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Global Warming: Bad News for Gnus

Drowned wildebeest are seen after being swept by the Mara river in Maasai Mara, Kenya's most famous game reserve September 16, 2007.
Cristina Gall / Reuters

The annual wildebeest migration is one of nature's most spectacular photo-ops, with more than a million wildebeest — also known as gnus — crossing from the Serengeti. The photos from this year's migration are just as dramatic, but for a different reason. This time, piles of wildebeest carcasses line the riverbanks, after 10,000 of the animals drowned trying to cross the Mara at the start of their journey back east to the Serengeti. The deaths are natural: each year crocodiles and the strong current claim some victims. The numbers, this year though, are BIZARRE. The migration rarely leaves more than a few thousand dead; but this year, an estimated 100,000, or about 1% of the wildebeest population, were wiped out. The Mara River was especially high this year, after the heavy rains that flooded parts of Africa, killing hundreds of people and uprooting thousands more. Climatologists are pointing to the downpours as proof that predictions that Africa will suffer the most from global warming and climate change are already coming true. "Climate change has accentuated the difference between the seasons, making the rainy season shorter and heavier and the dry season hotter." The weather extremes on the African plains are getting so intense that it may no longer be enough for conservationists to simply protect nature. They might have to start improving on it. "The best thing that conservationists can do is to better design the protected areas." During a very dry dry season, that could mean having an area of back-up grass that's opened to the wildlife only if they absolutely need it. Or, in a very wet wet season, creating an alternative migration route across a shallower part of the river. It's too early to tell how the mass drowning will affect Africa's wildebeest population as a whole. But it's safe to say that as the weather gets more erratic, these kinds of freak deaths will become more common — early last year, the Masai Mara had the opposite problem, and a drought left almost 100 hippos dead
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