HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – A helicopter gathers thousands of impalas in an enclosure. A crane mounts sedated elephants upside down into trailers. Hordes of rangers drive other animals into metal cages and a convoy of trucks begins a journey of approximately 700 kilometers (435 miles) to take the animals to their new home.
Zimbabwe has begun moving more than 2,500 wild animals from a southern reserve to one in the north of the country to save them from drought, as the ravages of climate change replace poaching as the biggest threat to wildlife.
About 400 elephants, 2,000 impalas, 70 giraffes, 50 buffaloes, 50 wildebeest, 50 zebras, 50 elands, 10 lions and a pack of 10 wild dogs are among the animals transferred from Zimbabwe’s Save Valley Conservancy to three reserves in the north – Sapi, Matusadonha and Chizarira – in one of the largest capture and translocation exercises of live animals in southern Africa.
The “Rewild Zambezi Project,” as the operation is called, is moving animals to an area in the Zambezi River Valley to rebuild the wildlife populations there.
It is the first time in 60 years that Zimbabwe has embarked on such a mass internal movement of wildlife. Between 1958 and 1964, when the country was in Rhodesia under the rule of a white minority, more than 5,000 animals were moved to what was called “Operation Noah”. That operation saved wildlife from rising water caused by the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam on the Zambezi River that created one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, Lake Kariba.
This time around, it is the lack of water that has necessitated the displacement of wildlife as their habitat has become parched from prolonged drought, said Tinashe Farawo, a spokesperson for the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
The parks agency has issued permits to allow animals to be moved to prevent “disaster from happening,” Farawo said.
“We are doing this to relieve the pressure. We have been fighting poaching for years and just as we are winning that war, climate change has emerged as the greatest threat to our wildlife, ”Farawo told The Associated Press.
“Many of our parks are becoming overpopulated and there is little water or food. The animals end up destroying their own habitat, becoming a danger to themselves and invading nearby human settlements for food causing relentless conflict, “she said.
One option would be culling to reduce the number of wild animals, but conservation groups complain that such killings are cruel. Zimbabwe made the last cull in 1987, Farawo said.
The effects of climate change on wildlife are not isolated in Zimbabwe. Across Africa, national parks that are home to a myriad of wildlife species such as lions, elephants and buffaloes are increasingly threatened by below-average rainfall and new infrastructure projects. Authorities and experts say the drought has seriously threatened species such as rhinos, giraffes and antelopes as it reduces the amount of food available.
For example, a recent study conducted in Kruger National Park in South Africa linked extreme weather events to the loss of plants and animals, unable to cope with the drastic conditions and lack of water due to longer droughts and warmer temperatures. .
The mass movement is supported by the Great Plains Foundation, a non-profit organization that works “to conserve and expand natural habitats in Africa through innovative conservation initiatives,” according to its website. The organization is working with the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, local experts, the University of Washington-Seattle Center for Environmental Forensic Science, and the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, according to the website.
One of the new homes for the relocated animals in Zimbabwe is the Sapi Reserve. the 280,000-acre private concession is located east of Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its stunning location along the Zambezi River which marks the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Sapi “is the perfect fit for many reasons,” Great Plains CEO Dereck Joubert said on the foundation’s website.
“This reserve constitutes the central Zambezi biosphere, totaling 1.6 million acres,” wrote Joubert. “From the 1950s until we detected it in 2017, decades of hunting have decimated the wildlife populations on the Sapi reserve. We are reorganizing and restoring the wilderness to what it once was.”