A new species, endangered in its own way, may soon join the black rhino, zebra, buffalo and wildebeest that roam this hilly preserve: the cow.
Vast herds of livestock, many of them feeble from the long journey here, are clustering around Chyulu Hills, an out-of-the-way park in southeastern Kenya several hours from Nairobi. They are also wandering into the park, prompting rangers to chase down and arrest the nomads watching over them.
"It's against the law," said Simon Mutuku, a ranger for the Kenya Wildlife Service at Chyulu Hills National Park. His job is to protect the park's two dozen black rhinos, some of the relatively few indigenous rhinos in Kenya to have survived rampant poaching in the 1970s.
The influx of cattle into nature parks is but one sign of a fierce drought that has devastated nomadic communities, especially those in the remote and neglected north and northeast. Desperate to save their herds, nomads have driven their cows into areas normally off limits, setting off a fierce debate in Kenya, which relies heavily on its unspoiled natural areas for tourism.
Drought is a regular feature in this part of the world, where the rains are fickle and the climate harsh. Just before Christmas, when Kenyans usually hold lavish holiday feasts, emaciated babies began appearing in hospitals in Wajir and Mandera, in the north. At least 40 people are reported to have died in recent weeks.
Kenya's drought is part of a crisis affecting millions in the Horn of Africa. The World Food Program has appealed for resources to feed 2.5 million people in Kenya, 1.4 million in Somalia, 1.5 million in Ethiopia and 60,000 in Djibouti.
"The emergency we face in the Horn today is the result of successive seasons of failed rains," Holdbrook Arthur, the group's regional director for eastern and central Africa, said in a statement.
"Consequently, pastoralists living in these arid, remote lands have very few survival strategies left and require our assistance to make it through until the next rains," he said.
As the government and relief agencies scramble to respond, nomads have scattered in search of pasture and water for their herds. Tens of thousands of cows are now believed to be grazing in the forests around Mount Kenya, a popular draw for visitors. Cows have also approached and in some cases entered the grasslands at Nairobi National Park, Amboseli National Park and Tsavo East National Park.
As the suffering grows, pressure is building on the government to relax its ban on grazing in the parks. To drive home the point, herdsmen took about 60 cows to the Nairobi residence of President Mwai Kibaki on New Year's Day.
During a drought in 2002, the former president, Daniel arap Moi, had opened the gates of the presidential compound to livestock, but Kibaki's guards rebuffed the herdsmen, who moved on to Uhuru Park, in the city center.
Francis ole Kaparo, speaker of the National Assembly, contends that the government ought to open protected areas to cattle until the crisis passes.
"What would be the need of preserving forests and other natural resources when people are dying?" he asked at a recent news conference. "Of whose benefit will the resources be if people perish due to the current famine?"
But Tourism Minister Morris Dzoro has argued against opening the parks, saying that Kenyans would suffer even more if tourism, a major source of foreign currency, were adversely affected, and that in any event, the preserves could provide only a tiny fraction of the grazing space needed by the cows.