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Severe drought killing Kenya's majestic elephants

TSAVO NATIONAL PARK, Kenya (Reuters Life!) - Elephant tusks litter dry river beds in parched southern Kenya.

A Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) ranger stands next to the carcass of a baby elephant that died from the prolonged drought near the Galana River at Tsavo East National Park, southeast of Kenya's capital Nairobi, October 8, 2009. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

The country’s wildlife, prized for the tourist dollars it brings, is dying due to a severe drought.

Tourism is vital to east Africa’s biggest economy, which boasts usually teeming national parks and snow white beaches.

But just as the sector was recovering from last year’s post-election violence, it is at the mercy of the environment.

Elephants, buffalo and hippos are all dying.

The river through the world-renowned Maasai Mara, the scene of the spectacular wildebeest migration, has mostly dried up.

In Tsavo National Park, the carcasses of four elephants lie on the baked earth, dead from hunger and thirst.

“Many elephants have been affected due to the lack of water, especially the juveniles because their trunks are not long enough to reach the taller trees to feed,” Paul Muya, tourism officer for Tsavo, told Reuters.

Muya, who works for the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), said vegetation trees and vegetation have also dried up.

KWS officials have collected 40 tusks from dry river beds in the area in the past month. Muya estimates that a total of 80 of the giant beasts have probably died during that time.

The deaths are a huge blow to KWS efforts to boost the number of elephants, which was slashed by poaching in the 1980s. The organisation was proud of increasing the population from around 5,000 in 1989 to about 12,000 today.

Muya said the fate of the elephants was indicative of what was happening to other species in the national park.

“Zebras are dying, buffalos are dying and we have had incidences of carnivores dying (too),” he said.

KWS has started providing water to animals in Tsavo so that they do not have to walk long distances to the water points.

They have also began feeding hippos -- many of whom have become stuck in dried-up water pools. The huge herbivores have no sweat glands and are at the mercy of the unrelenting heat.

A fifth year of consecutive drought is ravaging seven east African countries, and there are fears rains forecast to start this month may only add to the misery by triggering floods.

Writing by Wangui Kanina; Editing by Paul Casciato