Biting drought fuels human-wildlife conflicts in Kenya, Horn of Africa

Ongoing dry spell displaces wildlife from their habitats in search of pasture and water

By Tony Malesi
Published: Monday 30 January 2023
A local, who is among the over 80 per cent of those in arid and semi-arid areas relying on livestock for a livelihood, had his 33 sheep and goats killed by wild animals at night. Representative photo: iStock.

Historic drought, exacerbated by climate change, is causing conflicts between humans and wild animals in Kenya and east Africa. The Horn of Africa is experiencing the worst drought in 40 years and the fourth consecutive year of failed / below-average rains. The biting drought hasn’t spared wildlife. Now elephants and other wild animals are wandering into human settlements in search of food and water, sometimes resulting in violent and deadly clashes.

David Leiyan, a 41-year-old local from Samburu East in northern Kenya, decried the sad state of affairs, calling for government intervention.

“Wild animals now roam here freely. You can hardly walk a kilometre before seeing one or two. I just survived an elephant attack a week ago and have lost livestock to wild animals,” lamented Leiyan.

Also read: East Africa drought: ‘Climate change is making La Niña impact severe’

The devastated local, who is among the over 80 per cent of those in arid and semi-arid areas relying on livestock for a livelihood, had his 33 sheep and goats killed by wild animals at night.

Cases of lions or leopards wandering into residential areas in Nairobi and counties around protected areas like Nairobi National Park or Tsavo National Park have become common, with experts citing a lack of enough food and water in the wild for animals courtesy of biting drought.

Pois Lenabori, a chief in Samburu East in Kenya, attested to a surge in human-wildlife conflict cases. He cited his jurisdiction and the surrounding arid areas as examples.

“Cases of marauding elephants killing locals are now common. I have had to call officials from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) on several occasions to recapture stray elephants, buffalo, lions, hyenas roaming freely as they search for food and water and wreak havoc in villages,” said chief Lenabori.

Experts are also concerned that the water and electricity shortage across East Africa and the frenzy to construct dams has also resulted in unintended consequences such as crocodile and snake invasions and mosquito infestation in nearby communities.

The situation in Uganda is almost the same. Wild animals are getting out of their habitats, escalating human-wildlife conflicts to unprecedented levels.

Also read: Climate-related health emergencies, disease outbreaks surge in Horn of Africa: WHO

Over the past few months, residents of Tororo district near the border of Kenya and Uganda have been decrying attacks by wild animals. The local press is awash with tales of how deadly animals like lions from parks attack domestic animals while big animals like elephants and hippos break into farms and destroy crops.

In parts of Somalia and Ethiopia, locals are forced to hide from wild animals when they seek food and water, especially during the day.

“We can only go to water sources after elephants have drunk water and left. Some time back, elephants held the entire village at ransom for three days without water after the animals camped at the only water source,” Isabella Liya, a resident, told Ethiopian media. 

Incidences of Human-wildlife conflicts have escalated in the recent past, she added.

Education on the Kenyan coast has been impacted due to this, with some schools often temporarily closing down due to human-wildlife conflicts. Also, some primary school children, especially in Tana River and Taita Taveta counties, report to learning institutions late in the day and leave for home earlier due to fear of wild animals.

Kenyan authorities, through KWS, have acknowledged the crisis and put Kenyans on high alert, even as they put mechanisms to avert further losses in place.

“KWS takes this opportunity to notify the public that the ongoing dry spell is displacing wildlife from their habitats in search of pasture and water. This has increased human-wildlife conflict as the wildlife comes into contact with members of the public and human activities,” read a statement from KWS.

Read more: Nearly 1.5 million children at risk of acute malnutrition as Somalia drought worsens

Following a surge in the incidences, the state agency established a rapid response unit this January to help stem the crisis. The Problem Animal Management Unit will work closely with the affected communities as part of the government’s plan to foster peaceful co-existence between wildlife and locals.

The drought-induced human-wildlife conflicts have resulted in outstanding unpaid compensation claims for wildlife victims to the tune of $21 million in the last two years.

A compensation of approximately $40,000 is normally paid to the next of kin in cases of human death after government verification. Victims are often compensated for crop destruction, livestock predation, human injury and death.

Between 2020 and 2022, more than 370 Kenyans reportedly lost their lives after attacks by wild animals, while over 2,040 were injured, according to KWS data.

Baboons and monkeys are the leading causes of human-wildlife conflict in Kenya, with a majority of the cases reported from areas where locals depend on crop growing and livestock keeping for their livelihoods, according to KWS statistics.

Consequently, the Kenyan government has stepped up measures to reduce these conflicts by equipping KWS rangers with the necessary resources to ensure they swiftly respond when incidences are reported.

The government continues to implement several other strategies, including deploying more rangers to supply water and forage to animals in protected areas, to reduce the conflicts across the country, according to Lilian Ajuoga, an assistant director at KWS.

“We are doing our best to try and contain wild animals. But it is necessary to also note that some pastoralist communities, too, are encroaching on wildlife corridors due to drought and this also results in conflicts when wild animals protect their territories,” said Ajuoga.

The KWS is also considering collating and tracking problematic animals with other stakeholders’ help and translocating them to avert the destruction of property and human deaths.

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