NAIROBI, Kenya (AlertNet) – Climate shifts are forcing Kenyan experts to take drastic action to preserve the stunning scenery and wildlife that have drawn millions of tourists to the east African country, bringing vital revenue and providing thousands of jobs.
From collecting rainwater in national parks to providing animals with hay in hard times and preventing alien species of vegetation from taking over grassland, Kenyans have joined regional and global projects to grapple with the changes, which are having deep and rapid effects on the country’s natural resources.
One of the sites most severely affected by recent changes is Lake Nakuru, in the Rift Valley about 140 km (80 miles) northwest of Nairobi. The soda lake is home to millions of flamingos who make a dazzling display as they wheel and swoop in huge flocks before settling on the water to browse on the dense algae.
The flamingos and other water birds make the lake one of the country’s most magnificent spectacles, watched by thousands of tourists from the 14 hotels overlooking the lake and giving jobs to thousands of Kenyans, as well as bringing in more than 3 billion Kenyan shillings ($36 million) a year in revenue.
“You should see the wading birds move in different directions as others fly above the lake. Their beautiful colours, elegance, and enormous numbers are a breathtaking spectacle for any visitor,” says Jackson Shitemi, a schoolteacher who occasionally takes students to watch the birds.
But in the past three months, millions of birds have migrated to other places because of pounding rains that have caused the lake to overflow.
“Since my childhood, there was no time when the birds had to migrate simply because the lake was overflowing. This is a new phenomenon that I have only witnessed in the past few years,” said Shitemi, who grew up in Nakuru Township.
The problem, experts say, is that excessive rainfall is affecting the birds’ food supply.
“Lake Nakuru is a saline lake. This makes it a perfect ecological environment for algae, which is the favourite food of the flamingos. But when it overflows, the salinity reduces, affecting the growth of the algae. This forces the birds to flee to other places in search of food,” explained Paul Udoto, a spokesman at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). “Only a few flamingos remain on the lake at the moment.”
Extremely heavy rains have also encouraged the growth of invasive alien plant species that threaten to overwhelm the native vegetation on which local wildlife feed. This forces wild animals to stray into people’s farmland, leading to growing conflict between animals and farmers.
“Such rains also destroy the roads in the parks, barring tourists from getting to important sites,” Udoto told AlertNet.
As well as producing excessively heavy rainfall, climate shifts have contributed to worsening severe droughts which put great strain on the ability of even the most adaptable wildlife to cope.
In 2010, the Kenya Wildlife Service had to provide water in artificial troughs for wild animals in several parks, since all the natural waterholes had dried up. “This was the most extreme measure that we have ever taken in order to rescue animals that were dying in numbers,” said Udoto. At that time the wildlife service also had to buy hay for the wild animals, he said.
Evans Kituyi, a climate change adaptation expert in Nairobi, says there are a number of ways countries like Kenya can adapt their protected areas to better cope with more extreme conditions.
“In the same way as we harvest and preserve water for human and domestic animals’ use, the same can be done for wild animals in the parks,” said Kituyi, the senior programme specialist with the Climate Change Adaptation Africa programme at the Regional Office of the International Development Research Centre.
To make the changes, the country needs the right technology and resources, he said. “But before then, there is a need for adequate research to guide implementation of such adaptation projects,” he said.
WATER HARVESTING PLAN
So far the Kenya Wildlife Service, in partnership with Parks Canada, has embarked on a one-year project to sink water pans for harvesting rainfall run-off in four national parks – Lake Nakuru, Amboseli, Tsavo, and Aberdares.
“We have also developed a strategy for the management of invasive alien species in protected conservation areas in Kenya with the support of scientists from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute,” said Udoto.
Invasive species, which establish themselves in a new environment and, unchecked by their former competitors or predators, outperform the local species, are recognised as a major threat to ecological and economic wellbeing. Experts say some of the invaders are favoured by the prevailing changes in climatic conditions in Kenya.
Despite such problems, tourism remains one of the country’s most lucrative industries, the Kenya Tourist Board says.
“Although Kenya’s tourism industry relies heavily on both the wildlife and the beaches, the country has other diverse tourism products like culture, sports and adventure, which are still intact,” said Wausi Walya, a spokeswoman for the Kenya Tourist Board.
“In general, the industry is still one of the best performing in Kenya,” she said. “We hope that with scientific research and other efforts already in place we will be able to adapt to the changing climatic conditions.”
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science writer based in Nairobi.