The Tsavo Conservation Area hosts a diverse range of organisms that have adapted to the region’s particular climate and environment. Male lions, facing thorny vegetation and high temperatures, do not develop manes. Meanwhile, elephants take on a characteristic red colour from the iron oxide-rich soil, and seeds lie dormant through the dry months, awaiting the expected precipitation.
This year, however, the region’s climatic patterns have been disrupted by a current anomaly — unexpected heavy rains when we normally see a dry spell. This deviation is attributed to the climatic phenomenon, El Niño.
In this article, we delve into the repercussions of El Niño on Tsavo’s rainfall dynamics and explore how these climatic shifts impact the area’s unique flora and fauna, notably the social dynamics of elephants.
What are the usual rainfall patterns of Tsavo?
November and December usually have the ‘Short rains’ season, characterised by afternoon storms. January and February encounter a break between the rains, what we should be experiencing now, with February being the hottest month. The ‘Long rains’ typically commence in late March, bringing fleeting afternoon showers, and April receives the highest rainfall during this period.
However, there is a current deviation from this usual pattern in Tsavo, heavy rains. This is attributed to the climatic phenomenon known as El Niño. This ongoing event underscores the significant impact of global climate patterns on the region’s rainfall dynamics.
What is El Niño?
El Niño is a climatic phenomenon characterised by the abnormal warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. It represents the “warm phase” of the larger El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Its consequences extend beyond ocean temperatures, affecting the speed and strength of ocean currents, the health of coastal fisheries, and local weather patterns from Australia to South America and beyond.
Kenya has a history of facing challenges related to flooding, often linked to El Niño. These events have resulted in various impacts, such as the loss of lives, heightened disease outbreaks, displacement of communities, and widespread damage to property and infrastructure.
How has EL Niño affected Tsavo?
In the Tsavo region, El Niño has brought about a noticeable change. Usually, arid and dry during the gap between the rains, Tsavo has been experiencing a prolonged period of regular rains, beyond the normal precipitation patterns we see during this time.
When rain falls in Tsavo it triggers a surge in vegetation growth, transforming the once sparse land into a thriving environment. The growth of diverse grasses, now taller than a person, become a vital food source for the local animals. We see a growth in wildflowers, creating a more vibrant landscape, these flowers also support the local ecosystem by attracting pollinating insects and the birds that feed on them.
The benefits of this revitalised environment are evident for Tsavo’s wildlife. Grazing animals such as zebras and antelopes find an abundance of food in the lush grasses, ensuring their well-being and population stability. Healthy antelope populations, in turn, ensure that the predators of Tsavo are well fed.
Heavy rainfall also brings seasonal pools, which now host a variety of life. Fish, terrapins, and the elusive lungfish emerge from hibernation as these water bodies fill up, becoming essential habitats for aquatic and semi-aquatic species. This shows how the unexpected climatic shift can contribute to the resilience of the ecosystem in Tsavo.
How do rains affect elephants?
The prolonged rains have a profound impact on elephants, whose survival is intricately linked to rainfall patterns. In drought years, the scarcity of water and vegetation leads to a heightened risk of death among elephants, and can be a serious worry for conservationsists. Historically, droughts have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of elephants in this region.
Conversely, during the rainy season, elephants can thrive. With less focus on finding nourishment they are able to engage in crucial social behaviors. Large herds gather, allowing for socialisation, the reinforcement of family bonds, exchange of information, and mating activities. The rains, thus, play a pivotal role in sustaining the intricate social dynamics of elephant populations in Tsavo.
While El Niño presents considerable challenges for human populations, leading to issues such as flooding, destruction, and loss of life, it also ushers in substantial advantages for the animal residents of Tsavo. The prolonged rains play a crucial role in providing essential vegetation for nourishment, fostering a thriving ecosystem in the region. Consistent rainfall translates to reliable nourishment for all the animals in Tsavo, creating a period of abundance.