NAIROBI, Kenya – Elephants in Kenyan national parks and reserves are leaving their drought-stricken sanctuaries to search for water and food near human settlements, where they have attacked starving people trying to protect their crops.
U.N. agencies have warned of hunger across the region because of drought and say the situation in eastern Kenya is particularly serious. People reportedly have died of hunger during what officials say is the country's worst drought in 22 years.
Connie Maina, spokeswoman for the Kenya Wildlife Services, said Thursday that elephants killed two people last week after leaving the Tsavo West National Park. Problems also have been reported in Lamu, Laikipia and Narok districts, she said.
Kenya Wildlife Services personnel have been deployed to several areas in response, she said.
"We are trying to do ground and air patrol to ensure that the problem animals do not cause any havoc and to try to drive the elephants back to the park," Maina said.
"This involves the use of a lot of vehicles and a helicopter that flies low and pushes them in the direction where we want them to go. It is a very expensive operation."
The drought has not killed wildlife, and conservation officials have not had problems with smaller animals.
"The situation is still manageable," Maina said.
African elephants are the largest living land mammals, weighing up to 6.5 tons. An elephant eats approximately 5 percent of its body weight and drinks about 30-50 gallons of water a day, according to the Africa Wildlife Foundation.
The foundation says there are between 300,000 and 600,000 elephants on the continent — about half the estimated total of 40 years ago.
On Jan. 1, President Mwai Kibaki said food shortages would affect some 2.5 million Kenyans in northern districts, and he declared the crisis a national disaster.
The crisis hit as Kenya forecast a surplus harvest of nearly 69,000 tons of maize. Farmers in other parts of the country were waiting in lines for up to two weeks to sell their maize, the nation's staple food, to the national cereals board.
The Kibaki administration has been accused by lawmakers, citizens and the media of failing to respond effectively to the worsening situation in the north.
They say the government had adequate warning of the problem but seemed to respond only after media images in December moved the public to raise money and food for the affected people.
The head of the U.N. environment agency linked the drought to environmental damage to forests, grasslands, wetlands and other critical ecosystems as well as global climate change
Klaus Toepfer, who is based in Nairobi, urged countries in east Africa to invest in and rehabilitate their "natural or nature capital" to protect vulnerable communities against future droughts, which threaten misery for millions alongside livelihoods and livestock. He urged donor countries to help.
"Drought is no stranger to the peoples of East Africa. It is a natural climatic phenomenon. What has dramatically changed in recent decades is the ability of nature to supply essential services like water and moisture during hard times," Toepfer said, according to a statement from the U.N. Environment Program.
"This is because so much of nature's water and rain-supplying services have been damaged, destroyed or cleared."
He added: "These facts are especially poignant when you factor in the impact of climate change, which is triggering more extreme weather events like droughts."