NAKURU/AMBOSELI, Kenya (Reuters Life!) - A zebra leaps to freedom after a grueling six-hour truck journey to Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. But if all goes to plan, it will soon fall prey to lions or hyenas.
Amboseli’s zebra and wildebeest population has been decimated by drought and the park’s carnivores are now roaming far and wide in search of food, killing cows, donkeys and goats tended by Maasai pastoralists.
The herders have also lost a significant chunk of their livestock during the prolonged dry spell and now some are killing lions to stop their precious herds dwindling further.
To try and stem the near-daily attacks and temper the anger in surrounding villages, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is moving 7,000 herbivores — 4,000 zebras and 3,000 wildebeest — to the park’s expansive plains in Southern Kenya near the Tanzanian border in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.
“The attacks are occurring almost every day, especially in the evening,” said George Osuri, senior warden of Amboseli National Park. “Almost every night we will get a report of depredation and basically it involves lions and hyenas.”
“The communities are very emotional. They lost a significant number of their livestock, therefore, whatever little that was left is guarded jealously,” he said after an awareness meeting with Maasai community leaders outside the park.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been more than 50 attacks and two lions have been killed. In three night-time raids this week, lions killed four cows, two goats and a donkey.
Charles Musyoki, a senior scientist at KWS, said Kenya’s lion population has dwindled to just 2,000 from 2,700 in 2002.
“We are really very concerned about the national status of lions and we want to see them conserved in the best way possible, but the lions then happen also to be a problem animal,” he told Reuters. “So striking a balance between these two is a bit tricky.”
The zebras’ journey started some 450 km (280 miles) further north in the 44,000-acre Soysambu Conservancy and ranch, privately owned by aristocrat Tom Cholmondeley, grandson of Lord Delamere, Kenya’s most famous white settler.
A KWS helicopter acts as a 21st century sheepdog: hovering, dipping and weaving above grasslands dotted with acacia trees, driving the zebras toward a plastic-walled enclosure.
A few beasts flit through the scrub, then more appear stampeding toward the enclosure. KWS staff quickly pull plastic screens across to close the entrance and gradually funnel the panicked zebras toward a truck.
KWS often translocates animals to redress imbalances caused by drought and poaching, both to preserve the country’s delicate ecosystems and ensure wildlife parks remain a draw for tourists.
This time last year, Amboseli was teeming with wildebeest and zebras and five years ago there were 7,000. Now, there are just a handful and vast herds of elephants are the main attraction.
“Apart from trying to create that balance for the carnivores to have food, we also want to improve the aesthetic value of the whole ecosystem because we realize that for tourism purposes it will be very difficult for visitors to come here and see nothing,” said Osuri.
Despite the global slowdown, Kenya remains a popular long-haul tourist destination thanks to its abundant wildlife and pristine Indian Ocean beaches. Tourism is the third biggest source of foreign exchange for the region’s largest economy.
But the translocation will take time. On Monday, 49 zebras were moved and on Wednesday another 88 made the journey in three trucks shuttling between the parks — and the Maasai are becoming impatient.
Across Kenya, the tension between pastoralists and wildlife parks is palpable. Battling over scarce resources, exacerbated by years of failed rains, some herders warn there will be a war unless a solution is found soon.
Recognizing the looming crisis, KWS is holding awareness meetings to explain what it is doing, and why. Gathered in the cool shadow of a thorn tree outside Amboseli, Maasai herders and chiefs explain their grievances to Osuri.
James Likampa, chief of the Oltiasika area, says angry farmers are considering poisoning the hyenas as they are harder to kill with spears than lions. Others also complain the new zebras will destroy crops and the wildebeest will bring disease.
“It would be better to translocate the hyenas to somewhere with herbivores,” he tells the meeting.
Likampa says it would be good if KWS provided wire fencing so they could secure their animal enclosures without cutting down more trees, but acknowledges that the delivery of more herbivores to Amboseli can reduce the conflict.
Osuri rejects requests to fence in the lions, saying that Amboseli would then just become another “big zoo”. But the park will carry out a census of the burgeoning hyena population next month and look at options if the ecosystem cannot support them.
Standing next to an enclosure where he and his sons fought off a lion on Tuesday night, Daniel ole Kutata says if they get proper fencing and more zebras and wildebeest come to the Amboseli, the situation should improve.
“But if what’s happening at the moment continues, the future is bleak for the Maasai.” (Additional reporting by Robert Waweru; editing by Daniel Wallis and Paul Casciato)