Starving women are being attacked by packs of hyenas in drought-hit Somaliland, an aid agency has warned.

People in the East African state say it is the worst drought in living memory, caused by successive poor rainy seasons made worse by El Nino conditions in the Horn of Africa.

Adan Shariff Gabow, from charity Islamic Relief, said there are cases of women collapsing from hunger and being set upon by starving hyenas.

“They fell down, malnourished, and we understand they were then set on by the animals,” he said.

The severe weather conditions have killed thousands of goats and cows, bringing the risk of wide-spread famine, aid workers said.

Even camels – which are more drought-resistant – are dying.

Malnourished mothers are unable to breastfeed their babies, and farmers are feeding cardboard boxes to their animals because there is no grass left for grazing.

The United Nations – which has launched a £72m appeal – said 1.7 million people need aid in Somaliland and neighbouring Puntland – both self-declared states in northern Somalia.

Drought in Somaliland

Thousands of goats and cows are among the animals that have died

Islamic Relief spokeswoman Mary Griffin said there was a “terrible sense of deja vu” after a drought killed more than 250,000 people in southern Somalia in 2011.

Aid agencies were criticised then for responding too late.

Hany El-Banna, chairman of the Muslim Charities Forum, called on the world not to repeat the same mistake.

“We cannot wait like we did in 2011 when we acted too late,” he said. “We need to deal with this today – if we don’t this drought will turn into a famine.”

Britain’s shadow development secretary Diane Abbott, who recently visited the region, plans to raise the issue in parliament next week.

“I spoke to families who had 500 or more animals three months ago, and now are left with 20 or fewer,” she said.

“For people who rely on their animals for meat, milk and trade, it’s the equivalent of losing your entire life savings.”

She said drought conditions that would normally strike every seven to 10 years are now becoming an annual occurrence.

Nimo Mohamed Abdi, a mother of three, described how she had lost all her livestock – more than 180 animals – in three months.

“We were living by the coast then and the animals died so quickly, one after another, that we could do nothing with their corpses but throw them into the sea,” she said.