“We accept,” he notes, “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 crueler side of nature.”
While iSimangaliso is experiencing the lowest recorded rainfall in 65 years, the park has endured worse droughts – the most recent being from 2002 to 2009. iSimangaliso and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Park managers have certainly learnt from previous droughts, and have been able to implement a number of interventions. As a result of dedicated forward planning, the uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso is currently in a better place than during previous droughts:
Based on better science and understanding from over 100 years of conservation management and global warming, we have refined carrying capacities (game numbers). The worst drought in living memory was the drought from 1956 to 1970 (refer to diagram above). Carrying capacities in uMkhuze today are set lower than previous droughts. This is one of the reasons that grazing still exists in the greater part of uMkhuze, albeit not as high in protein as it would be with good rains.
We have established a network of new and improved auxiliary water systems. In uMkhuze, this includes refurbishment of existing boreholes and sinking of new ones for animals as well as staff and visitors at the accommodation facilities. A constant supply of water is 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.
While continuing to allow the systems to play out in as wild and natural an arena as is possible within fenced boundaries, field rangers and park ecologists are closely monitoring the impacts on biodiversity and the entire ecosystem, both fauna and flora. Even in these dry conditions, management aims – as far as possible – for healthy, naturally regulated ecosystems rather than for the survival of individual animals. This means that other than the interventions outlined above (and should it become necessary, the translocation of rare and endangered species, such as rhino) animals will have to survive on their own. 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.
Returns for October and November show that 105 and 88 uMkhuze animals died respectively (0.8% of the total population). To visitors, this could look far higher, as sick or weakened animals often concentrate at and die near water holes.
Carcasses are part of the natural landscape and for the most part would be left in situ 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.
In the case of priority rare and endangered species such as rhino, iSimangaliso, together with Ezemvelo, will step in to assist by rescuing those stuck in mud or relocating animals to better grazing areas – which is what we did successfully in the 2002 to 2009 drought, when we translocated 23 rhino over the course of a few days from uMkhuze to the Eastern Shores.
“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 (40mm fell in the south where it is most needed and about 10mm at Mantuma). The rain topped 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.
“We value the concerns and offers of assistance by pPark visitors,” comments Zaloumis. “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 are welcome to donate to iSimangaliso’s Rare and Endangered Species Fund. The fund, which is making a real and measurable difference through public support, exclusively funds the direct costs of acquiring, monitoring, treating and relocating iSimangaliso’s animals. It is this fund that will be drawn on should it become necessary to translocate endangered species such as black and white rhino. For enquires about donations to the iSimangaliso Rare and Endangered Species. Please email Debbie here to make a donation.
To read more on iSimangaliso Wetland Park, see: iSimangaliso: Park for the People