Wild animals in Zimbabwe are suffering and dying as the sun beats down during the year's hottest season. Like so many humans, they are victims of President Robert Mugabe.
In Africa's most densely populated game park water from underground bores is now available only intermittently because there is no money to fix engines pumping it to the surface. Plains animals, in particular buffalo, are dying of thirst in Hwange National Park, 8,000 square miles of protected wilderness including the eastern edge of the Kalahari desert.
According to Johnny Rodrigues, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, as many as half the animals, except elephants, are at risk because the government has failed to finance the repair of borehole pumps. For the first time since the park was established in dry Matabeleland 76 years ago the pumps were not serviced in April or May, when last summer's below-average rains ended. "This is mismanagement, nothing more. It's not a natural disaster," Mr Rodrigues said after a heartbreaking trip last week delivering fuel donated by well-wishers to keep a few pumps working.
Although the country's economic collapse ensures there is no foreign currency for imports such as fuel, Mr Mugabe does have cash to spend on luxury vehicles. Parked outside the headquarters of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in Harare are 10 new 4x4's for executives, costing far more than repairs and service for the engines that pump water to the pans.
"Most of the water in the pans is on the surface and too shallow for animals to drink," Mr Rodrigues said. "It is terrible to see them fighting each other for water and extraordinary to see multiple species gathering to drink. "We know that 33 buffalos died near one water hole last week from dehydration."
Many areas of water have turned to mud Barry Wolhuter, who runs a safari camp in Hwange, said he had seen "nothing to compare" with conditions in the park in the past 20 years. "It is grim," he said. "We try not to tell the few tourists who come here how bad it is as we don't want to upset them."
Margie Pearce, the chairman of the Matabeleland branch of Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe, WEZ, a long-standing voluntary organisation, said the situation in Hwange was "worrying." "The pumps should be uplifted each dry season and that hasn't happened," she said. "There was little rain in Hwange last year; it was as dry as in 1998. But then the pumps were working." Mrs Pearce said that if no repairs were carried out then private companies, safari operators and big game hunters would try to keep some water flowing, especially around their areas at the southern end of the park.
Mr Rodrigues warned that animal carcasses had started showing up near dry water pans in the last week or so. One factor aggravating the water shortage is the size of the park's elephant population, now about 30,000 when conservationists estimate that it should be no more than 12,000. Culls were abandoned several years ago following pressure from abroad, leading to huge degradation of the park's forests and thorn bushes. The vast wilderness was always too dry for agriculture and far-sighted early settlers had it set aside as one of Africa's first great conservation areas. Boreholes were sunk that fed new water pans, attracting hordes of animals and then tourists. Today the park has deteriorated and tourists are missing, except at private safari camps adjoining the park for hunters.
According to Mrs
Pearce, most wild animals outside protected areas have been eaten by hungry
Zimbabweans over the past six years. The economy has shrunk every year since
Mr Mugabe began evicting white farmers in 2000. Their export crops
previously provided as much as 40 per cent of foreign currency earnings. The
environment minister, Frances Nhema, declined last week to answer questions
about the national park.