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Grant Atkinson ponders a Savuti elephant’s year ahead

The northern wildlife areas of Botswana are well-known for their healthy populations of African elephant.  For the past four years, high rainfall has created conditions that are ideal for the elephants that live around the network of waterways made up by the Chobe, Kwando, Linyanti and Savuti rivers.  Most of the individual animals are in good condition, and there are many baby elephants to be seen, of all ages, indicating that the survival rate is high.

This is in stark contrast to the situation in these same areas just six or seven years ago.

Several years of lower than average rainfall resulted in the vegetation quality rapidly degenerating.  The elephants lost condition, and every year from around August, the situation would become so serious that many elephants would begin to die.  Towards the end of 2005, I counted 26 dead elephants along just one 16km stretch of road along the Linyanti River, over a five week period.  During that period I saw more lions, hyaenas and vultures than I have ever seen since along the Linyanti, feeding on the dead elephants.  Clearly, dry periods are times when elephant numbers fall.

As we near the end of the current rainy season, I cannot help but wonder what kind of year lies ahead for the elephants in 2011.  With just about a month left before the rains should be over, it does not look as if it is going to be a very wet year in terms of rainfall.  The colour of the vegetation is already changing from green to yellow, and the standing pools of rainwater are already almost dry.  These are both early indicators of a hard, long dry season on the way.  On the other hand there are two new rivers flowing through the area, the Savuti and the Selinda.  Both of these rivers have only begun to flow strongly again in the last three years.  The Savuti and the Selinda will provide some good feeding areas for the regions elephants, even if the woodland dries out quickly and completely.

The elephants will have more permanent water sources this year, of that there is no doubt.  At the same time, it should be noted  that in the dry years past the elephants did not die from a lack of water, but ended up in poor condition as a result of the poor quality browsing that was available.  The images accompanying this blog show a herd of elephants peacefully crossing the Savuti channel,  and a herd moving through the rapidly drying woodland.

Of course, it may still rain heavily and replenish the pools and refresh the vegetation.  Whatever happens, the year ahead should be an interesting one for northern Botswana’s elephants.

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I am a South African who grew up in the former Transkei, (now the Eastern Cape) and I spent much of my time along the Wild Coast. For over ten years I have been working as a guide in northern Botswana, for a company called Wilderness Safaris. I spend many days of each year leading photographic safari trips with small groups of people through our fixed camps in the Kalahari, Okavango, Linyanti and Savuti regions, mostly. My special interests are birds, lions and photography, in no special order. When I am not guiding in the field, I take part in some of our companies environmental projects. Botswana is a country with a solid conservation ethic, and I am fortunate to be able to share some of what I do and see by means of my writing and my images. Visit my photography page

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