In 1989 the elephant population in Kenya was down to just 16,000 animals from an estimated 170,000 in the early 1970s. Efforts over the last 30 years to stop poaching have proved somewhat effective, enabling the elephant population to recover to an estimated 36,000 in 2021.

However, this increase in numbers is now under renewed threat, this time from the impacts of climate change. Sadly, the areas in the north and south of Kenya which are most affected by drought, are also home to the bulk of Kenya’s elephant population.

The African elephant is a highly water dependent animal and needs about 200–300 litres of water per day to remain cool and hydrated. When water is scarce, as in times of drought, elephants can overheat, mothers may fail to produce sufficient milk for their calves and young, weaned elephants can become susceptible to disease.

Traditionally, elephants have evolved to find water in the dry periods between rains and will follow ancient migratory routes to distant watering holes. However, the increasingly prolonged and intense droughts hitting eastern Africa in recent years have caused many of these water sources to dry up completely. At other places, the congregation of large numbers of elephants leads to the destruction of any vegetation around the waterhole, leaving these animals, who must consume hundreds of kilograms of plant matter every day, devoid of food.

Stressed and starved, weaker elephants inevitably collapse and die. Between February and October 2022, over 200 elephants perished as Kenya endured its worst drought in 40 years. 

The demise of these magnificent animals is tragic but has wider implications. African elephants have been called ‘ecosystem engineers’, meaning they create and maintain habitats critical for other species. By feeding and trampling on smaller trees and saplings, it has also been suggested that their behaviour might encourage the growth of taller, woodier trees which store more carbon, in turn reducing the effects of climate change.

So, what can be done to help protect and secure Kenya’s elephant populations and their natural habitats?

One solution is a sand dam; a concrete wall built across a seasonal riverbed that lasts upwards of 60 years and can capture up to 40 million litres of water, replenishing every rainy season. Watch here how sand dams work:

The water captured by a sand dam is stored within sand (safe from disease and evaporation) and so is a perfect water source for elephants, which are well known for travelling along dry riverbeds and digging for water.

Sand Dams Worldwide commenced our first sand dam programme for wildlife in 2015 and since 2019 we have been working with our partners Tsavo Trust, Kenya Wildlife Service and Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF) to construct a series of sand dams across Tsavo Conservation Area – a huge area in southern Kenya covering some 49,000km2 that is home to around 40% of all Kenya’s elephants.

To date 9 sand dams have been constructed in Tsavo, including three directly funded by Sand Dams Worldwide. Our team has recently returned from Kenya with the news that our sand dams have started to mature, meaning they are now restoring water in parts of Tsavo Conservation Area that had been so desperately dry throughout last year’s drought. And in time, they will play a significant role in mitigating the effects of climate change by raising groundwater levels, allowing water to infiltrate the soil, resulting in vegetation recovery, reduced erosion, restored degraded land and regreened environments.

In the coming year we hope to construct an additional 3 sand dams to help elephants through a lifetime of future droughts. We are currently fundraising for the first of these sand dams, with a target of £25,000. We urgently need your help. Here are a few examples of how your donations could support us:

  • £25 could provide 4 bags of cement for the sand dam

  • £60 could provide a roll of barbed wire, to reinforce and strengthen the sand dam during construction

  • £120 could provide a wheelbarrow (used to move heavy materials on the dam site) and 10 bags of cement

We would be hugely grateful for any amount you could donate, which would be a valued contribution to our efforts to safeguard the elephants of Tsavo. Thank you for taking the time to read this and for your continued interest in our work.

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