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Drought imperils wildlife in Kenya

NAIROBI -- A severe drought that has left millions of people hungry across East Africa is now threatening Kenya's famous animals, which are straying out of protected areas in search of water, wildlife officials said yesterday.

The Kenya Wildlife Service says as watering holes and rivers run dry, elephants are straying out of national parks close to human settlements, risking conflict with villagers.

''Already elephants are migrating out of the parks to the periphery near villages to hunt for water," KWS spokeswoman Connie Maina said.

''Our biggest concern is that there will be more human and wildlife conflict as more elephants go into these areas and come into contact with unsuspecting residents," she added.

The lack of rains in many parts of East Africa -- including Kenya, Somalia ,and Ethiopia -- has left around 6 million people on the brink of starvation, according to the United Nations.

While northeastern Kenya is the worst affected by the drought, with several deaths reported because of malnutrition related illnesses and the loss of thousands of livestock, officials say national parks and reserves are also being hit.

With 59 sanctuaries, reserves and national parks, Kenya's wildlife is the top attraction for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock there every year for safari holidays.

Maina said the worst affected parks were Tsavo National Park in the southeast and the popular Maasai Mara National Reserve in the southwest, where herds of elephants have been invading neighboring areas since December, when expected rains failed.

She said at least two people have been killed in recent weeks when elephants stampeded areas around Tsavo.

In the Maasai Mara, wardens say that between 60 and 80 hippos have died as water levels in the Mara river drop, while territorial, protective males who guard over their pods fight over space as new bulls move in.

They say bloated carcasses of hippos have been found floating in the river and other hippos have wounds from fighting.

Wildlife specialists say while the lack of water is the main problem affecting the animals, food, which is currently adequate, could also pose a challenge as herders bring their cattle into the national parks to graze.

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