Wildlife lovers have trucked 9,000 bales of hay to Zimbabwe’s popular Mana Pools National Park as part of an extraordinary effort to save elephants dying of starvation in the drought.
Between 10 and 20 elephants have already died, says Mel Hood of Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe (VAWZ), which is supporting the “Feed Mana” rescue programme.
Among the dead are four calves who died in the last few days, weakened by hunger – and those are just the ones seen by safari operators and wildlife fans. The real number of deaths isn’t yet known.
But harrowing images have emerged: lions feeding on the carcass of an elephant that had collapsed from hunger; an elephant mother standing beside her dead calf.
“The elephants are definitely the ones taking strain. They came out of the last season thin, so they’ve had a bad year. There are quite a few casualties,” said Dave McFarland, a safari operator in Mana who is helping to co-ordinate the relief effort.
McFarland has had to dig elephants and their calves out of thick mud after they got stuck trying to find water.
“The first one – we got there too late – and its little calf had its face and trunk eaten off by a hyena. That’s a hell of a way to go.”
Worst drought in years
Zimbabwe’s drought, the worst in over two decades, has wiped out crops and worsened human hunger: more than five million people here will require food aid before the next harvest in April.
Summer rains, if they fall, are still 6-8 weeks away.
“This year is worse than previous years. The early end to the rainy season as well as the poor rainfall have really exacerbated the situation,” Hood told RFI.
“With the animals having little or no chance to move out in search of other feeding grounds, we feel that it is our responsibility to at least try and keep them going until the rains come.”
The organisers hope to deliver another 7,000 bales in the days ahead.
Not everyone agrees with supplementary feeding of elephants. Some say that deaths from hunger are inevitable this dry time of year – and that artificially sustaining large numbers of animals will put further pressure on fragile ecosystems.
Elephants are also dying in Hwange National Park, more than 400 kilometres to the west of Mana. Hwange was made famous by the hunting of Cecil the Lion in 2015 and a spate of cyanide poisonings of elephants in 2013 and 2017.
In Hwange surface water is scarce even in years of better rainfall. Most of it has to be pumped into troughs and pans for the wildlife, including its 50,000-strong elephant population.
The Bhejane Trust, a conservation group that helps to install and maintain water pumps in Hwange, says the park is under severe pressure, not least because elephants have crossed over from Botswana to drink at Hwange’s water points.
Broken elephant tusks have been found near some water holes, which could indicate that fights have broken out between big bulls over the precious liquid.
Anthrax, a deadly disease spread by spores that lie dormant in the ground until they’re exposed and ingested by animals during drought, have also killed a number of hippo in recent days, says the Bhejane Trust’s Trevor Lane.
At least 55 elephants have died from hunger and thirst in the park in recent weeks, according the state wildlife authority.
But Hwange is more than seven times the size of Mana Pools, so supplementary feeding is not feasible.
“It’s one of those things where nature must take its course,” Lane told RFI.
Back in Mana, elephant herds have fractured as parents try to protect their young, says McFarland.
“They’ve all split up as individuals and the mothers walk with a calf 200 metres behind them on this slog, just looking for food,” he said. “Sometimes the calves lag behind too far and they get lost, the mothers can’t find them, it’s not good.”
Five rescued calves have been taken to a rehabilitation centre in Harare.