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Q&A: Extreme Drought in South Africa’s Kruger National Park: How is Wildlife Faring?

Bone-dry winds are blowing across South Africa’s Kruger National Park (KNP), uprooting savanna grasses and whirling them like tumbleweeds across a sere landscape. How is the park’s world-renowned wildlife faring in an extreme drought? To find out, I talked with Izak Smit, Science Manager for Systems Ecology at South African National Parks (SANParks), which oversees KNP....

A caravan of animals makes its way to one of Kruger National Park’s life-sustaining waterholes. (Photograph: Izak Smit, SANParks)

Bone-dry winds are blowing across South Africa’s Kruger National Park (KNP), uprooting savanna grasses and whirling them like tumbleweeds across a sere landscape.

How is the park’s world-renowned wildlife faring in an extreme drought? To find out, I talked with Izak Smit, Science Manager for Systems Ecology at South African National Parks (SANParks), which oversees KNP.

Dry-as-dust: Kruger National Park this year.
Back-to-back droughts over two years have turned Kruger National Park dry as dust. (Photograph: Izak Smit, SANParks)

How long has Kruger National Park been in an extreme drought?

The 2014/2015 rainfall season was well below average (around 65% of the long-term average across the park), and has been followed by another dry year (2015/2016) of even lower rainfall, about 52% of the long-term average across the park. Two low rainfall years in succession really changes the scenario.

Is this Kruger’s first prolonged drought?

Droughts (and floods) are natural phenomena, and semi-arid ecosystems like KNP have evolved with these disturbances acting as important “shapers.” Record-keeping of rainfall in KNP started in the early 1900s. Since then, various droughts have happened. The most recent severe drought occurred in 1991/1992. Many of the lessons we learned then have prepared us for this drought, helping us understand what to expect and influencing our management policies. We hope to again learn from these conditions to better understand the role of droughts in savanna ecosystems.

Map showing location of Kruger National Park.
Located in South Africa’s far northeastern corner, Kruger National Park is famed for its wildlife. (Map: Wikimedia Commons)

Which animals are most affected?

Many species are affected by the drought – but not all negatively. Based on previous droughts and current observations, hippo and buffalo are the species that suffer high mortality rates during droughts. For example, during the 1991/1992 drought, the KNP buffalo population dropped from around 30,000 to about 14,000. As of 2015, the population had increased to around 47,000. These ups and downs are natural and are important regulators [of the ecosystem].

Other species, like predators and scavengers, benefit from the drought due to the availability of food and carrion, and the ease of locating and catching weakened animals. We often focus on the animals negatively affected, but we should realize that there are winners and losers during a drought.

Is there anywhere animals can reliably find water?

All our perennial rivers are still flowing, partly due to excellent communication and collaboration between catchment management agencies and water user associations, of which KNP is a member. This entails water restrictions on users, and releases from upstream dams, if and when needed. Various seasonal rivers still have pools. It is mostly due to a lack of food [plants for grazing] and a lack of water that animals die during droughts. But the current game-viewing opportunities around waterholes and rivers are incredibly rewarding.

Kruger wildlife depends on waterholes.
Kruger’s animals, such as these zebras, are currently dependent on waterholes and perennial rivers for their drinking water. (Photograph: Izak Smit, SANParks)

Has the drought affected safari tours?

The park remains a very popular tourist attraction. Aggregations of animals in areas with water and food mean that tourists are often rewarded with rare sightings.

How is SANParks addressing the drought?

SANParks adheres to a limited intervention approach, allowing nature to take its course for the most part. For example, SANParks monitors rivers on a daily basis and actively engages with stakeholders upstream to ensure that rivers are managed for the best interests of all. We also maintain critical waterholes.

KNP is removing very small numbers of two drought-sensitive species – hippo and buffalo – for ecological and humanitarian reasons. These removals are allowing us to test the feasibility of offering some of the protein to under-resourced local primary schools in drought-stricken areas surrounding the park.

SANParks also has contingency plans to ensure that tourism is unaffected, and that adequate and clean water is provided at all tourism facilities. Water restrictions are in place at gardens in the camps, and in staff villages. Scientists and conservation managers are closely monitoring the situation to adapt and act where necessary, and to make the most of the learning opportunities from this drought.

River drained nearly dry by drought.
Rivers in Kruger are low, but still flowing. “Grazing lawns” growing on exposed sandbars are critical resources during a drought. (Photograph: Izak Smit, SANParks)

Are there predictions for how long the drought may last?

Current predictions for the coming rainfall season are very uncertain. It seems as if El Nino, the weather phenomenon partly responsible for the drought, has lifted and has been replaced by a neutral state. There are predictions of a coming La Nina, which may bring above-average summer rainfall later in the season. But the confidence in this prediction is low, and we will continue to monitor weather forecasts as they become more reliable over the short-term.

What are your hopes for the year ahead?

The rainfall season in KNP usually starts around October or November. We will have to wait to see what this new season brings.

Kruger National Park elephants during a "normal" season.
Kruger elephants in a season without drought. Will the rains arrive on time this month? (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

Will this become a future trend?

Droughts have occurred in the past, and will continue to in the future. Some scientists predict that weather conditions will become more extreme. Both floods and droughts, as well as days with extreme temperatures, may increase.

Temperatures have been monitored in Skukuza, the main tourist camp in Kruger, since 1960. This past December, January and March were the warmest months since recording started, with an average maximum temperature of 37 degrees Celsius [99 degrees Fahrenheit] for December, 2015. Between July, 2015, and June, 2016, 28 days reached more than 40 degrees Celsius [104 degrees Fahrenheit], compared with eight such days during the previous extreme drought in 1991/1992.

Are other places in South Africa experiencing extreme drought?

Several areas in South Africa currently have drought conditions, such as the rest of the South African Lowveld, the northern KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and the North West province. The drought is more severe in places outside large protected areas. People’s livelihoods are directly affected, especially those of subsistence and commercial farmers. Our hearts go out to the communities bordering KNP, where many of our staff members’ families live, and where water and grazing are very limited.

Severe drought near Kruger National Park.
A bone-dry landscape borders Kruger. Where the drought is most severe, water and grazing are almost nonexistent. (Photograph: Izak Smit, SANParks)

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Cheryl Lyn Dybas
Award-winning science journalist and ecologist Cheryl Lyn Dybas, a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, brings a passion for wildlife and conservation to National Geographic, Natural History, National Wildlife, BioScience, Yankee and many other publications, and is a Field Editor at Ocean Geographic. Eye-to-eye with the wild is her favorite place to be.