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Precise figures of animal deaths are hard to tally because of the vast distances within the 2,000 kilometer squared park, which is popular with local and international tourists.
A big relief operation is underway at one of Zimbabwe’s best-known game parks where elephants are starving to death because of drought, as almost all water pans in the Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have dried up.
Dave McFarland, a safari operator and coordinator of the new “Feed Mana” operation said: “We saw four calves that never made it (in the last 10 days).”
“One of them sadly was protected by the mother but a couple of days later she fell over dead too,” he told EFE. “There’s just nothing for these animals to eat. It’s unbelievable.”
Zimbabwe, as with much of southern Africa, has seen less rainfall than usual this year. More than five million people, a third of the country’s population, will need food aid before the next harvest is due in April.
Elephants are suffering too, particularly the youngest. Herds are fracturing as parents try to protect their young.
“They’ve all split up as individuals and the mothers walk with a calf 200 meters behind them on this hard journey, just looking for food,” said McFarland. “Sometimes the calves lag behind too far and they get lost, the mothers can’t find them, it’s not good.”
Five orphaned elephant calves have so far been rescued in the park and taken to a rehabilitation center in Harare.
Volunteers and local donors working under the “Feed Mana” banner, which include the Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe, have over the past few weeks delivered around 9,000 bales of hay to the game park on the back of 30-ton trucks.
Mana is around 380 kilometers north of Harare and the operation is fraught – not least because of Zimbabwe’s current fuel shortages. There are plans to deliver at least another 7,000 bales.
With summer rains still 6-8 weeks away, elephants and other game have now congregated on a 40 kilometers squared flood plain in Mana, where there is still some grazing left.
Elephants are also starving in Hwange, the national park in the west of the country made famous by Cecil the Lion in 2015.
The Bhejane Trust, a conservation group that works in Hwange, has recorded broken elephant tusks near water holes. That could indicate that fights have broken out between big bulls over scarce water in the pans.
Water does not occur naturally in Hwange and needs to be artificially pumped into troughs and pans dotted around the park, which is seven times the size of Mana Pools.
But the park’s 50,000-strong elephant population is putting pressure on scarce resources, said Trevor Lane of the Bhejane Trust, which helps to maintain the pumps.
Lane told EFE that anthrax, a deadly disease spread by spores that lie dormant in the ground until they’re exposed and eaten by animals during times of drought, had already killed a number of hippo in recent days.
Not everyone agrees with added feeding or even the artificial provision of water. Some conservationists say that a “bottleneck” of elephants and wildlife regularly occurs on the floodplain every October in Mana. Others say that Zimbabwe already has far too many elephants – and overpopulation is damaging a fragile ecosystem.
But back in Mana Pools, McFarland is encouraged by improvements seen in the elephants the relief operation has reached.
“Once we started with the hay, the elephants’ stomachs started working properly again,” he said.