Southern Africa Bush Tails

On Why Drought Is Not Always A Bad Thing

Around the world, our planet is experiencing the effects of El Nino, including drought in many countries. The first thought is always: what will happen to the wildlife in times of drought? And is it always a bad thing? Map Ives shares his thoughts on how this impacts on wildlife in seasonal weather patterns of a green or a dry season.

“I have heard quite a few reports recently that have painted this year in a rather negative light, mostly due to the relatively low rainfall throughout northern Botswana and indeed across southern Africa. There can be no doubt that this season’s rainfall so far is definitely within the bracket of ‘drought,’ which can be perceived as being very tough on wildlife and environments. However, one of the basic tenets of biodiversity is that all species have to be able to adapt to conditions that occur around them, and this is exactly what most, if not all, of the resident animals would have achieved over many thousands of years.

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A lot of people may not have lived here for long enough to have experienced a previous dry spell, but there is enough data for us to know that there is a chance of such dry spells occurring about once every two decades and which can last anywhere between one and three years. I have lived in the northern Botswana region for the last 35 years and have experienced at least two other episodes of dry spells, such as we seem to be heading for, and I have noted some extraordinary movements of wildlife – which actually allows for a pattern of ‘use and recovery’ (if I can use that phrase).

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The Okavango, for example, will still receive floodwaters from upstream in Angola, but the area that is inundated will probably vary considerably over the next few years. (In fact, in the dry spell of 1987/88, the flood that arrived in 1988 was actually quite large due to increased rain in Angola.) The grazing ‘lawns’ that occur around the floodplains of the Okavango and Linyanti systems become incredibly valuable and I have noticed an increase in buffalo, lechwe and other grazers as well as their attendant predators along the edges of the islands and land masses. I expect that there will be a return to the ‘buffalo days’ at Mombo and around Chitabe, as well as at Vumbura and the lower floodplains below Kwetsani. It was during these dry spells that sitatunga were common in the permanent swamp zones around Xigera and in the Jao Reserve.

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This is repeated all along the Linyanti fault where the elephant numbers will actually make for some of the very best elephant viewing on the African continent, whilst it is well known amongst all of us who have spent time there that the Savute Channel attracts large congregations of wildlife. There are some wonderful Cynodon grazing areas along the drying channel flanks which makes for much better game viewing than when the channel is full.

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In summary, the dry spells up here are as important to wildlife as are the so-called wet spells, with the animals utilising the environments in different ways. Many of the adaptations to wet and dry involve moving to different browsing and grazing areas. Much of this information is passed on from female to female, mother to daughter, in what I call “matriarchal memory” so that the young animals know where to go and what to do when the next wet or dry spell comes along, as it surely will.

They have adapted to this, and we should too. All it takes is an understanding of the subtleties of life in a completely natural and dynamic environment.

I am looking forward to a great year, and why not?”

Written by Map Ives, Wilderness Safaris Botswana Environmental Manager – Photographed by Dana Allen and Caroline Culbert

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