NAIROBI, Kenya — A drought in Kenya has gotten so bad that it is felling even the giants of the animal kingdom – the country's famed elephants which are dying as rivers dry up and grasslands shrivel in parched game reserves.
The bones of the elephants bleaching under a relentless African sun underscore how bad the drought is. It has killed hundreds of cattle and many acres (hectares) of crops, threatening the lives of people who depended on them for food. There are no tallies of deaths among people attributed to the drought but the U.N.'s World Food program said recently that 3.8 million Kenyans are at risk and need emergency food aid.
Zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who founded Save the Elephants, said the drought is the worst he has seen in 12 years and poses a serious threat to the large and majestic animals, whose striking silhouettes roaming Kenya's broad savannah help draw 1 million tourists each year.
"It may be related to climate change, and the effect is elephants, particularly the young and the old, have began to die," he told AP Television News on Monday. "When they do not have enough food they also seem to be vulnerable to disease, their immune system weakens and they catch all sorts of diseases."
Instead of majestic, many elephants are pitiable.
Elephants, which have no predators, must roam widely to get their daily ration of as much as 200 liters (52 gallons) of water and about 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of grass, leaves and twigs. But the water is disappearing and the grass is all but gone.
In the Samburu National Reserve, APTN video showed a baby elephant appearing to struggle to extract moisture from a dry riverbed. It repeatedly drew its empty trunk up to its mouth. Along the banks of a river in the shadow of Mount Kenya, whose glaciers have been shrinking, an elephant's carcass lay in the baking sun. A dirt field was littered with elephant bones.
In the past two months, over 40 elephants have died in Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu districts, the Daily Nation newspaper reported. It was initially thought to be a disease outbreak but laboratory tests failed to detect disease. The only probable reason the animals are dying is drought, Moses Litoloh, a senior scientist with the Kenya Wildlife Service, told the newspaper.
"Preliminary investigations reveal that the elephants have not been getting enough fodder, especially the young ones," he said. "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."
The species is hardly at the brink of extinction – there are 23,000 elephants in Kenya and fewer than 100 have died from the drought – but wildlife experts say they are concerned.
Making matters worse, herders are driving their livestock into the elephants' domain in search of fresh pasture and competing for forage.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga last month warned of a "catastrophe" if seasonal rains don't come in October and November. Kenya's grain harvest is expected to be 28 percent lower. Food prices have jumped by as much as 130 percent.
The WFP has called for US$230 million (euro160.58 million) in donations to feed hungry Kenyans.
Associated Press Writer Khaled Kazziha contributed to this report.