MANA POOLS, Zimbabwe – A serious drought in southern Africa has left wild animals including elephants in grave danger, as water and food sources literally dry up.
Park rangers in the Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe are praying for rain and have taken to trucking in feed to keep wildlife populations alive. But if long-delayed rains don't materialize soon, the rangers warn their efforts might not be enough.
Zimbabwe is usually one of the biggest food growing areas in southern Africa, but severe drought caused by lack of rain affected harvests between October 2018 and May 2019.
In August this year, the government declared the 2018/19 drought a State of National Disaster and appealed for international humanitarian aid.
Ten elephants have died at the Mana Pools park in recent weeks, according to staff. At the larger Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe, authorities say the death toll is higher: at least 55 elephants have died there from the drought in the past two months.
Mana Pools, a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed for its splendid setting along the Zambezi River, annually experiences hot, dry weather at this time of year. But this year it is worse.
Each morning, Munyaradzi Dzoro, a parks agency wildlife officer, prays for rain.
"It's beginning to be serious since the water level, on most pans, is decreasing. So it might be worse with time if the rain fail, if we fail to receive the first rains in October or early November. This might be serious," said Dzoro.
Other animals are stressed too, including zebras, hippos, impalas and buffaloes that can't find enough food.
"This buffalo was stuck in here yesterday. We came and pulled it out, but it seems it has been, it has over-exhausted its power, since it was stuck maybe overnight. So it has taken much time in the mud. By the time we pulled it out, it failed to gain its power, and we had to leave it hear to monitor if it can make it. But however, it failed to make it until the carnivores came and attacked it from behind. That finally caused its death. But however, the main cause was stuck in the mud," Dzoro said.
Separated from neighboring Zambia by the Zambezi, the region's once reliable sources of water have turned into death traps for animals desperate to reach the muddy ponds. Many animals in the park have gotten stuck in clay while trying to reach Long Pool, the largest of the watering holes at 3 miles long.
Now only 5 percent full, Long Pool is one of the few remaining water sources in this part of the park.
Hippos are submerged in some puddles to avoid skin desiccation, while birds pick catfish from the muddy riverbed.
Two other pools have completely dried out, while another is at between 20 and 30 percent full and dwindling, Dzoro says.
On the floodplains where more than 12,000 elephants and an abundance of lions, buffaloes, zebras, wild dogs, hyenas, zebras and elands roam freely, animals are visibly affected. Some impalas show signs of skin mange.
Seasonal rains are expected soon, but parks officials and wildlife lovers, fearing that too many animals will die before then, are bringing in food to help the distressed animals. The extremely harsh conditions persuaded the park authorities to abandon their usual policy of not intervening.
"Usually, as Parks, we used to say nature should take its course. That is passive management, where we just look and monitor the ecosystem to control itself. But at a point, we are forced to sort of intervene. Like, we've come up with a feeding strategy now, where we are saying we need to supplement the feeding of animals right in the flood plain, because the food which used to be there - acacia pods - that could not make it because of rain, and we are not certain when the rain is coming. So, to avoid the losing of animals, we are saying we need to intervene to sort of maintain population sizes," said Dzoro.
As part of the drive, trucks and tractors drawing trailers have been ferrying hay to various spots in the 2,196 square kilometer (848 square mile) park.
In some areas, elephants, buffaloes and zebras are fed next to each other.
The "Feed Mana" project has so far trucked 14,000 bales to the park, authorities here say. They are appealing for urgent donations of items such as soybean hay, grass, game cubes and molasses.
In the villages adjacent to the National Park, the plight of desperate wildlife seeking food has had a knock-on effect on farmers themselves suffering under drought conditions.
The severe drought has left more than a third of rural households in Zimbabwe – around 3.5 million people – dangerously food insecure according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
"We have a problem here whereby hungry wild animals from Mana Pools National Park are attacking our livestock. We have elephants, lions and hyenas coming here to the villages to even destroy our crops. The problem won't end, because every time we tell the National Parks officials that we have a problem with their animals, they just come and take their animals and won't give us a solution. So if we attack their animals here, they get us arrested," said villager Rufaro Phiri.
Right now, there's little sign of respite. At Mana Pools, officials say climate change has changed weather patterns.
In past years, Mana Pools would receive up to 600 millimeters (24 inches) of rain per year according to Dzoro.
Now he says the Pools are lucky to get 300 millimeters (12 inches).