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

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)
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.
  • Evermercy Kusure

    I was in Kruger National Park with my sons on the 7th and 8th 0f July 2016. It was so hot for winter .Although I was born and lived in Zimbabwe for the 35year the temperature was a bit too hot for a winter. I enjoyed the visit though and captured some memorable pictures and enjoyed staying at Nkambeni Safari Camp. I will come back.

  • A van Rooyen

    It is not a natural environment. The animals are confined to the park area. They would migrate to better grazing if they could. So do not state that it is an up and down natural pattern and selection. I live near the park and it is like a desert at this time. Not a blade of grass. And of course the “brilliant” idea of park officials to get rid of the boreholes and manmade waterholes has made the situation even worse… And climate change is another aspect that the animals now have to contend with. And the solution the officials come up with is “kill the grazers”. Typical humans. I do not go to the park anymore because it is too sad and depressing….

  • Candice

    Why do all the rest camps have baths instead of showers…certainly this is a change that must be made especially in such water strapped conditions

  • Mark Crozier

    I think the park should step in and provide relief for the hippos especially. Many of these animals would migrate to better areas if they were able to but now their movements are restricted due to the fencing. I feel not enough is done for animals and water is largely wasted due to human greed and stupidity – pollution, poorly maintained infrastructure, climate change, etc etc. Why should the animals have to suffer?

  • s bird

    I have recently come back from the Kruger feeling very sad and depressed by the devastating result of the drought. I have wonderful memories from the 12 + years I have been visiting. Each time I’ve stayed a month . This time I could n’t wait to get home. I will not be visiting again . Yes you may be able to see predators( the lions mostly hide in the shade on the river beds). Most water holes were dry. Yet the swimming pools in the camps were full and land outside were irrigated food producing maybe, but golf courses and lawns?Watching a Rhino with a newly born calf walk miles for water for the water hole to be empty was heart breaking.

  • Ian Johnson

    Natural phenomenons allows animals to migrate in the past , unfortunately with game reserves in southern Africa we need fences to protect what we have left – this is no longer a situation where we use cycles as a excuse – now its real management of our precious wildlife which is needed .

  • Paul Knoke

    s bird, that is a good idea. If everyone could boycott the national park maybe someday we can close it down.
    Silly parks trying to protected an ecosystem

  • Jenny

    Could you give an update on the drought in Kruger and how the animals are faring? Thanks.

  • Minna Greene

    I was planning to take a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe in mid August of 2018. I am afraid that I will see a lot of dead animals in Hwange and Chobe National Park. I know that there is sufficient water but very little food. Are my fears exaggerated or realistic?

  • Ray S

    Well sadly Kruger Game Reserve has become a semi-desert arid region of Africa. Sure climate change is a reason as Kruger is heating up. BUT another reason is chem-trails which can clearly be seen- I was in Kruger last week and saw these: the tobacco farming industry has been known to do this at the expense of clouds and rain over Kruger and its animals. The ANC led Government is a disaster as we know by now and in Kruger this negative effect is felt- they have closed much needed boreholes for water. They have stopped culling many years ago- the elephant population is growing and elephants are drought resistant creatures unlike buffalo hippo and rhino. Kruger’s carrying capacity of these large animals is 2,500 to maybe 3,500. There are now 15,000 – 20,000 elephants in Kruger and they have knocked down every large canopy tree. The canopy trees protect the lower levels all the way down to the grass level. In a severe drought such as we have now year on year- the trees have no time to grow back as they are knocked down and the resultant effects multiply so the bioscape has no protection and no room to regrow. The result is that animals have no food and no shelter. Elephants cannot be relocated successfully on a large scale, Kruger will become the elephant desert park unless they are culled back to 2,500 in number and even then the landscape will need much time and nurturing and rain to recover back to 1960 levels with tall canopy trees and thick bush and greenery. Kruger is a large area and humans have fenced animals in such that they cannot move west to the wetter greener areas of the lowveld region in times of severe drought. I visit Kruger a few times a year and it breaks my heart to see this. I still visit to be in nature and around the ever flowing rivers there are trees and greenery and animals. There are also animals in other patches. Kruger is wetter nearer the Sabi game reserve areas and far up North near Zimbabwe. But the tall trees and thick bush of Kruger past are all gone.

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