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Trevor Lane, a veteran conservationist working around Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve has been witnessing the devastating effects of climate change on the country’s wildlife.
Lane, who is founder of Bhejane Trust, a non-profit wildlife conservation organisation operating around Hwange and the Zambezi National Parks, said he has seen some wild animals dying of thirst or being abandoned by their families because of exhaustion.
His organisation has been mobilising resources to fund maintenance of water points for wildlife, anti-poaching activities and rehabilitation of watering holes, among other conservation projects.
The demands of his job keep increasing because of the devastating effects of climate change such as recurrent droughts that are taking a toll on wildlife at the two game reserves.
Lane told of an incident where he saw an elephant calf at the Hwange National Park’s Masuma Dam being was abandoned by its family as it couldn’t keep up with the rest of the herd due to exhaustion.
As water sources dry up, animals such as elephants and buffaloes are forced to walk several kilometres in search of water and the weak sometimes die due to exhaustion or are abandoned by their herds.
Lane said last year as he approached Masuma Dam, he saw an elephant herd that had been drinking from the muddy dam and as the huge mammals were moving off, a calf was abandoned due to exhaustion.
“The herd waited a bit, and presumably the mother came back to try and chivvy it, with no luck, and in the end the herd moved off, leaving the calf behind, its fate sealed in the blistering sun,” the veteran conservationist recounted.
“It was a lonely, desperate, miserable death, but such is nature.”
Lane also shared footage of an impala that conservationists rescued after it got stuck in the mud at the park’s Sinamatella Dam.
He said such tragic scenarios for wild animals were playing out at many pans and water holes especially around the dry months of October, November and December despite efforts by conservationists to ensure watering holes were replenished all the time.
“They have been very tough months with relentless temperatures exceeding 400C everyday — the endless scorching hot, cloudless days, with hot winds blowing,” Lane said.
“One thermometer left exposed in the sun on rocks recorded 54 degrees last year.”
“The stress caused by these conditions on the wildlife has been immense, especially the elephants.
“They visibly lose condition with prominent spines and pelvic bones and at midday you see the animals, from elephant to tsessebe to reedbuck, crammed under any available shade to get out of the burning rays.”
According to a 2016 report produced by Olga Kupika, Edson Gandiwa and Godwell Nhamo titled: “Impacts of Climate Change and Climate Variability on Wildlife Resources in Zimbabwe”, frequent droughts in particular have led to the death of several wildlife species at local game reserves.
“Changes in rainfall and temperature patterns influence habitat quality and consequently abundance of distribution of wildlife species,” the report says.
“Large herbivores such as the elephants and hippopotamus in particular are vulnerable to climate change due to their ecology, whereas other species are less vulnerable.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that climatic changes are occurring at a faster rate than expected, particularly in southern Africa.
IPCC estimates that between 10% and 24% of mammal species in sub-Saharan Africa national parks have succumbed to droughts.
Lane said climate change has seen masses of immigrant elephants from Botswana seeking refuge in Zimbabwe, which also puts pressure on the habitat at local game reserves.
Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe said its recent game count showed that where they normally recorded between 23 000 to 25 000 elephants a year, in 2019 they counted the number up to about 43 000.
Lane said due to high temperatures, the excess elephants plus the normal resident wildlife put tremendous pressure on the northern western Matabeleland North parks’ water points.
“The elephants have tended to monopolise the fresh water troughs, keeping other animals out,” he said.
“To date, we have lost very few elephants to the drought, but in the main camp area the situation is far worse with the ongoing climate change effects and if these hot dry spells persist for much longer, our situation could get worse”
He added: “One problem we do face is the elephants who sometimes overcome our defences and trash the pump heads.
“They obviously detect the well water and get frustrated, but it does not help, we are thus on continuous call out monitoring all the water points and trying to keep the water flowing.”
“Our saving grace last year was that we had late heavy rains in April,which filled up the pans and freshened the vegetation.
“This gave us an extra couple of months reprieve and the natural water only dried up completely in September.
“However, the main camp area did not get this rain, and they have suffered as a consequence.
“Once the rains come, the Botswana elephant will go home, the park will green up and there will be a big sigh of relief all round!”
Some of the challenges Lane and his team face include locals and foreigners who vandalise solar panels and batteries at watering holes inside the parks, which pegs back conservation work.
“We have lost 46 solar panels and a number of pumps to thieves in the Hwange and Zambezi national parks and that’s to an estimate of around US$20 000,” he said.
“Our investigations prove that foreign thieves who cross into the country through the Zambezi River and commit the crimes overnight evade our game rangers especially around the rainy seasons as they struggle to penetrate into the bush.”
On March 8 this year, Bhejane Trust had its two pumps stolen from number three water pan, putting an enormous strain on water supply.
Bhejane is currently running 46 pumps and a borehole inside the game reserves.
“Issues to address are that we need to increase the water supply to some of the existing water holes by adding a second borehole and pump,” he added.
“We have already made moves on this, having drilled one new hole in Kazuma and another new one in the Chamabonda area to supplement existing supplies and we need to spread water as much as possible.
“One of our newly equipped boreholes at Mahoboti in the very back area of Robins Camp (and which had not been pumped for decades) had over 800 elephants drinking in 24 hours, so this took 800 elephants away from the underpressure Masuma and Shumba pans. We also need to make smaller and shallower troughs, so that water can escape downstream to pans for the smaller animals.
“And we need to reinforce our pump heads against the destructive elephants.”
The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) has been pushing for the lifting of the ban on ivory trading imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to help fund conservation activities.
Zimbabwe is sitting on ivory stocks worth US$600 million worth of ivory and rhino horns mostly from animals that die due to natural attrition.
Authorities in Zimbabwe estimate that the country’s elephant population now stands above 100 000. It is the second largest herd in Africa behind Botswana.
Lane’s other calling is to keep poachers away from the game reserves in Matabeleland North province.Poachers have over the years been using cyanide to kill wild animals.
Between 2013 and 2016 when elephant poaching reached unprecedented levels, ZimParks said cyanide was used to poison salt pans.
In one incident in 2015, 23 elephant carcasses were recovered from a Hwange National Park’s watering hole and conservationists say poachers had a habit of trapping elephants through water poisoning.
In 2013, nine elephants, five lions and two buffaloes were poisoned.
Other poachers would throw oranges laced with cyanide along elephant corridors.