Shortly after the workshop on climate change and water stress in the eastern Himalayan river basins in Kathmandu, I went on a family vacation to Kenya. This was the African Safari we had been dreaming of … seeing the Big Five, plus giraffes, zebras, hippos … Little did I think that climate change and water stress would continue to occupy my thoughts.
Our first stop, the Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya is located in a semi-arid desert that stretches all the way to Ethiopia. Unique to this region are a number of animals, including Grevy’s zebra (delicately patterned), reticulated giraffe, oryx, gerenuk (with its long neck reaching to the highest branches, you can almost see natural selection in action ) and the truly majestic Somali ostrich. The people of northern Kenya, the Samburu, cousins of the better known southern Maasai, are nomadic warriors who are often seen tending their cattle and cattle along the park’s dusty trails.
The first couple of stays in the reserve took our breath away at the profusion of animals we saw. Then a naturalist from Samburu, aka Daniel, gave us a talk about the region. He spoke about climate change and how it is affecting the lands of Samburu. In the last two years, the rains have failed them 5 times. Not only has it rained less; in the last session of prolonged rains (April-May 2009) it did not rain at all. “I think it is due to something called global warming,” Daniel said, “we are seeing it happen before our eyes.” Daniel himself has seen his herd of cattle decrease from 50 to 10 in recent months. If the scant rains at the end of October do not arrive, expect all the livestock to die.
For the Samburu people, their livestock is their wealth and the social system is based on the exchange of livestock. The decline in the livestock population affects the health of the communities as malnutrition and disease set in as the Samburu rely heavily on the blood, milk and meat of their livestock for food. Parents cannot marry off their children if they do not have livestock. A child cannot reach adulthood without livestock. School attendance is declining as families move further and further away in search of fodder and access to health centers. There is also talk of an increase in tensions between the different communities due to the scarcity of resources.
Some species of wild animals in the reserve are doing a bit better today as they are more adapted to dry land conditions and occasional droughts. In fact, scavengers are doing particularly well today with the high death rate among domesticated cattle. However, the zebras, giraffes and gerenuk we saw are also expected to start perishing if the next round of year-end rains is not in time.
Looking at the longer term is not very encouraging either. Climate change models have predicted that drought in African rangelands will double by the end of this century and that while the number of dry spells may not increase significantly; they are likely to last longer, making recovery difficult.
We continue to our next stop, Lake Nakuru National Park in the Rift Valley area to see a multitude of flamingos. Later we also saw the Big Five … a truly exhilarating experience. But the images of the Samburu lands and their current situation remain deeply etched in my mind. Will the people of Samburu be able to overcome the current crisis or will the singing of the Samburu be silenced forever?