Drought Comes to Tsavo

Published on the 25th of August, 2022

In Kenya, years are but a footnote. More than any calendar, life is defined by the rains.

This year, the rains have failed us in parts of Kenya. As I write this, Tsavo is in the midst of a dramatic drought. The rains won’t come until November, at the earliest — and their arrival is never a given, but rather a fervent hope. We have a long, difficult spell ahead of us.

This month, I wanted to share what a drought means for Tsavo’s biggest residents, and the steps we are taking to support them through this challenging time.

– Angela Sheldrick

Drought Comes to Tsavo

Left to its own devices, nature is a severe but just master. Some years, abundance prevails; others, it withholds its bounty, and the environment goes without. This is the natural order of things, a finely tuned system that has sustained our planet for millions of years.

Nowhere is the natural order more evident than in Africa, where all life hinges on the seasonal rains. It just takes a few good storms to reinvigorate the landscape. However, rain is a fickle beast. Even building clouds on the horizon aren’t a given; shifting ocean currents and monsoon winds can dissolve that hope in an instant.

In 1970-71, Tsavo fell into the grips of a devastating drought. 6,000 elephants lost their lives during that period — but far from spelling long-term disaster, the drought balanced wildlife populations. My father, David Sheldrick, was the warden of Tsavo at the time. I was just a child, but I still remember him dealing with the devastation, while explaining that this was nature at its most brutal.

Now, we must contend with a rogue factor: Climate change has shifted the natural order of things, disrupting age-old weather patterns and throwing a finely tuned system into disarray. Rains are failing with increasing irregularity, driving soaring temperatures and more frequent droughts. Wildlife have evolved to survive in the landscape in which they live. The occasional anomaly can actually benefit a species — the weak succumb to a drought; the strong prevail — but when the natural order changes, they are left grappling with a world they are not adapted to. This is compounded by the human factor: shrinking rangelands, competition over limited resources, and the resultant human-wildlife conflict.

Tsavo is one of Africa’s greatest remaining wildernesses, and the largest National Park in Kenya. Amidst shrinking landscapes, it remains a rich, viable habitat for all manner of creatures. Two years ago, Tsavo was blessed with a period of abundance. The landscape was green as far as the eye could see. The old prospered and the young proliferated. Elephants, those giant barometers of the ecosystem, stood tall and healthy; each herd had a bevy of plump, round-cheeked babies frolicking in their midst.

But how quickly good fortune can flip. Poor rains last year brought Tsavo to the brink of a drought; failed rains earlier this year sealed its fate. Resident wildlife are hanging on as best they can. This isn’t the first time they have faced difficult times, nor will it be the last. Like most of Africa’s great wildernesses, Tsavo has always been a demanding landscape.

Plains that were once verdant and buzzing have fallen still. The blanket of green has transformed into parched earth, the expanse of red only broken by well-trod paths to remaining watering points. Yet, life prevails. Giraffes reach high into the acacia trees, plucking precious leaves with their long tongues. Lions laze in the shade, resting before the next hunt. Game congregates around water sources, creating a melting pot of African life as creatures great and small patiently wait their turn for a drink.

And of course, the elephants forge ahead. Tsavo’s great matriarchs and bulls are no strangers to adversity. Elephants have faced a disproportionate share of hardship in the past century, both manmade — hunting, ivory poaching, habitat loss — and naturally induced. Some were even alive to witness the great drought of 1970. Etched into the deepest recesses of their brains is the wisdom needed to navigate these periods. They have a unique ability to sniff out water sources, even subterranean streams that are invisible to the naked eye. Following ancient migratory paths, they can root out places where vegetation still thrives. A successful elephant will balance generations’ worth of knowledge with in-the-moment decisiveness, knowing when to follow their ancestors and when to forge their own path.

Elephants are an incredibly complex, intelligent species — and they need all their wits about them to weather a drought. It is a great irony that the world’s mightiest animal is also the most vulnerable to periods of want. But again, this is the natural order at work. In an ideal world, elephants would have few threats to their survival. To compensate, nature has made them fragile. They have poor digestion and require prodigious quantities of vegetation to sustain themselves. In a drought, it is a lack of food, more so than a lack of water, that has fatal consequences.

