BY MTHANDAZO NYONI
AS the El Nino-induced drought continues taking its toll on people in Zimbabwe, with wildlife reportedly in grave danger, there is critical water and pasture shortages in game parks, prompting animal lovers to call for an urgent intervention.
The southern African nation did not receive adequate rainfall during the 2018/19 rainfall season due to the El Nino weather phenomenon, a situation that has left 5,5 million people in need of food aid.
The after-effects of El Nino are now also being felt by wild animals, particularly grazers.
Wildlife activists and lovers who spoke to Southern Eye said the situation was dire.
“I’m not sure if a drought has officially been declared, but I do know firsthand that the water situation this year is rather dire. I visited Mana Pools National Park in May and most people I was with who had been there before commented how much drier it looked for that time of the year. In May it’s normally still very green, but when we went there it was very bare,” Suleiman Makore, a wildlife lover, said.
“So I can only imagine how dry it is now and I am sure this same situation is mirrored across all our national parks. The highest priority would be to have water in the pans, particularly in areas like Hwange,” he said.
In Mana Pools at least there is the Zambezi River, he said.
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Makore said there are some solar and generator-powered boreholes dotted around Hwange National Park, sunk by private conservation organisations over the years, but the key issue was to ensure they are functional.
“More boreholes still need to be dug, but then the solar equipment needs to be bought, this requires funding. Closely related to the water shortage is obviously food shortage, particularly for grazers, which feed on grass. As it gets drier and drier there is less food for them,” Makore said.
“So this may require unconventional means such as actually bringing in hay for animals to eat (it was done recently in Mana Pools by a private safari operator in one of the concessions) or even cattle feed as is done on private ranches, but this again requires finances.”
As water resources get squeezed, Makore said it is normally the smaller species that suffer first because large species like elephants, buffalo and hippo tend to push away the smaller animals from waterholes.
According to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), at least 80 elephants died of drought-related causes in 2012. Many more animals reportedly died in Hwange’s drought, including 620 Cape buffaloes that died in 2015.
Wildlife activist Sharon Stead said since drought was a natural occurrence, people could intervene by pumping water into waterholes like what was done at Hwange National Park.
“However, there are the complexities of food resources too and that has a bigger impact now with almost no vegetation for the wildlife to feed on. While some safari operators have provided hay bales to dire areas of concern like Mana Pools and Starvation Island in Kariba, there’s not much we can do in Hwange. And so the circle of life plays out and we will definitely see the travesty of such this year,” she said.
Hwange is home to about 54 000 elephants.
Shelley Cox of Africa Conservation Travel said a drought year was equally devastating for both communities and wildlife.
“Everything, when it comes to biodiversity and healthy ecosystems is connected and so ultimately there is a domino effect across the landscape. In a drought year, both the water supplies and the vegetation is impacted resulting in a lack of or reduced amount of water and food resources for both wildlife and communities, placing them under pressure and increasing the risk of starvation or disease,” she said.
Cox said there were extensive efforts being made by the tourism industry to try and minimise the negative impact of the drought for both wildlife and the communities surrounding wildlife areas.
She said in Mana Pools, operators, with the support of ZimParks, have been providing hay bales and game cubes onto the flood plains as a form of nutritional support for the wildlife.
“The tourism industry is cognisant of the impact a drought has on both wildlife and communities and are doing what they can to assist in ensuring minimal losses. Our wildlife is our heritage and it’s important for us to ensure their well-being for our future generations,” Cox said.
Livestock Farmers’ Union chairperson Sifiso Sibanda said: “We are concerned about wildlife, especially smaller ones like rabbits and spring hares. These animals need water and it’s a concern for all of us.”
Bhejane Trust director Trevor Lane, however, said in areas such as Zambezi, Kazuma Pan, Robins and Sinamatella, there was sufficient grazing due to the late season heavy rain.
“We now have over 43 pumps in action. This we will be okay for this year in these areas. We have had a big influx of elephants though from Botswana which is very dry,” he said.
ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo said they have been providing waterholes for animals, but in some areas it’s not enough.
“The situation is dire and there is need to drill more boreholes,” he said, adding they were looking for partners to drill more boreholes.