Between 10 and 20 elephants have already died, says Mel Hood of Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe (VAWZ), which is supporting the “Feed Mana” rescue programme.
Among the dead are four calves who died in the last few days, weakened by hunger – and those are just the ones seen by safari operators and wildlife fans. The real number of deaths isn’t yet known.
But harrowing images have emerged: lions feeding on the carcass of an elephant that had collapsed from hunger; an elephant mother standing beside her dead calf.
An elephant cow stands beside her dead calf at Mana Pools National Park. Tessa Arkwright
“The elephants are definitely the ones taking strain. They came out of the last season thin, so they’ve had a bad year. There are quite a few casualties,” said Dave McFarland, a safari operator in Mana who is helping to co-ordinate the relief effort.
McFarland has had to dig elephants and their calves out of thick mud after they got stuck trying to find water.
“The first one – we got there too late – and its little calf had its face and trunk eaten off by a hyena. That’s a hell of a way to go.”
Worst drought in years
Zimbabwe’s drought, the worst in over two decades, has wiped out crops and worsened human hunger: more than five million people here will require food aid before the next harvest in April.
Summer rains, if they fall, are still 6-8 weeks away.
“This year is worse than previous years. The early end to the rainy season as well as the poor rainfall have really exacerbated the situation,” Hood told RFI.
“With the animals having little or no chance to move out in search of other feeding grounds, we feel that it is our responsibility to at least try and keep them going until the rains come.”