By Malee Oot
In the midst of a prolonged drought gripping southern Africa, Zimbabwe is undertaking a massive relocation in an effort to save imperilled wildlife plagued by water scarcity. The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority reported that more than 200 elephants have died over the last two months at drought-afflicted protected areas, including Hwange and Mana Pools national parks. In mid-November, the agency announced plans to move 600 elephants along with 2,000 impalas, 50 buffalo, 40 giraffes, two prides of lions, and a pack of endangered African wild dogs from the 750,000 acres Savé Valley Conservancy to three different protected areas in northern Zimbabwe.
Induced by El Niño, the extended drought is gripping a large swath of southern Africa and putting more than 45 million people at risk of hunger in the region, according to a report published by Oxfam in early November. In southern Zimbabwe, some parts of the country have experienced the lowest amounts of rainfall since 1981, according to Oxfam. Portions of southern Africa are also still recovering from the drought fueled by El Niño during 2015 and 2016, and earlier this year, successive cyclones also struck the region in March and April, causing widespread damage in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, southern Tanzania, and the Comoros.
The drought is also afflicting wildlife in other countries in the region. In late October, Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks reported more than 100 elephants had died over a two month period at Chobe National Park, in the northern part of the country. Early analysis indicated the animals perished from drought-conditions and from ingesting the naturally-occurring bacteria anthrax, which can affect both wildlife and domestic livestock. Due to the drought, elephants inadvertently consume soil while feeding, also ingesting anthrax spores in contaminated areas.
Namibia has been affected too. The government declared a State of Emergency in early May due to extreme drought, and water and resource scarcity also prompted the country’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism to announce a wildlife auction of more than 1,000 animals in mid-June, including elephants, giraffes, buffalo and oryx, in an effort to prevent starvation, preserve grazing grasslands, and generate funds for conservation.
In 2016, the results of the Great Elephant Census were released, and the findings identified southern Africa as a continental stronghold. The first continent-wide aerial survey of savanna elephants ever conducted, the census covered 18 countries and reported the largest populations in Botswana and Zimbabwe. An estimated 130,000 elephants currently live in Botswana, while Zimbabwe harbours about 85,000.
The region will also continue experiencing climate extremes and water scarcity, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Based on IPCC projections, the western part of southern Africa will become drier, and droughts and heatwaves will both occur more frequently in the region over the next 80 years.