As human actions have disrupted the natural order, it is up to us to balance the scales. Long before this drought set in, we have been working to help landscapes better support wildlife amidst our changing climate. While water initiatives may not capture the same level of attention as our other conservation projects, they are equally vital to a functioning ecosystem. Water for Wildlife brings tailored water solutions to arid areas, providing a lifeline to animals during the dry season and unlocking areas that were previously uninhabitable for much of the year.

Typically, these solutions take the form of boreholes. Where aquifers are plentiful, but surface drinking water is scarce, boreholes tap into water tables deep beneath the ground. We strategically install them far from communities, drawing wildlife deeper into the protection of the park. Boreholes also supply the hard-working teams who are positioned in these conservation areas.

Water projects can transform a landscape, as one of our more recent installations demonstrates. Located in the northern sector of Tsavo East, Thabangunji was a vast, pristine wilderness with one notable problem: Its natural water pans dry up, forcing most creatures to leave during the dry season. Two years ago, we were able to change that. We installed a borehole in the heart of the landscape, which feeds into three different water pans and a large trough. Once news spread that fresh water was now available and food plentiful, wildlife quickly migrated to the area. Even now, at the height of the drought, herds are benefitting from this more plentiful landscape.

This is a time when wildlife needs us most. As we implement sustainable, long-term support, we must also be ready to help at a moment’s notice. Field emergencies are unfolding on a daily basis. The influx of orphans that began last year has not abated; indeed, it will likely only increase as the drought continues to take hold.

More often than not, human-wildlife conflict — compounded by drought — is the reason elephants are orphaned during this time. Competition over resources are fraught, and elephants are sometimes forced to leave protected areas in search of food, where danger ensues. But sometimes, matriarchs must make heartbreaking decisions. Elephants know they must prioritise the herd’s survival above any individual. When the weak slip behind, the strong press on. Calves are vulnerable, and they are often the first to fall.

This drought has already claimed too many lives. Unlike the drought of 1970, Kenya’s elephant population is not at max capacity. Instead, there has been a concerted effort to nurture its numbers, which plummeted in the 1980s due to ivory poaching. The turn of the 21st century brought another population dip, between a resurgence in ivory poaching and the expanding human footprint. These orphans are the lucky ones, spared in the nick of time. While they very nearly lost their futures, they will now grow up supported by a loving human-elephant family, until they are ready to reclaim their place among Tsavo’s wild herds.

It is not only Kenya’s smallest elephants who need our help. As I mentioned earlier, elephants are among the drought’s most vulnerable victims. Their sheer size is the culprit. Along with the vast quantities of food they need to sustain themselves, their body weight easily gets them stuck. As they venture into drying water pans for a drink or a wallow, one misstep turns into a lethal trap. In the past month alone, we have rescued four adult elephants from such situations. This is a Herculean task. There is no shortcut to free an elephant; usually, our teams must crawl in the mud, manually digging around the poor creature to secure ropes that can haul them out.

These field emergencies are quite incredible. Imagine how stressful it must be for a wild elephant to be completely trapped, as men and vehicles converge around them. And yet, they remain cooperative throughout, clearly understanding that we are there to help. If one ever needed a reminder of the cognisance of elephants, this is a stunning example.

Even in times of hardship, hope prevails. One of our most recent field operations brought this into stark relief. It was a difficult undertaking to free this particular bull, as he had slipped deep into the mud of a drying dam and was stuck fast. Day turned into night, and it wasn’t until 10 PM that the team finally pulled him onto solid ground. He was weakened by his ordeal and struggled to stand. Almost as if on cue, a wild herd arrived at the dam. Everyone retreated to let the elephants drink in peace — but instead, they gathered around the recumbent bull and helped him to his feet. Ensconced amongst friends, he disappeared into the darkness, free at last.

Life in Tsavo isn’t easy right now, to be sure. But elephants are remarkable creatures. They have navigated great challenges before, and they will do so again. The next few months will be difficult, but we cling to hope that rains are waiting on the other side. Until the heavens open, we will be there, as we always have been — doing our very best to provide support through these trying times.

We welcome any donation you feel able to give, which we will be used where it is most needed as we support wildlife through this difficult period.

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.

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