“Drought is as harsh a reality in iSimangaliso, says Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
While South Africa's iconic world heritage site is experiencing its lowest recorded rainfall in 65 years, the Park has endured worse, says Zaloumis - more specifically in 2002 to 2009.
As a result, iSimangaliso and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Park managers have learned exactly how to implement a number of interventions, helping the park to cope. Based on better science and understanding from over 100 years of conservation management and global warming, the park has since established a network of new and improved auxiliary water systems as well as refined carrying capacity of its game numbers.
“We accept that in larger parks like Kruger and iSimangaliso, drought plays an important – even vital - role in 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 and unpleasant for those who witness the crueller side of nature,” says Zaloumis.
Dedicated forward planning means the uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso is currently in a better place than during previous droughts.
Zaloumis say in uMkhuze, the park has refurbished existing boreholes and created new ones for animals, as well as staff and visitors at the accommodation facilities. A constant supply of water is also being pumped to waterholes - such as kuMasinga and kuMahlala Hides - where game and bird viewing remain excellent.
"Water is also trucked into key areas where needed, for example eMshophi. Further boreholes will be opened if necessary. The water supply is being judiciously managed for the possible long haul should the drought continue into the next rainy season."
The park is continuing to monitor the drought's impact on biodiversity and the entire ecosystem, implementing interventions where necessary, largely allowing animals to survive on their own - but should it become necessary, the translocation of rare and endangered species, such as rhino will take place, says Zaloumis.
The uMkhuze section, which accounts for over 43 000ha of the 332 000ha, 220km-long iSimangaliso Wetland Park, has more than 23 000 large herbivores - with the drought claiming an estimated 0.8% of this population to date.
The Park has warned visitors that sick or weakened animals often concentrate at and die near water holes and that carcasses are part of the natural landscape and for the most part would be left for the Park’s numerous scavengers or predators such as hyena, lions, wild dogs, crocodiles and vultures (extremely endangered with uMkhuze being one of the only significant populations left).
An exception would be if there is a health issue – again this is monitored on a case-by-case basis. While the grazers are bearing the brunt of the brutal conditions, browsers like giraffe, elephant and kudu are able to reach higher branches are therefore more resilient.
“Yes, nature is harsh, but also incredibly resilient,” says Zaloumis. “Conservation must consider the bigger picture, using the lessons of the past together with the knowledge and science of the present. It is also important to remember that ecosystems are managed as a whole – what is bad for individual animals may in fact be beneficial or even necessary for the system – a recent example being the Cape fires that saw the fynbos vegetation thriving within a few months.”
Recent rain in late November has brought some relief to uMkhuze, topping up pans, and should also bring about a flush in vegetation. However, far more rain is needed to result in nutritious vegetation during the summer growing phase, warns Zaloumis.
“We value the concerns and offers of assistance by Park visitors. Witnessing the effects of drought - whether on animals, people or landscapes - is emotionally wrenching and is no easier for seasoned managers than it is for visitors. We must take some solace in the fact that even after the most severe droughts and other natural disasters, the system has bounced back strongly in the past.”
Those who wish to make a concrete contribution to donate to iSimangaliso’s Rare and Endangered Species Fund - used to translocate endangered species such as black and white rhino - can do so here.