The Im­pact of Drought on SA’s Wildlife

Tourism Tattler - - EDITORIAL - By Andrew van Heer­den and An­thony Whate­ley.

To pro­vide a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of Tourism Tat­tler’s fea­ture re­gard­ing the im­pact of drought on South Africa’s game reserves and wildlife en­vi­ron­ment – and with spe­cific ref­er­ence to the Hluh­luwe Im­folozi Park (HiP) re­serve – I have re­peated an ar­ti­cle writ­ten for my news­let­ter by Tony Whate­ley, who was do­ing re­search in the early days un­der Ian Player.

In those days the goal was to man­age bio­di­ver­sity first, in the be­lief that wildlife health will fol­low. When wildlife health was good it brought in tourists. To­day this phi­los­o­phy has been turned on its head, as in­flu­ence from Joe Public pre­vents nor­mal wildlife man­age­ment. Many of these guys from the old days will hap­pily ad­mit that they made many mis­takes, but will quickly re­mind you that they learned from those mis­takes. What beats them up is that out­side in­flu­ence is go­ing to have long-term con­se­quences to the bio­di­ver­sity. If grass­land is re­placed by wood­land – then there is less ca­pac­ity to hold the spe­cial­ist graz­ers – like the white rhino. In Kruger last year, there were Hippo car­cases scat­tered all over the show. The ques­tion we should be ask­ing is if Hip­pos are dy­ing, then surely Rhi­nos have also been dy­ing.

The con­cern ex­pressed by John For­rest in a re­cent ar­ti­cle in the jour­nal Ox­pecker that mor­tal­ity among white rhino in South Africa due to present drought con­di­tions could ex­ceed num­bers poached, made me con­sider the early 1980s drought in Hluh­luwe iM­folozi Park (HiP) and ad­di­tional fac­tors that might now in­flu­ence mor­tal­ity.

Drought con­di­tions par­tic­u­larly af­fect­ing white rhino in HiP is cer­tainly se­ri­ous cause for con­cern, espe­cially when com­pared with a drought in the early 1980s. Ad­di­tional fac­tors that are con­sid­ered to in­crease the im­pact of the present drought and that could have far-reach­ing ef­fects are:

1. a re­duc­tion in graz­ing lawns

2. large num­bers of buffalo

3. an in­crease in large car­ni­vores

4. and sil­ta­tion of rivers.

1. Graz­ing lawns

Un­til the mid-1970s well-utilised graz­ing lawns in HiP were in­ter­preted by man­agers as ‘over­grazed’ ar­eas. The re­sponse was to re­move large num­bers of short grass graz­ers such as white rhino, wilde­beest, warthog and im­pala. Al­though wide­spread seedlings of woody species, such as Dichrostachys cinerea and Aca­cia kar­roo were also present in these ar­eas of short grass, where the ef­fects of fire were ab­sent, they were much slower to be­come es­tab­lished be­yond seedling leaf stage due to them be­ing con­stantly in­cluded in graz­ing pres­sure. With a con­se­quent re­duc­tion in graz­ers, these woody species of­ten be­came successful as ‘bush en­croach­ment’ while still be­ing pro­tected from fire. Over the past 40 years, bush en­croach­ment has grad­u­ally and dra­mat­i­cally re­duced op­ti­mum white rhino habi­tat in HiP and in many ar­eas been re­placed by wood­land and in the north of the park, even for­est.

Bush en­croach­ment is likely to con­tinue in HiP due to lack of fire and its fre­quency as a re­sult of drought, fur­ther re­duc­ing grass­land habi­tat while con­tin­u­ing to change his­toric sa­van­nah land­scapes.

In 1972 there was an es­ti­mated 2,229 white rhino in HiP and in 1976 1,629. I have no ac­cu­rate fig­ures for 1980, al­though, high mor­tal­ity dur­ing this drought took place de­spite 616 white rhino be­ing re­moved dur­ing 1979 and 1980, which amounted to about a third of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion. At present, there is about 1,700 white rhino in HiP. This equates to a sim­i­lar pop­u­la­tion size of that in 1976 when 40 years ago graz­ing lawns were far more wide­spread and an­nual rain­fall was above av­er­age dur­ing the years 1973-1977.

