Eighteen elephants, due to be culled because the intense drought in southern Africa has left a national park in Swaziland without food, could be flown to zoos in the US. It is hoped that moving them will give endangered rhinos more chance of survival.
The three male and 15 female elephants from parched Hlane national park are being held temporarily by a local conservation group pending a court case brought by US animal welfare groups concerned about their export.
But they are planned to be air-lifted out in a “jumbo jet” operation as soon as possible, says Sedgwick county zoo in Wichita, Kansas, one of three US zoos which have been given permission by the US Fish and Wildlife service to import them.
“Our goal is to get these elephants to their new homes as quickly as possible,” said Mark Reed, Sedgwick zoo’s director.
The intention is to save the 18 Swaziland elephants and relieve pressure on other park wildlife, such as rhinos, which are suffering in the drought, says conservation group Room for Rhinos.
“Swaziland is currently experiencing the worst drought in the nation’s history. These conditions, combined with already degrading park land, requires that hay be trucked in daily from South Africa to feed them.
“[They] must relocate to a new home, or be culled in order for Swaziland to meet its conservation plan goals of avoiding elephant overpopulation and making room for rhinos,” says the group.
A spokeswoman for Sedgwick zoo said she could not comment on progress on the elephants’ move because of the litigation but said: “As drought conditions throughout Swaziland worsen and food sources become scarcer, the zoos are eager to relocate these animals to provide them a healthy life in a safe home.””
The drought, exacerbated by an intense El Niño event which is now peaking, is killing thousands of cattle and decimating wildlife in Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. In some areas it is leading to more poaching and encroachment into parks, say conservationists.
“There is nothing left for the wild animals to eat in some places. There is no grass, no moisture. A lot of natural [water] pans have dried up. The Kruger national park in South Africa is very dry, and Zululand has had no rain at all. It’s not looking pretty,” said Jacques Flamand, a wildlife vet working on a black rhino range expansion project for WWF in South Africa.
“The drought is affecting more [of] the animals which graze but not so much those that browse. Animals like wildebeest, white rhino and buffalo are badly hit,” he said. However, scavengers, like lions, are taking advantage of the drought which is severely weakening wildlife, he said.
“It would be a very serious situation if we did not get any rain before the winter. If we go into the dry season [in May] without rain it will be a disaster; there will be far more deaths then from starvation.
“But drought [is] part of a natural system. When you have a drought it weeds out your weaker animals,” said Flamand.
Kruger national park, which borders Mozambique and Zimbabwe and is one of the largest game reserves in Africa, has moved some white rhino out of the park because of the drought. Rainfall in Kruger is less than half the average for this time of year and the rainy season is expected to end in the next few weeks.
“It is very dry. Our fear is that the weaker game will not survive, because drought has the potential of killing weaker games and retaining the stronger ones,” said park spokesman William Mabasa.
“Many animals are becoming stranded as dams dry up. If it does not rain, we may start losing some wildlife such as buffalo, hippo and others that need more water to survive,” he said.
A drought in the early 1990s reduced Kruger’s buffalo population by more than 50%, but this has since rebounded to more than 40,000.
In Zimbabawe, where a state of disaster has been declared, there is growing concern that herders are driving their cattle into game parks in search of grass. Wildlife is generally more resilient to drought than livestock but thousands of cattle have reportedly died, with millions more at risk.
Tariro Musonza, acting director general for Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, said poaching normally surges in times of drought. “Normally when there is drought, we experience increased numbers of cases to do with poaching in our national parks. 2016 could be very difficult for us,” he said.
Source: The Guardian