18 elephants to be flown to US zoos as drought puts pressure on Swaziland wildlife

Conservation groups hope rehoming the elephants will leave more food and water for endangered rhinos as the country suffers worst drought in its history

Eighteen elephants, due to be culled because the intense drought in southern Africa has left a national park in Swaziland without food, could be flown to zoos in the US. It is hoped that moving them will give threatened rhinos more opportunity of survival.

The three male and 15 female elephants from parched Hlane national park are being held temporarily by a local conservation group pending a court case brought by US animal welfare groups concerned about their export.

But they are planned to be air-lifted out in a jumbo jet operation as soon as possible, says Sedgwick county zoo in Wichita, Kansas, one of three US zoos which have been given permission by the US Fish and Wildlife service to import them.

Our goal is to get these elephants to their new homes as quickly as possible, said Mark Reed, Sedgwick zoos director.

The intention is to save the 18 Swaziland elephants and relieve pressure on other park wildlife, such as rhinos, which are suffering in the drought, says conservation group Room for Rhinos.

Swaziland is currently experiencing the worst drought in the nations history. These conditions, be included with already degrading park land, requires that hay be trucked in daily from South Africa to feed them.

[ They] must relocate to a new home, or be culled in order for Swaziland to meet its preservation plan goals of avoiding elephant overpopulation and create room for rhinos, says the group.

A spokeswoman for Sedgwick zoo said she could not comment on progress on the elephants move because of the litigation but said: As drought conditions throughout Swaziland worsen and food sources become scarcer, the zoos are eager to relocate these animals to provide them a healthy life in a safe home.

The drought, exacerbated by an intense El Nio event which is now peaking, is killing thousands of cattle and decimating wildlife in Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. In some areas it is leading to more poaching and encroachment into parks, say conservationists.

There is nothing left for the wild animals to eat in some places. There is no way grass , no moisture. A plenty of natural[ water] pans have dried up. The Kruger national park in South Africa is very dry, and Zululand has had no rain at all. Its not looking fairly, said Jacques Flamand, a wildlife veterinarian working on a black rhino range expansion project for WWF in South Africa.

The drought is affecting more[ of] the animals which graze but not so much those that browse. Animals like wildebeest, white rhino and buffalo are poorly hit, he said. However, scavengers, like lions, are taking advantage of the drought which is severely weakening wildlife, he said.

It would be a very serious situation if we did not get any rainfall before the winter. If we go into the dry season[ in May] without rain it will be a disaster; there will be far more demises then from starvation.

But drought[ is] one of the purposes of a natural system. When you have a drought it weeds out your weaker animals, said Flamand.

Kruger national park, which borders Mozambique and Zimbabwe and is one of the largest game reserves in Africa, has moved some white rhino out of the park because of the drought. Rainfall in Kruger is less than half the average for this time of year and the rainy season is expected to end in the coming few weeks.

It is very dry. Our anxiety is that the weaker game will not survive, because drought has the potential of killing weaker games and retaining the stronger ones, said park spokesman William Mabasa.

Many animals are becoming stranded as dams dry up. If it does not rainfall, we may start losing some wildlife such as buffalo, hippo and others that need more water to survive, he said.

A drought in the early 1990 s reduced Krugers buffalo population by more than 50%, but this has since rebounded to more than 40,000.

In Zimbabawe, where a country of disaster has been declared , there is growing concern that herders are driving their cattles into game parks in search of grass. Wildlife is generally more resilient to drought than livestock but thousands of cattle have reportedly died, with millions more at risk.

Tariro Musonza, acting director general for Zimbabwes Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, said poaching usually surges in times of drought. Normally when there is drought, we experience increased numbers of cases to do with poaching in our national parks. 2016 could be very difficult for us, he said

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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