Weak from hunger and thirst, the elephant struggled to reach a pool of water in this African wildlife reserve. But the majestic mammal got stuck in the mud surrounding the sun-baked watering hole, which had dramatically shrunk due to a severe drought. Eventually park staff freed the trapped elephant, but it collapsed and died. Just yards (meters) away lay the carcass of a Cape buffalo that had also been pulled from the mud, but was attacked by hungry lions. Elephants, zebras, hippos, impalas, buffaloes and many other wildlife are stressed by lack of food and water in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park, whose very name comes from the four pools of water normally filled by the flooding Zambezi River each rainy season, and where wildlife traditionally drink. The word “mana” means four in the Shona language. At least 105 elephants have died in Zimbabwe’s wildlife reserves, most of them in Mana and the larger Hwange National Park in the past two months, according to the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Many desperate animals are straying from Zimbabwe’s parks into nearby communities in search of food and water. Mana Pools, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its splendid setting along the Zambezi River, annually experiences hot, dry weather at this time of year. But this year it’s far worse as a result of poor rains last year. Even the river’s flow has reduced. 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 park authorities to abandon their usual policy of not intervening. Each morning, Munyaradzi Dzoro, a parks agency wildlife officer, prays for rain. “It’s beginning to be serious,” he said, standing next to the remains of the elephant and buffalo. “It might be worse if we fail to receive rains” by early November. The last substantial rains came in April, he said. An early end to a “very poor rainy season” has resulted in insufficient natural vegetation to see the animals through, said Mel Hood, who is participating in the Feed Mana project, which is providing supplementary feeding. There are more than 12,000 elephants roaming Mana’s flood plains as well as an abundance of lions, buffaloes, zebras, wild dogs, hyenas, zebras and elands. The animals are visibly affected by the drought. Some impalas show signs of skin mange. In addition to the land animals, the park has 350 bird and aquatic species, according to the parks agency. In other parts of Mana, park authorities are pumping water from deep boreholes, but the supplies are barely enough, he said. “We used to say nature should take its course,” Dzoro said of the park’s normal policy of not intervening and allowing the ecosystem to find its own balance. “We are now forced to intervene, which is manipulative conservation, because we are not sure when and how we will receive the rain. To avoid losing animals we have to intervene to maintain population sizes,” Dzoro said.
About 800,000 years ago, a giant straight-tusked elephant migrated out of Africa and spread across Europe and Asia. Marked by a huge head (4.5 feet