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Tsavo elephants still rule despite drought

A herd of elephants in Tsavo Park. [Peter Muiruri, Standard] 

This marks the third year without good rains in Kenya. Climate change, the all too familiar culprit is to blame. Humans are finding it hard to put food on the table. 

On the other end of the spectrum are wild animals. Many have died and for those still standing, it is a daily struggle to find pasture and water.

This week, I found myself in the deep reaches of Tsavo, Kenya's wild country. It is one of the largest conservation areas in Africa with some of the most scenic landscapes in Kenya.

There are the all-time famous Mzima springs that spew out thousands of litres of water every minute, supporting a vast array of both plant and animal life including hippos, crocodiles and fishes.

The spring is also the source of water for millions living in the coastal counties of Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and Taita Taveta. The water comes from the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and the Chyulu hills, percolating through underground rocks to gush out at Mzima. 

Yet, this seemingly inexhaustible source of sustenance cannot escape the vagaries of climate change. The snows of Kilimanjaro are receding. The Chyulus are being degraded as the human population encroaches on the water source. The results, as mentioned earlier, are evident as one traverses through the Tsavo landscape.

But it is not all gloom here. Even in the face of adversity, life thrives, or should we say the fittest survive. And none are as fit and as resilient as the elephants of Tsavo.

We followed a herd traversing the vast plains of Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary and the neighbouring Lumo Conservancy. The elephants spot the earth's red colour, blending in with the dusty ground that has not seen rain for a long time. The animals trudged on, with babies in tow, egged on by a desire to quench their thirst.

Along the routes are dry bones of buffaloes, giraffes, and antelopes — all bearing testimony to the rough life on the wild side. Some elephants would stop to sniff at the bones. Could they recognise a fallen family member? We were not sure but elephants are said to have good memories, with the matriarchs passing on such vital information to successive generations.

This herd is part of a 15,000-strong jumbo population in Tsavo or 35 per cent of elephants in the country. The numbers are a result of concerted efforts to protect them following decades of poaching.

Such poachers are on the decline, yet, more elephants, experts say, could die of drought-related causes than the gun. But these animals are unaware of the global catastrophe that threatens their very survival.

We watched them walk, inspecting every tree, bush and undergrowth. While much of it has turned brown here, they still managed to get some pickings.

“Elephants can consume 200 kilogrammes of foliage per day,” said Kennedy Kimitei from African Wildlife Foundation. “They also need at least 200 litres of water daily.” In Tsavo, both commodities are hard to come by.

By late afternoon, the elephants had reached the border of the two conservation areas mentioned above. The leader paused, and when she did, the herd followed suit. Not far from here was a drinking trough from where local herdsmen water their livestock. In some parts of the wildlife conservation area, controlled grazing is allowed.

The elephants changed course, avoiding any close contact, and perhaps a deadly conflict, with the herders.

Tsavo Park one of the largest conservation areas in Africa with some of the most scenic landscapes in Kenya. [Peter Muiruri, Standard]

Such conflicts, we learnt, are common here as both humans and animals compete for the same meagre resources. Sometimes, such conflicts have turned deadly with casualties on both sides. Cases of humans being trampled by elephants are not unusual, a heavy price to pay for living close to the animals.

In the heat of the day, we took a break to cool off, hoping to reunite with our four-legged companions later on in the evening.

We had a quick dash to Voi town for a meal of some boiled kienyeji chicken and rice. Voi has transformed from the once dusty enclave to a vibrant, cosmopolitan town with all the amenities of an urban centre.

Okay, Voi is still dusty but new, multi-storeyed office blocks are coming up, dwarfing the century-old structures dotting the centre of the town. The standard gauge railway (SGR) seemed to have raised the fortunes of the town and nearby tourist hotspots. Apart from both Nairobi and Mombasa, the bulk of passengers either alight or board the train from the local station.

As the sun dipped into the horizon, we drove back towards Taita Wildlife Sanctuary, hoping to see how our “friends” fared. We were not disappointed. At the watering holes in the nearby Salt Lick Lodge, over 50 elephants had gathered. As you might expect, we are not animal experts and could not tell one elephant from another!

Here, they gulped the water. From a raised deck that also serves as a lounge, one could hear the sloshing of the water as the trunks emptied their contents into the huge bellies. With some floodlights, it was a spectacle to behold with only the wooden beams separating us from the jumbos.

We may have spent two hours or more just taking in the sights and rumbling sounds of these mighty creatures. We watched in awe as the tiny babies suckled with their tiny trunks tucked over their heads.

We watched as they were being taken through the tricks of sucking water up the trunks (well, by watching their mothers and aunties!) and pouring half of the liquid back into the ground. They will get the hang of it.

The elephants here seem to have lost much fear of humans as they drank their fill with dozens of human eyes and the occasional chatter from guests. Do not be fooled though: these elephants are as wild as they come. Do not test their patience.

With the mighty Tsavo giving and taking away life, we hope that those versed in climate matters will come up with mitigating measures and spare these animals from early deaths. They have been there for us and should be there for future generations.