Sunday, 28 May 2017

East Africa’s drought threatens iconic wildebeest migration

24 May 2017

By Adam Popescu in Serengeti, Tanzania

The wildebeest look tired. Skittish at the slightest sound, their hooves perpetually pound the dusty plain until they kick up a cloud that obscures the hundreds of animals forming the herd.

Under the dust, the short grass is yellow and grey, if it’s there at all. How do these animals find sustenance amid this sparseness, I wonder? Where is the water?

“Drought,” answers Ngiimba, my Maasai guide. “More than a year now. Killed over 50 per cent of livestock.”

I’m in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, a sprawling wilderness the size of Belgium. And though there is wildlife seemingly everywhere – lions, cheetahs, elephants, zebras, wildebeest – Ngiimba’s words hint at trouble.

More than 90,000 tourists flock here every year to see the Serengeti’s great annual migration, in which as many as 2 million wildebeest, zebras and gazelles travel thousands of kilometres between Tanzania and Kenya. The grazers cross rivers and arid scrub along the way, and leave a trail of droppings in their wake that keeps soils rich in nutrients, giving life to the land.

But there’s a story that travel sites and Instagram posts don’t share. Although biodiversity here ranks among the world’s highest, Africa is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change – and rising temperatures can cut crop yields by as much as 20 per cent. Factor in an already depleted ecosystem and an infrastructure unable to handle a fast-growing population, and East Africa faces a bleak future.
Not a drop

It’s supposed to be the rainy season, but not a drop has fallen in my 10 days here. The parched earth reminds me of my native California, but whereas we have dams and irrigation to deal with water shortages, there are no such facilities here.

The relationship to water stretches far beyond the savannah, and affects humans as much as wild animals. The water shortages are causing humans to compete with wildlife for resources and push into their territory.

It is not uncommon for locals to lead their flocks onto protected lands to graze. Increasingly, people find that their crops and livestock are dying, leading to a food shortage that could become a humanitarian crisis.  

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