Written by: Brass Brassett
South Africa is currently in the grip of one of the worst droughts in decades. There is no way to sweeten the bitter harvest of a very strong El Niño – the weather phenomenon that brings hot, drier conditions to South Africa.
In Kruger National Park, large dams that should be full by this time of year are dry and lush, and thick, green vegetation has given way to a harsh winter’s landscape. There is no grass, and the dry, barren landscape is reflective of the lowest rainfall in South Africa since records began in 1904.
The effects of a drought are far reaching with the lack of grass not just affecting herbivores. Sightings of birds that eat grass seed have been low – red-billed queleas, blue waxbills, etc. Little to no rainfall has reduced the number of insects and that, in turn, has reduced the number of spiders and insect-eating birds.
In times of drought, animals would naturally move with the weather, following small pockets of rain in a bid to get the new shoots of food before a lack of water and the harsh African sun dries the shoots out and kills them off. In a drought it is not the lack of water that kills the animals, but the lack of food.
Areas of truly free-roaming animals are far and few between. Animals are restricted in their movements by man-made barriers: fences. Their natural instinct to move to rivers are also influenced by man-made waterholes, which keep animals in a barren area with no hope of food and no chance for the land to quickly recover.
It is difficult to witness these tough times.
Recently on trips into Kruger National Park I have seen emaciated impala and hippo, dead hippos and buffalo, zebra with floppy manes (as hindgut fermenters, zebra always look fat and healthy, but the only visible sign of sickness is their mane, which flops when fat reserves are depleted).
On the other hand, predators and scavengers are flourishing – they have a choice of carcasses to feast upon, and weak animals are easy prey. Some predators just stay around the very few dams that are still holding a rapidly diminishing body of water, knowing that water dependent animals need to drink. For these prey species the price of staying alive can mean death.
In my last days in Kruger I saw lions on a buffalo, which was killed as it made its way to water. I also saw lions on a kudu bull, which was killed as it drank. And at one small dam, I saw crocodiles snatch an adult impala and later an impala calf.
With the drought expected to last until August, I know that this is just the beginning of a harsh winter ahead; a very harsh winter.