2. Buffalo

In 1972 there were an es­ti­mated 2,195 buffalo in HiP with the first re­movals tak­ing place in 1974. These early re­movals were aimed at pro­vid­ing in­creased fuel in the form of tall grass, which, when burnt, was hoped to ar­rest un­wanted woody growth (bush en­croach­ment) as it was be­gin­ning to be re­alised to be a ma­jor prob­lem. How­ever, dur­ing 1979-1981, 961 buffalo were re­moved pri­mar­ily be­cause of drought con­di­tions. Al­though I have no pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates of buffalo for 1979 in 1976 there were an es­ti­mated 2,428 in HiP which em­pha­sises the high per­cent­age con­sid­ered wise to re­move prior to and dur­ing the drought.

At present, (Jan­uary 2016), I un­der­stand no buffalo have been re­moved. De­spite a se­vere drought and wise lessons of past man­age­ment, about 6,000 buffalo ex­ist. With an ad­di­tional 700 ele­phant, they will both com­pete with white rhino for di­min­ish­ing for­age and par­tic­u­larly wa­ter, espe­cially in the case of the ele­phant. (Young ele­phants were only reestab­lished in 1982).

Re­gard­ing ele­phant num­bers in HiP and their re-es­tab­lish­ment in 1982, a fig­ure of a max­i­mum of 500 was cal­cu­lated based on ele­phant den­si­ties and rain­fall fig­ures in other parts of south­ern Africa at the time. With a su­per­abun­dance of for­age in HiP this fig­ure has al­ready been ex­ceeded.

There will be many Zulu who will re­mem­ber the early 1980s drought when thou­sands of their cattle died sur­round­ing HiP, and when large num­bers of an­i­mals were culled in HiP and ex­ported with no ben­e­fit to them at all, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously the South African Red Cross or­gan­ised food for them.

If, or when, any buffalo are re­moved from HiP I would hope that this time, pro­vid­ing TB is not a stum­bling block, some meat could be dis­trib­uted to hun­gry Zulu neigh­bours. Large car­ni­vores ben­e­fit from the present drought con­di­tions in HiP due to an abun­dance of eas­ily avail­able food. This will in time fur­ther con­trib­ute to a de­cline in many her­bi­vore species as car­ni­vore num­bers in­crease. Over the past 20 years, many her­bi­vores have al­ready de­clined in num­bers due to a com­bi­na­tion of loss of suit­able habi­tat (mainly sa­van­nah grass­land) and pre­da­tion, while drought con­di­tions will now only ex­ac­er­bate their plight. This clearly is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of HiP be­ing a ‘preda­tor pit’ and many large car­ni­vores need to be re­moved. (Wild dog were only re-es­tab­lished in 1980 as ju­ve­niles and played no part in the early 1980s drought. While lions num­bered about 100 at the time). Con­tin­ued sil­ta­tion and re­duced flow in all the large rivers in HiP is yet an­other prob­lem dur­ing low rain­fall years. This is be­cause de­for­ested catch­ments out­side of the park can no longer eas­ily re­tain wa­ter while

be­ing prone to heavy graz­ing and soil ero­sion. Al­though the term ‘peren­nial’ was used to de­scribe some of these wa­ter cour­ses 40 years ago, ‘sea­sonal’ is now a more ap­pli­ca­ble de­scrip­tion. The loss of river­ine for­est in the south of the park dur­ing cy­clone De­moina in 1984 has cre­ated wide shal­low wa­ter cour­ses where the river­ine for­est is un­likely to be­come re-es­tab­lished due to sea­sonal flash flood­ing and un­sta­ble banks.

While ac­cept­ing that tourism plays an es­sen­tial role in the con­tin­ued sur­vival of HiP, drought con­di­tions cer­tainly ac­cen­tu­ate the lim­ited size of this is­land-like park. It re­veals the need to re­duce pop­u­lar game view­ing species such as white rhino, buffalo, ele­phant and lion.

An­thony Whate­ley ex NPB.

The car­cases of two white rhi­nos (Cer­a­totherium si­mum) – a mother and calf – lie in the bushveld at Hluh­luwe-iM­folozi Park. Im­age: Scott Ram­say.

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