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Friday, 9 April 2010

Relocation of Wildlife to Amboseli National Park - from LLA

Amboseli National Park is located in the South of Kenya, bordering with Tanzania. This beautiful park is famed for the spectacular views of Mt Kilimanjaro and the elephant population.

Last October 2009, the drought stroke East Africa, leaving millions hungry, littered landscape with dead and dying livestock, evaporated lakes and streams and pressed farmers from fields into slums. Amboseli was severely affected by the drought in Kenya, and even though it is now officially over, the seriousness of the phenomenon added to a long list of elements that have affected Kenya´s wildlife for decades, has lead Kenya Wildlife Services to take drastic measures in regards to wildlife in Amboseli National Park.

Last year´s devastating drought attracted many herbivores in the park that resulted in overgrazing. This led to the deaths of over 60% of the zebra and wildebeest population. These deaths severely compromised the ecological balance of the park and its surrounding areas. A census conducted in October 2009 showed that there were only 3,023 wildebeests and 2,467 zebras, a sharp drop from similar census carried out in 2007 that indicated 12,411 and 6,978 wildebeests and zebras, respectively.

Elephants, hippos, antelopes, buffalo, rhinos, even flamingoes have all been impacted. In addition, the drought took 50% to 80% of the Maasai cattle herds. Predators lost their prey base and lions, already critically endangered in Kenya, also faced starvation, so they turned to killing the few remaining cattle and other Maasai livestock. Before this drought, Kenya had been hemorrhaging between 4% to 5% of its wildlife every year. Since 1985 the nation has lost one-third of its wildlife according to the government's Department of Remote Sensing and Resource Surveys (DRSRS). This is largely due to habitat loss, but also human-animal conflicts, including poaching and poisoning have played a role—one that is increasing.

Environmentalists have been pointing fingers at policies that allow business interests to use exorbitant amounts of water, such as the flower trade for Holland. They say such policies are essentially gambling away water resources for Kenya's people, livestock, and wildlife for commercial flower production.

Kenyan Wildlife Services (KWS) runs all of Kenya's parks and reserves, but the organization has no power in Kenya's many private reserves, and when 65 percent of the nation's wildlife live in unprotected areas trends that occur outside of parks has a large impact.

Given the critical situation after the last drought, in February the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) decided to relocate 7,000 wildebeest zebras to Amboseli so as to bring restore the predator-prey balance following the 2009 drought, the fiercest in 26 years that devastated the Amboseli ecosystem, in an action that has been called “the biggest animal relocation since Noah´s ark” by BBC journalists that covered the event. The operation lasted for over 3 weeks, with the goal being to relocate the animals trying to minimize their distress and ensuring their wellbeing while being transported.

The capture of 137 zebras in the 44,000-acre Soysambu Conservancy, 25 kms from Nakuru, launched the relocation project, marking the first phase that is targeting 1,000 zebras in the restocking exercise that will run until the end of February. Subsequent phases included wildebeests which were to be translocated after their calving season. A 26-member capture team comprising a helicopter pilot, technicians, drivers, capture officers and rangers were camping in the Soysambu conservancy. They had a helicopter, three trucks and other small vehicles for the exercise. Each of the trucks was able carry up to 90 wild animals per trip. Some of the challenges faced by the capture team included change of wind direction, failure of camouflage, shortage of trucks and constant risk of injuries to staff and the wild animals.

The operations started everyday as early as 5.30 am, the Kenya Wildlife Service helicopter rounded up zebras and drove them into a cleverly hidden funnel; objective was to capture and transport 50 zebras per trip. After being rounded up and driven to the hidden funnel, the same was closed with curtains behind the zebras. The zebras were completely confused at that point but not panicked. They settled down until the chute and trucks were in place. The Rangers then made noise banging the floor and sides of funnel with sticks to move zebras into the chute. Zebras run from funnel into the chute and directly into the waiting truck.

KWS rangers and veterinarians counted the individuals and made sure all was going according to plan. Captured zebras were compartmentalized in the truck in groups of 10. KWS senior scientists said that the initiative will ensure the preservation of the ecosystem in the Amboseli National Park. They pointed that despite the heavy expenses, the project was crucial both for preserving the country’s wildlife and bringing in revenue, trying to make sure that Amboseli as an eco-system does not collapse.

KWS emphasized that by re-stocking the park with these two key species, they will be assuring Kenyans of a continued functioning of the ecosystem as it were. The actual migration of the Zebras and Wildebeests is normally influenced by the prevalent weather patterns. The rainy season normally affects the supply of standing water and grass and the wildebeests and zebra will react accordingly. Unusual weather patterns will cause the herds to move in unpredictable patterns, back-tracking or bypassing areas they may have visited in a previous year.

The main body of the migration generally follows a roughly similar route on an annual basis, but the timing can vary. There are also lots of subsidiary movements of herds as the migration splits, rejoins, spreads out or congregates. It is a fluid motion that is not completely predictable and drastic weather as a result of global warming also plays an important part in future migration patterns.

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