Over 160 elephants have perished in Zimbabwe, and there is a high risk of more losses.
Conservationists are concerned that the ongoing drought in Zimbabwe has resulted in the deaths of at least 160 elephants, and they worry that more may perish due to the expected continuation of hot and dry weather.
Between August and December of last year, a number of elephants perished in the 14,651 square kilometer Hwange National Park. This park is known for being the habitat of endangered species such as elephants, buffalo, lions, cheetahs, and giraffes. Additionally, six more elephants have been found dead outside of the park due to suspected poaching.
Zimparks has confirmed that the elephants in the park have died due to drought.
According to Tinashe Farawo, who is a representative of Zimparks, it was announced on Tuesday that initial findings suggest the animals were perishing due to lack of food. The majority of the animals were reportedly dying within a range of 50m to 100m from water sources.
According to the park, the majority of the deceased elephants were either young, elderly, or ill.
The lack of rain in southern Africa has led to persistent dry conditions, droughts, and extended periods without precipitation. According to Trevor Lane, co-founder and leader of the Bhejane Trust, the Hwange park experienced a complete absence of rainfall from February to November in 2023.
Lane stated that there were inadequate nutrients, extremely high temperatures, and a lack of water which led to significant stress. This could potentially occur again in 2024.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a powerful El Niño weather pattern from October to March, which may bring hot and dry weather with minimal rainfall. In its November update, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated that this could cause delayed rainfall and extended periods of dryness, potentially resulting in drought conditions in Zimbabwe.
According to the statement, by the end of 2023, most of Zimbabwe had received less than 50% of the usual amount of rainfall for that season.
Conservation groups in Hwange are now rushing to drill more boreholes in a bid to spread the elephants out into areas where food is more readily available. They are also installing solar-powered systems on existing boreholes to extend pumping hours to meet the expected pressure in the hot season from August.
Lane stated that there is a possibility of an El Niño and severe drought in 2024. While efforts will be made to lessen the impact, it may ultimately come down to survival of the strongest. If another drought occurs, the process will likely repeat itself.
Previous droughts in Zimbabwe have resulted in large numbers of elephant fatalities. For example, in 2019, over 200 elephants died within a two-month period due to insufficient water.
According to experts in Hwange, both veterinarians and conservationists noted that elephants initially perished in close proximity to a frequently visited watering hole within the park. However, as time passed, the fatalities became more widespread and were no longer occurring in concentrated areas.
During a September count, a different conservationist reported that over 1,800 elephants were attempting to access a single water source for drinking.
The conservationist, who wishes to remain anonymous due to lack of permission from Zimparks, expressed distress at witnessing orphaned calves waiting for death and driving past the sight and odor of deceased elephants.
Their statement followed: “The primary concern should be the potential for climate change to make the current loss of animals due to drought appear typical.”
As the drought intensifies, there has been a rise in poaching that poses a threat to Zimbabwean elephants and other animals. In January, six new elephant deaths were reported in Gwayi, a region near Hwange park, and have been linked to poaching by organizations dedicated to conservation and environmental laws.
Zimparks verified the fatalities and stated that veterinarians were still examining the reason for their deaths. Conservation organizations suggest that the elephants’ tusks had been extracted, suggesting illegal ivory hunting.
According to a statement from the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association, the recent poaching incident in Gwayi is occurring against a backdrop of increasing illegal trade and criminal activities involving wildlife.
Lane stated that there has been a rise in the illegal hunting of bushmeat, which can be linked to the economic state of Zimbabwe, based on our own observations and those of other organizations. He further explained that due to people’s desperation, they have turned to poaching wildlife as a means of survival.
In December, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, funded by USAid, reported that the upcoming lean season would cause a depletion of food stocks for most impoverished households. The majority of the country’s food security was classified as either “stressed” or “crisis” levels.
According to Nick Long, who leads anti-poaching efforts in Hwange, there has been an increase in illegal hunting for bushmeat across the country, particularly in November and December. He noted a significant rise in poaching activity in the Victoria Falls area and mentioned that the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit has been actively pursuing poachers during this time.
According to Zimparks, they are effectively addressing the issue of poaching of elephants in Zimbabwe. They have not experienced significant loss of animals and there have been no recorded cases of poached elephants in the past two years in Hwange. Farawo emphasized the importance of continuing efforts in law enforcement and patrolling.