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The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) says climate change is to blame for increasing conflicts between humans and wildlife across East Africa, and is heightening the risk that animal diseases will spread.

The Biodiversity Research Unit of the KWS warns in its annual report — released last week (10 August) — that unless urgent strategies are developed to counter the effects of climate change, management of wildlife could suffer irreparably.

Researchers at the unit say climate change is to blame for rivers drying up and species migrating to new habitats, causing changes in ecosystems.

This has led to animals, such as lions, killing domestic animals like sheep and goats in villages near the animal parks. Villagers have also complained of elephants, rhinos and buffalo destroying food crops as they wander away from the parks in search of food and water.

The researchers add that these events are compromising the eradication of rinderpest — a viral infection of cattle, sheep and goats — ahead of a 2010 global elimination target set by the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme.

Julius Kipngetich, director-general of the KWS, said the organisation is ill-prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change.

"This is an area where we need more scientific help," Kipngetich told SciDev.Net.

The KWS says climate change and ecological disturbances could have caused a recent increase in deaths in wildlife populations from infectious diseases. Birds and mammals have been the worst affected, with climate change blamed for the sudden mass death of flamingos around Lake Nakuru in central Kenya last year.

The KWS initially suspected bird flu, but 493 samples proved negative for H5N1 avian influenza.

According to the report, Kenya's 66 animal parks are all experiencing changes in animal disease patterns. The authors call for better disease surveillance strategies to determine the ecological factors fuelling the disease spread, as well as implementing a mass animal vaccination programme.

KWS says it is aware of the climate change risks and has spent US$42,000 in implementing decisions made at UN conferences on climate change to avert its effects and to stem biodiversity loss.