We are losing old friends in Amboseli. Amboseli is experiencing the worst drought in decades. The Maasai elders say it is the most severe drought since 1961 when they lost almost all their cattle. I have been through two previous bad years: 1976 and 1984. By the end of 1976, 68 elephants had died, many from the drought, others from the competition and conflict caused by the drought, and still others from poaching. During 1984, 70 elephants died, most from the same three causes.
There is a pattern in the deaths due to drought. Young calves under three months old die, probably because their mothers do not have enough milk or rich enough milk. Then older calves 8-12 months old die towards the end of the dry season in September and October when they should be supplementing milk with vegetation. There is simply nothing for them to eat and their mother’s milk is not enough. Calves 4-5 years old also die. These have been weaned and also cannot find enough vegetation to sustain them. Once an elephant is over five it seemed to be able to get through the droughts. Unless elephants are speared or poached they tend not to die as adults until they are in their 50s or 60s. The adults that suffer particularly during droughts are the old females. Their teeth are worn down and they cannot find enough food that they can process. Losing these old matriarchs and other big females is by far the hardest thing I have had to deal with over my 37 years in Amboseli.
Grace, Odile and Ebenezer
Now at the end of July 2009 after three years of low rainfall and an almost total failure of the rains this year, there is very little vegetation for the animals to eat. There is still water in Amboseli. The springs fed from Kilimanjaro continue to flow into the swamps, but the vegetation in the swamps has been eaten down to almost nothing and in any case what there is is not very nutritious.
Animals are dying everywhere: zebras, wildebeests, buffaloes, hippos and elephants. It is very depressing and frustrating standing by and watching this tragedy unfold. There is nothing we can do and we feel so helpless. Even if it was a policy to feed wild animals during droughts, there is not enough hay in all of Kenya to feed the wildlife for even a week. We try to tell ourselves it is a natural phenomenon, but it doesn’t stop the pain of watching the animals suffer.
During 2008, 137 calves were born which broke all previous records for annual births. So far in 2009, another 53 calves have been born. We fear that most of these calves will die. A minimum of 30 young calves have died. This is just the beginning of August; it won’t rain until late October or early November so there is three more months to go and we have to face the fact that many of the remaining calves will also die. It won’t be until it rains again and the families come back into the Park that we will know the total loss.
In the meantime, I am losing some of my old friends whom I’ve known for 36-37 years. So far the matriarchs who have died over the last year are: Echo, Grace, Isis, Leticia, Lucia, Odile, Ulla and Xenia. Echo, Freda, Isis, Leticia and Ulla had been the matriarchs of their families since the 1970s and some from even earlier. Their families must be very distraught and confused. Personally I will miss them terribly. They have been a part of my life for so long.
Older males are also dying but not from the drought. They are being poached for their tusks. Just in the last 10 days three more big males have been killed. One, Ebenezer, had his tusks cut out with a power saw. The poachers are definitely getting more serious. We are doing everything we can by working closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service and providing support to the Amboseli-Tsavo Game Scouts Association. On Thursday, at a special ceremony, Soila and Harvey, representing ATE, presented a motorbike, tents, rations, and money for vehicle repairs and running to the Scouts. We were able to give this support thanks to a generous donation from the Elephant Sanctuary.
We need more help. The day of the presentation the scouts set up two anti-poaching camps, but there is need for another. It is our estimate that it will cost about $10,000 to set up and run one of these camps. If any of you can help it will be greatly appreciated and I believe it will save elephant lives.
August 2, 2009