The drought that Southern Africa is experiencing this year was evident already during our visit to Mana Pools in September. Despite the Zambezi River providing sufficient water, grazing was the main issue as the riverine pastures were very low and the patches of green left were those that are inedible.
Browsers and grazer/browsers were still in good shape but large grazers such as hippos and buffalos were already walking longer distances to get to areas that still had grass cover and these were dwindling fast. The hippos’ normal timetable was visibly altered as we “bumped” on several walking far from the water during the mornings and afternoons when, during normal years, they are in the water or sunning themselves by it.
Despite the Mana Pools “warning” the situation we found in the Kruger National Park (KNP) -Lower Sabie and Satara areas- was worse than expected. According to Swemmer (2016) rainfall at Phalaborwa, one of the KNP’s camps, during 2014-15 was 255mm (the long-term average being 533mm) and the 2015-16 figures are extremely low. Two consecutive years of very low rain, combined with very high temperatures is regarded as rare and extreme. It is even likely that this drought will be the most severe since records started to be collected in 1954!
Different views of a very dry KNP (pictures by Mabel de Castro).
The consequences are there for all to see!
In the dry season the park usually has reasonable grass cover. This year there was almost no grass to be seen! The consequences of this could be immediately seen as few live hippos remained in the Lower Sabie River and the nearby Sunset dam. The ones we found looked rather strange and rather long-legged as their normally bulging bellies had shrunk enhancing their legs’ length! In addition, their skin hanged in folds, a consequence of their loss in body condition.
I regret that some of the pictures are disturbing but I need to show what was taking place.
We also noticed that the hippos did not move much and grazed on whatever they would find near the water bodies. As grass was scanty, they would just gradually weaken and die. Buffalo were also having a rough time and we only saw small groups looking thin. Interestingly, in some areas, both hippos and buffalo were doing better.
It is clear that the drought will have a severe impact on the animal population of the park but also on the vegetation cover as we also saw dry or drying trees that were also damaged by elephants searching for their own food. The re-establishment of grass, shrubs and trees will probably take years. The same applies to the animal populations that may not reach previous levels if the observed drier conditions become the norm in the future. In addition the drought will also accelerate soil erosion and modify the watercourses and other water bodies. Interestingly and somehow alarmingly, this is the first time that no Mopane worms have been recorded since surveys began in 2009 (Swemmer, 2016).
Trying to be optimistic about the future, it is possible that the current dry spell will have some beneficial impact by fine-tunning the situation to a future drier climate by reducing the herbivore populations while allowing vegetation to recover and, in a longer term, prevent overgrazing and environmental degradation.
Independently of the various possible interpretations of the impact of the drought on the environment, it is clear that even if the rains would come now, more animals will surely die before food becomes available. These are the ways of Nature, again.
 Swemmer, T. (2016). The Lowveld’s worst drought in 33 years? Understanding the long-term impacts. Consulted on 2/10/16. http://www.saeon.ac.za/enewsletter/archives/2016/february2016/doc02