isiolo district include Sabarwawa, Kom, Barchuma and Ol Donyiro.

This trend has been attributed to lifting of ivory trade last year and some Southern African countries have been exporting game trophies to China and other South East Asian countries where they fetch a lot of money compared to when they were being sold in the black market.

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