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“[T]hey are getting used to the noise”: Drought, and a farmer’s life alongside elephant

The drought here in East Africa has been a frequent theme in these weekly bulletins. So frequent, in fact, that there are no doubt those amongst our readership that can no longer bare to read about it.

It has been described as the worst drought to hit this part of the world in forty years. With first-hand experience, we’ve been able to report on how this unusually lengthy dry period has impacted the elephant of Tsavo. If you read that previous report, you’ll know that a reported 109 elephant have died in Tsavo alone this year. Those deaths were the direct result of the drought.

In making that information available to you, we have fulfilled our obligation to you, a large portion of the stakeholders concerned in the wellbeing of Tsavo’s elephant, of providing up-to-date, honest reporting on them. Why then must we harp on?

Reporting on the drought as often as we have may well have encouraged some of the incredibly important donations that give us the ability to alleviate the worst of the influences affecting our elephant here in Tsavo. And those donations are daily applied in the protecting of the elephant from drought conditions.

There is, however, little more to be done about the drought save this. Palliative care, one might call it, is what we are reduced to as we contend with this destructive force in this already dry habitat. There is little that our informing of you can do to immediately curtain the real forces that have brought about this drought.

Tsavo has, as long as memories can attest to, been a dry climate. Part of the reason why it was earmarked for national park status originally is because it was not inhabited by people. The reason why? The iconic red dirt and harsh weather of the area is not habitable without a certain degree of inventiveness.

This dry climate does seem, however, to be drying out further. As has been stated, this is the worst drought in forty years. Farmers who have now settled in the region, and have been here for over thirty years have suggested that this is not unique to this year. The last three years have been two dry for much of the farming practices they were previously reliant on.

This problem is now well-established. We can do little, in real-time, to combat it. We are reduced to ameliorating its effects and, hopefully, arresting its worsening further.

So, again, why must we harp on?

It is no novel message but we must harp on is so that the influences which have brought about this dangerous drought are curbed. You know what they are, we need not expand upon them.

A more unpredictable climate is of huge impact to habitats such as Tsavo’s. In order to paint a compelling picture of this impact, we would like to share some first-hand accounts of life in this climate and how it has changed recently, in these drought conditions.

Journalists from the UK-based newspaper, The Guardian, recently visited a community of farmers in Taita-Taveta county, which sits just south of the Tsavo National Parks. Farmers there have suffered from all of the same conditions impacting the region’s elephant. And, with limited barriers between the peoples outside of the park and the elephants within, the drought has brought them into closer contact.

According to Francis Mutuku, who owns a five acre plot in Taita-Taveta, “I cannot plant maize any more and need to switch to crops that take a short time to mature and that require little water”. Mr. Mutuku has no allusions as to why: “[e]xperts say we are suffering because people in rich countries have polluted the atmosphere”.

He and one of his neighbours in the area report that the lack of water in the area has brought them into closer contact with elephant. “When we plant, they come”, says Rachel Kennedy. They’ve destroyed water tanks used by the farmers as a safeguard against the unreliability of the rains. They dictate when schoolchildren can leave their homes to go to school.

Within the national park, the elephant have dropped some of their natural cautiousness in their search for water. There have been frequent reports of elephant entering some of the campsites in search of water.

The presence of elephant within local community spaces outside of the protected areas is worrying to those that live there. “We beat the iron sheet roofing on our homes, but they are getting used to the noise”, says Rachel. “There is little you can do when confronted by a herd of 14 elephants.”

Life for these farmers is difficult enough without the presence of these creatures, as majestic as they are. Conflict, already a pressing concern, is becoming increasingly prevalent. According to the manager of a local wildlife sanctuary, wildlife and livestock are increasingly reliant on the same pasturelands. He says these often have “fatal consequences”.

Worrying signs of an establishing pattern

As the farmers of Taita-Taveta can attest to, droughts of increased violence seem to be becoming the norm. If this is the case, then we, as conservationists within the park, can expect to see the influence of drought on wildlife in coming years.

It seems that farmers can expect this increased competition for pastureland too. In an area of the world where life has so longly been something that needed fighting for, this competition is likely to have painful results.

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