Can Nature Gain from No Rain?

The Real Story behind Drought

  • by onRoute
  • Jan 7, 2017
  • 693
Could there be a positive side to drought?

Ranger and wildlife photographer, Chad Cocking, discusses the effect the drought is having on wildlife in South Africa. Although his background is in Geography and Environmental Management, much of his insights regarding the topic come from observations and discussions with others in the field of conservation.

What are the short and long-term impacts of the drought on wildlife, the reserve and greater surrounds?

From a wildlife perspective, the short-term impacts include population changes. While large herbivore populations such as hippos, elephants and buffalos tend to decrease during prolonged dry periods, the predator species (notably lions, hyenas and African wild dogs) tend to show positive growth trends as their population’s increase due to weakening prey species and easier hunting conditions. In the long-term, droughts form just another part of the natural cyclical trends of these populations. Constant drought and rain cycles mean that after each drought the surviving animals breed and repopulate, strengthening the populations' genetic pool to adapt to the harsh conditions.

Ranger and wildlife photographer, Chad Cocking, discusses the effect the drought is having on wildlife in South Africa. Although his background is in Geography and Environmental Management, much of his insights regarding the topic come from observations and discussions with others in the field of conservation.

With regards to the reserve (in this case the Greater Kruger), the biggest impact on the surrounding areas will always include human factors. Water shortages pose a massive problem and can result in more water being extracted from inflowing rivers. Due to the likely failure of crops and loss of livestock, the possibility of poaching for bush meat does increase, and this was no doubt one of the motivating factors for the Kruger’s decision for harvesting some of the wildlife this year. 

What is the biggest misconception people (including conservationists) have regarding drought?

During such natural events, people understandably look at the suffering that animals endure, and human emotions take control, viewing drought as a negative event. What people forget is that in droughts there are winners and losers. Watching the losers lose is the tough part, but for every dead animal, a set of beetle larvae, hyena cubs or vulture chicks are going to benefit.

How can we educate people on the positive impact of experiencing drought?

It’s a difficult one, as drought and suffering are synonymous for many. And although there is a lot of truth in that, people need to understand the longer-term cycles at play and the effects on the health and functioning of whole ecosystems. When it comes to conservation, the survival of the species is more important than the survival of the individual. One just has to look at a species like the highly endangered wild dogs and see how drought typically plays a role in bolstering their low population number to realise that it’s not all about loss. It’s really about seeing the bigger picture.

How serious is the drought and is it directly associated with the disruption in global climate change? 

There are so many variables at play in a drought such as this. It’s dangerous to ultimately link it to global climatic events happening on the other side of the world (El Niño and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycles) and point a finger at human-induced impacts. While this should be considered, it’s not the only possible factor involved in the current drought.

Can you put people at ease by detailing some positive outcomes of this drought?

A single extreme drought can result in meaningful population reductions. With this, one sees less pressure being exerted on the environment, which in turn allows it to recover to sustain such large populations once again. For example, in the last major drought, the Kruger’s buffalo population decreased from 30 000 to 14 000 – a massive loss of life. But despite this, the population of buffalo not only recovered naturally but also increased way beyond what it had previously achieved. 

Can you reveal some interesting ways in which wildlife adapt to their environment?

I have been working in the Greater Kruger for a decade, and it has been great to see the adaptability of the animals to deal with the drought. The ones that I have been most impressed by have been the buffalo herds; traditionally almost purely grazers using their broad muzzles and tongues to gather swathes of grass, the lack of such a food source has necessitated them to become almost purely browsers in some parts of the reserve! I have also noted how very few of the impalas have fallen pregnant this season; perhaps the stress of the drought reduced their fertility, or they conceived but due to environmental stresses abort the pregnancy in the interest of self-preservation. Lion populations have been observed ‘wasting’ food to a degree that I have not witnessed before. When full, they simply walk off and leave the majority of the carcass. Leaving such vast quantities of food is almost unheard of.

What should we really be more worried about as a threat to our reserves?

I believe that one of the biggest dangers facing conservation in Africa (as has been the case for the last several decades) is a loss of habitat. This is proportionally related to human population growth both in urban areas, as well as the rural communities surrounding protected areas. Almost all aspects that relate to threats to our wildlife can be traced back to these two core issues.