Gripped by the drought

2016-10-25 11:19
Zaloumis holds the skeletal remains of a barbel that fell victim to the drought in iNsumo pans, uMkhuze.

Zaloumis holds the skeletal remains of a barbel that fell victim to the drought in iNsumo pans, uMkhuze. (Ian Carbutt)

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Durban - The sight of a large pod of hippos confined to a muddy wallow at iNsumo pans at uMkhuze game reserve serves as a harsh reminder of the drought gripping the country.

Although these animals have the option of moving to “greener pastures” to the south where more food and water are available, when The Witness visited the uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park last week there were still 27 hippos that have so far chosen to remain in the wallow.

“I also saw this behaviour in the 2002-2012 drought,” said the park’s CEO Andrew Zaloumis about the apparent determination of these hippos to stay put and try to outlast the drought.

The mud protects the hippos from ticks and sun and their biggest challenge is the lack of food.

Almost all the water in iNsumo pans has evaporated in the drought, creating a dried cracked muddy landscape with just a few isolated channels of drinking water left for animals.

The surrounding bush is just as barren with little grass for grazing animals.

Many trees in uMkhuze have died because of the drought.

While iSimangaliso Wetland Park experienced its lowest rainfall in 65 years this past season, Zaloumis said the park has endured longer droughts, such as the one from 2002 to 2012.

The worst drought in living memory was from 1956 to 1970.

Recently rainfall has picked up along the coastal regions of iSimangaliso, and in July the St Lucia office recorded 312,9 mm, ironically making this the wettest July on record. However, drought conditions in uMkhuze remain “dire”.

When The Witness visited uMkhuze, 18 mm of rain fell, a welcome addition to the 44 mm measured between July and September. Zaloumis said this will bring a little relief to the park and bring about a flush in vegetation.

However, far more rain is needed to result in nutritious vegetation for the summer growth phase to sustain the animal population.

If the area does not experience good rains soon, the outlook for the next winter is particularly bleak, said Zaloumis.

Harsh though it is, he said, it is accepted that in larger parks like Kruger and iSimangaliso drought plays an important, “even vital role regulating species, weeding out weaker animals and reducing fuel loads for fire”.

“We also fully recognise that the sight of carcasses and animals in poor condition can be distressing for those who witness the crueler side of nature,” he added.

Scientists have, however, learnt from other droughts and uMkhuze was in fact in a “better place than previous years” due to forward planning, said Zaloumis.

“Based on science and understanding from over 100 years of conservation management and global warming we have refined game numbers,” said Zaloumis. This is one of the reasons that some grazing still exists in the greater part of uMkhuze although not as high in protein as it would be with good rains.

Zaloumis said iSimangaliso has established a network of new and improved water systems.

In uMkhuze, this included upgrading existing boreholes and sinking new ones for animals, as well as staff and visitors.

“A constant supply of water is pumped to waterholes such as kuMasinga and kuMahlala hides where game and bird viewing remain excellent.”

Zaloumis said water is also trucked to key areas such as eMshophi and more boreholes will be opened if necessary but the water supply is being “judiciously managed for the possible long haul” if the drought continues.

He said apart from these interventions (and translocation of rare and endangered species such as rhinos, 40 of which were moved from uMkhuze to other areas earlier this year) the animals “will have to survive on their own”.

“Even in these dry conditions, management aims as far as possible for healthy, naturally regulated ecosystems rather than for the survival of individual animals.”

He said the uMkhuze section (accounting for 43 000 ha of the 332 000 ha or 220-km long iSimangaliso Wetland park) has more than 23 000 large herbivores.

In October and November last year respectively, 105 and 88 animals (0,8% of the total population) died.

To visitors it might have looked higher as sick or weak animals often concentrated near the water holes, said Zaloumis.

He said August and September this year have so far seen “nil returns” for animal deaths due to the drought.

“While grazers are bearing the brunt of the brutal conditions, browsers like giraffe, elephant and kudu are able to reacher higher branches and are more resilient.”

Zaloumis said while nature is harsh, it is also incredibly resilient. “Conservation must consider the bigger picture … ecosystems are managed as a whole — what is bad for individual animals may be beneficial or even necessary for the system.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  drought  |  conservation  |  animals

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