Tuesday, April 16, 2024
HomenewsDrought causes mass elephant deaths in Zimbabwe game reserve

Drought causes mass elephant deaths in Zimbabwe game reserve

Drought conditions had earlier also prompted a mass-movement of elephants from Hwange into neighbouring Botswana in a search for water, food

More than 160 elephants and countless other wildlife species died in Zimbabwe in the last two months of 2023 due to a climate change-induced drought that has hit the southern African region.

The worrisome wildlife deaths were recorded in the 14,600 square kilometres (5,600 square miles) Hwange National Park that is home to some 45,000 of Zimbabwe’s 100,000 elephant population. The park hosts over 100 mammal and 400 bird species, including 19 large herbivores and eight large carnivores. 

Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) spokesperson Tinashe Farawo told Down to Earth (DTE) that hundreds of elephants and other wildlife species had succumbed to the just-ended drought conditions in Hwange.

“We got a bit of relief after the rains, we are no longer recording drought-related deaths of elephants, but that doesn’t rule out any further mortalities because the animals also die from other causes such as (old) age and sickness,” Farawo said. 

He said during the extended drought spell that ended at the beginning of January this year, it was not only elephants that died, but many other animals too. But elephants are easily noticeable because of their huge sizes. “It was common to find animals like buffaloes stuck in the mud,” Farawo said.

The dry season was expected to end around October, but instead it persisted for another eight weeks — until the end of December — because of the El Nino weather phenomenon brought about by climate change. The drought conditions had earlier also prompted a mass-movement of elephants from Hwange into neighbouring Botswana in a search for water and food.

Park dependent on borehole water

The Hwange National Park is part of the five-nation Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA), which is made up of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the five southern African nations that have common international borders along the Okavango and Zambezi River basins.

Despite being home to a high concentration of wildlife, Hwange National Park is the only part of KAZA-TFCA that has no perennial river or other reliable natural water sources. 

As a result, during the dry seasons, the park depends entirely on the 110 solar-powered boreholes for water. However, because of the poor rains received in the 2022-23 rainy season, the few seasonal water brooks in the park dried up several months earlier than usual, while the water table fell below the reach of some of the boreholes, triggering a water crisis in the park.

Severe drought forecast

Zimbabwe’s summer season is not looking good and the country’s rainy season runs from October to April. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts that an El Nino weather phenomenon will affect the entire southern African region between October and March, resulting in hot, dry weather and little rainfall.

This corroborates findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has classified southern Africa as a region at risk of climate change, facing risks of extreme heat and reduced rainfall due to global warming. 

Daily minimum temperatures have risen by 2.6 degrees Celsius over the last century while daily maximum temperatures have risen by 2°C, according to the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services Department. The number of cold days has decreased while hot days have become more common.

Rainfall has decreased by some 20 per cent, while the frequency of droughts has increased from once a decade to about once every three years.

“Both minimum and maximum temperatures have increased since the early 1980s by about 1°C, hence reduced soil moisture through evapotranspiration,” professor Desmond Manatsa, executive dean in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the Bindura University of Science Education in Zimbabwe, previously told DTE.

Climate change threat to wildlife

Wildlife conservation groups see water scarcity as one of the serious threats facing wildlife in the world. 

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said the devastating impact of climate change on wildlife and humans called for an integrated and holistic approach to support climate-resilient landscapes and communities. 

“In 2019, over 200 elephants died in Zimbabwe due to severe drought; this phenomenon is recurring,” said Phillip Kuvawoga, IFAW Landscape Programme director in a statement. “The anticipated deaths of elephants and other species, such as we are seeing in Zimbabwe right now, must be seen as a symptom of deep-seated and complex challenges affecting the region’s natural resources conservation, aggravated by climate change.” 

At COP28, IFAW was advocating for wildlife conservation as a nature-based solution to tackling climate change. 

Charly Facheux African Wildlife Foundation (AWF)’s vice president, conservation strategy, knowledge management and impact, pointed out in a statement that reduced access to water sources not only impacts human welfare in urban and rural areas in Africa, but it is also decimating wildlife species, fragile ecosystems, as well as the communities that depend on them.

“Water-dependent mammals like the elephant and rhino — already decimated by poaching — also contend with changes to their habitats,” Facheux said. “In eastern Africa, rainfall is projected to increase, but a significant decrease is expected in the south. Across the continent’s rapidly industrialising landscapes, the risk of flash floods and harsh droughts is high.”

He said smaller species struggle to adapt to the drastic reduction in rainfall and drying up of water holes while conditions of severe water shortage also weaken animals like buffalos and antelopes thereby making them easy prey for carnivores like lions and leopards.

Available mitigatory measures 

While some, like Trevor Lane, the co-founder and head of the Bhejane Trust, a conservation group that operates inside Hwange, are suggesting the drilling of more boreholes to spread the elephants out into areas where food is more readily available, ZimParks is not panicking yet.

Farawo insisted that the number of existing boreholes — 110 in all — is currently sufficient to provide water in Hwange.

“I should say we have enough boreholes… 110, I think they are enough. One of the reasons these boreholes were drilled was to increase the number of elephants and other animals (concentrated in one place) for tourists,” Farawo explained.

ZimParks relies on revenue generated from tourist visits to fund its conservation projects.

In 2019, similarly unforgiving drought conditions resulted in the death of more than 200 elephants and other wildlife species in the country’s parks. Since then, ZimParks and conservation partners have been monitoring the situation while also taking mitigatory measures. These include the ongoing translocation of more than 2,500 wild animals from the arid southern parts of the country to the north where conditions are better. 

About 400 elephants, 2,000 impalas, 70 giraffes, 50 buffaloes, 50 wildebeest, 50 zebras, 50 elands, 10 lions and a pack of 10 wild dogs are among the animals being moved from Save Valley Conservancy in the south to three conservancies in the north — Sapi, Matusadonha and Chizarira — in one of southern Africa’s biggest live animal capture and translocation exercises. 

Farawo says wildlife translocation is a costly exercise that the authority only turns to as a last resort.

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