“We are being watched,” a Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) game ranger, acting as tour guide, exclaimed.
He is pointing to the left as the lead vehicle in a convoy taking United Nations deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed and her delegation on an evening game drive in the giant Hwange National Park is brought to a halt.
Everyone in the vehicle peers out into a clearing bathed in late afternoon light. The whole convoy stops. A spitting distance away, three elephants — a huge matriarch and two young ones – cast a benign eye in the vehicles trespassing on their forest home.
The mood, however, suddenly changes as the youngest elephant excitedly darts towards the road in front of the convoy.
The matriarch swiftly charges towards the lead vehicle, stopping briefly right in front of the car to allow the calves to cross the road, flapping its giant ears and raising its trunk to convey its lack of amusement.
It outstandingly glides into the forest to join a massive herd already foraging at a distance.
They may be enjoying the abundance of food and water brought about by the summer rains, but in the coming dry season, these beautiful giants may be dead.
Already critically endangered by poaching, the African elephant is now facing a new threat to its continued survival – climate change.
Africa is vast — about as big as the United States, China, India and Australia combined.
And it holds great wealth — in its forests, oceans, minerals and more. But, according to a recent study by Stony Brook University of the USA, Africa’s resources are being depleted far too quickly, and if no urgent intervention efforts are made, they are in real danger of extinction, which puts the continent, and the more than two billion people who will call it home by 2050, at grave risk.
Growing cases of human-wildlife conflicts are ample evidence of how climate change is taking a toll on Africa’s wildlife species. Mohammed was immediately taken for a game drive in the zone of the world’s last remaining true natural wildlife sanctuaries as soon as she arrived for the Africa Regional Forum for Sustainable Development (AFSD) in Victoria Falls last week so that the plight of African elephants can get an appreciation at UN level.
Hwange National Park cluster manager Samson Chibaya, in a briefing with Mohammed, said climate change had become the single biggest threat to elephants and other animals in the area. At least 200 elephants died in Zimbabwe’s largest national park when a severe drought hit the country between September and November last year.
Other species including giraffes, buffaloes and wildebeests have also died. Chibaya said global warming, combined with decreasing ranges, could make the animals extinct. Millions of dollars are spent each year to keep iconic species safe from poachers, principally inside protected areas such as national parks.
“We can spend money trying to stop poaching, but there is no point in doing that if the stuff in there is going anyway,” Chibaya told Mohammed and her UN team which included executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, Vera Songwe and United Nations resident coordinator for Zimbabwe, Maria Ribeiro.
Chibaya’s submissions came after Mohammed had asked for an explanation on how ZimParks was managing such a massive game reserve.
“If the concern is symbolic species, there may well be a bigger threat from climate change than from utilisation and poaching,” he said.
Predicting the regional impact of global climate change is not an exact science; but in Africa, home to the “Big Five” symbolic species – elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and buffalo — computer models predict that overall, areas which are currently dry will become even dryer as well as warmer.
In pre-industrial times, animals threatened by these changes could simply have migrated, but human development means that option has largely disappeared.
“Protected areas are now islands. The wildlife fauna and flora — is pretty well tied in by boundaries which aren’t oceans, in the sense of islands, but development. And if there is significant climate change, as is predicted, what’s going to happen to these areas? Paleontologically, island faunas become extinct,” Chibaya added.
“We have drilled boreholes around the park to try and provide the animals with drinking water but that is not sufficient. Besides elephants, which need several gallons of water to sustain their huge bodies, we have over 100 other mammalian species which also need water. Pumping water from 104 boreholes and maintaining them is not an easy task. We hope that you, being our ambassador, can also assist in building understanding among stakeholders and also in terms of resource mobilisation,” he said.
Many of the world’s threatened species live in areas that will be severely affected by climate change, which is happening too quickly for many species to adapt.
In Africa, changes in rainfall pattern will either bring too much rain — causing floods — or too little rain — resulting in more drought and wildfires.
These changes may cause some areas to simply become unsuitable for certain species to live in. African elephants can drink up to 225 litres of water each day, so changing weather patterns may mean they have to travel further in search of water – moving outside protected areas and coming into more contact with people. This increases their risk of being poached, or coming into conflict with people, which can result in fatalities on both sides.
The International Animal Rescue Foundation last year documented that seven out of ten species were coming under extreme threat from climate destruction and global temperature rise.
“Climate variability and change affects birdlife and animals in a number of ways; birds lay eggs earlier in the year than usual, plants bloom earlier and mammals come out of hibernation sooner.
Distribution of animals is also affected; with many species moving closer to the poles as a response to the rise in global temperatures. Birds are migrating and arriving at their nesting grounds earlier, and the nesting grounds that they are moving to are not as far away as they used to be and in some countries the birds don’t even leave anymore, as the climate is suitable all year round,” the organisation said in a report.
“Changes in a variety of ecosystems are already being detected, particularly in southern African ecosystems, at a faster rate than anticipated (very high confidence). Climate change, interacting with human drivers such as deforestation and forest fires, are a threat to Africa’s forest ecosystems. Changes in grasslands and marine ecosystems are also noticeable. It is estimated that, by the 2080s, the proportion of arid and semi-arid lands in Africa is likely to increase by 5-8%. Climate change impacts on Africa’s ecosystems will probably have a negative effect on tourism as, according to one study, between 25 and 40% of mammal species in national parks in sub-Saharan Africa will become endangered,” the report further reads.
Zimbabwean elephants, now totalling an estimated 80 000, are under pressure from climate change-related habitat loss.
ZimParks, which does not receive government funding, requires US$40 million annually for conservation efforts, but only generates half the amount.
The country exported 101 elephants between 2016 and 2019, mainly to China and the United Arab Emirates, raising more than US$2,6 million for conservation efforts.
Zimbabwe, together with South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, unsuccessfully lobbied the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for controlled sales of their ivory stocks and trade in elephants at a meeting in August last year. Officially opening the AFSD earlier in the month, President Emmerson Mnangagwa again called for the CITES blanket ban to be lifted.
I implore you not to go back to your capitals without seeing the Big Five, in particular elephants, which we have effectively managed by minimising human-wildlife conflicts in spite of the ongoing unwarranted opposition by some in distant quarters to our rights to trade in our wildlife which we keep, which they weren’t able to keep,” Mnangagwa said.
However, outside the official and unofficial clamours, collective action needs to be taken to halt the relentless march to extinction for these colossal mammals.
Otherwise, sights such as that which Mohammed was treated to in Hwange may in the near future exist only in the distant memory of those that lived and documented it.