Patrick Kilonzo Mwalua drives for several hours every single day, bringing 3,000 gallons of fresh water to the wildlife in Kenya’s parched Tsavo West National Park. Great herds of animals, who otherwise wouldn’t survive, crowd the truck as he lets the water flow into the bone-dry watering holes.
“Last night, I found 500 buffalo waiting patiently at the water hole. When I arrived they could smell the water. The buffalo were so keen and coming close to us,” says Mwalua, who grew up surrounded by wildlife and has a deep love and understanding of the natural world. “I could see dark big giants standing beside us and drinking water while I was standing there. They get so excited.”
Mwalua is the founder of Tsavo Volunteers, a community conservation group of animal lovers who look after the vulnerable wildlife of Tsavo National Park. Heavily armed poaching gangs are generally their biggest threat, but these days the prolonged drought has ravaged the Tsavo area and claimed the lives of so many animals, whose presence in Kenya’s parks and conservancies attracts over a million tourists each year and drives the economy.
Mwalua, a 41-year-old local pea farmer, has never experienced a drought as severe as the one that has persisted for two years. “We haven’t been getting rain like we used to,” he says of the devastating impact global warming is having on Kenya and the wider continent. “From June last year, it hasn’t rained and all the rivers have completely dried up.”
After seeing so many desiccated carcasses strewn around the patchwork of scorched savannahs and skeletal trees, he decided he had to do something. “It’s very painful watching animals suffering and dying every day, so I started bringing water to them. I thought ‘if I don’t do this, they will die slow, terrible deaths’.”
As the rivers dried and the grasslands shrivelled up, distressed animals walked long distances to find the few remaining water holes. The struggle for survival is so fierce that elephants and buffalos, who usually peacefully co-exist, fight each other for the right to drink, leaving the smaller, weaker ones and the calves at risk of dying. And the equally desperate cattle herders illegally driving their livestock deep into the reserves in search of the scarce water and the last grass are adding to the critical situation in the country’s parks.
Mwalua and his team of volunteers scramble to fill the holes with water where it’s desperately needed, literally saving the lives of thousands of creatures living in the park, as well as local cattle. In between road trips, Mwalua, who has become known as Kenya’s waterman, also visits local schools to talk to children about the wildlife that is their legacy. “I was born around here and grew up with animals all around me and got a lot of passion for nature,” he says. “I want to raise awareness of this so when these children grow up they can protect these precious animals, who are vanishing at an alarming rate. Once these great and glorious beings are gone, we’ve lost everything.”
The whole thing started last summer when Mwalua began renting a truck and driving to the worst-affected areas of the park. As the drought worsened, killing large numbers of wildlife, he took to Facebook to appeal for help. US-based Angie Brown, a dedicated animal activist, immediately spread the word about the dire situation in Tsavo.
Soon Mwalua’s mission to save Tsavo’s wild animals prompted a group of Americans to get involved. “I visited Kenya in December 2015, although I didn’t know Patrick at the time or meet him,” says Angie Brown from Connecticut. “I was haunted by the plight of the country’s animals.” So she set up a crowd-funding campaign and Mwalua has already received over £80,000 in donations. After the most recent drought, Brown reached out on Facebook with Cher Callaway and Tami Calliope. Together, the three women continue to help Mwalua however they can, including fundraisers for beehives and night patrols to keep elephants away from the villages to prevent clashes with local farmers living near protected lands. The searing drought sweeping across much of East Africa is exacerbating these long-standing human-wildlife conflicts as animals invade farms and ranches in desperation for water and pasture.
The support of these Americans and generosity of people from around the world has enabled Mwalua to expand his rescue mission with multiple trucks and volunteers. “We have all spent a lot of time getting the word out about the animals Patrick is helping and the GoFundMe has been a real success,” Brown says. “But he needs so much more money.”
They hope to one day buy him his own truck and that similar initiatives can be adopted around the continent to provide emergency relief in drought-stricken regions. “Patrick’s commitment to the wildlife and his heritage is deeply touching and immeasurable,” adds Brown, “even risking his own life in the middle of the night to deliver water to a dry water hole.”
With no end in sight to this savage drought, declared a national emergency by the government, Mwalua and his volunteers continue rumbling through the dusty savannahs with their precious haul. “The truck is heavy and doesn’t go very fast,” he says, knowing that to save more animals he has to work quickly and triple his current efforts. “We have to be very patient and keep bringing water to our friends until it rains.”
Help the animals survive the drought by making a contribution here.