March 2016 Project Update - Elephant Conservation, Zimbabwe

23 March 2016

Its all about the rain at the Elephant Conservation Programme in Hwange and Zambezi National Parks and preparing the waterholes for the drought forecast for 2016. This report was written by the two team leaders, one based in the Zambezi National Park and one at Sinamatella in Hwange.


Excellent weather news at last as the Victoria Falls and Hwange areas have had some amazing storms and relief from the hot weather, with overcast days and steady drizzling rain. All the local rivers are flowing with water standing. However, this is only a temporary respite, as the drought still looms and the rains are only half what they should be by this time of year. The rains have given the project team a bit of extra time to try and get some pumps installed before the drought really hits. Extra waterholes will spread the elephant population around and ease the pressure on food stocks around existing water points. During drought it is often not thirst which kills animals, but a lack of food, especially when hundreds of elephants congregate around one waterhole and literally destroy all the browse around it for the next herd and for all the other browsing animals.


The elephants AGAIN crossed the trench and broke the water pump at Timots waterhole. AGAIN volunteers have repaired it and now covered it with concrete slabs and blocks. Elephant damage is a major problem at the majority of waterholes as the animals seem to prefer to try and drink directly from the pump rather than from the surrounding waterhole - which is understandable as the water can get very dirty at the edges, which makes for an excellent mud bath.

After some repairs by volunteers and the project team, all the pumps are now working throughout the Chamabonda system. The effects of the second pump at No 1 water point are already noticeable - the pan is as full as it has ever been and continues to expand. In the Chamabonda Vlei, the grass has responded well to the late rains and high temperatures, and has grown very quickly. The first sable calves were seen by volunteers this month which is always a welcome sign.


For most of February the rainfall figures were terrible but in the last few days of the month Hwange finally got some rain, including the heaviest for a single day of the season so far (65mm on the 26th) and we finished with an above average score for the month of 133.5mm. The grass is growing and superficially the Park looked wonderful, but the underlying truth was shown up by the rainfall graphs which shows that this season's rainfall remains below the worst season since the project came to Sinamatella, seven years ago. Although the Park looks green, the grass growth is probably as far below average as the rainfall - and that is where the problem will be and will potentially cause many animals to starve later in the year.

During March the volunteers and project team continued improving the game water infrastructure and had a very busy month. Amongst other things volunteers repaired elephant damage at Mbala dam, completed repairs to the wind pump tower at Tshompani dam, tidied up and removed old equipment at Shumba dam, bricked over exposed pipes at Baobab dam and repaired the upper dam wall and a broken pipe at Masuma. 

The heavy rains caused some discomfort at the camp as it knocked out the electricity supply. We lost the contents of our freezer which we were unable to eat in time but, as usual, bad news for someone is good news for someone else and the hyenas were so grateful that one of them came right up to us one evening on the veranda - presumably to say thank you. We are used to hearing and seeing the hyenas pass by along the top of the hill but I have to say that it was a little alarming having one join us at the dining table. Luckily we had already finished the meal and after staring at us for a few moments, he/she ambled off!

To find out more about this Elephant Conservation Programme in Zimbabwe, please visit the project webpage.

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