(HARARE, Zimbabwe) — A helicopter herds thousands of impalas into an enclosure. The crane releases the elephants, which are lying upside down and in a trailer. Numerous rangers force other animals into metal enclosures, and then a group of trucks sets off on a trip of approximately 700 km (435 miles), to deliver the animals to their new homes.
Zimbabwe has begun moving more than 2,500 wild animals from a southern reserve to one in the country’s north to rescue 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 being moved from Zimbabwe’s Save Valley Conservancy to three conservancies in the north — Sapi, Matusadonha and Chizarira — in one of southern Africa’s biggest live animal capture and translocation exercises.
“Project Rewild Zambezi,” as the operation is called, is moving the animals to an area in the Zambezi River valley to rebuild the wildlife populations there.
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It’s 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 white-minority-ruled Rhodesia, more than 5,000 animals were moved in what was called “Operation Noah.” That operation rescued wildlife from the rising water caused by the construction of a massive hydro-electric dam on the Zambezi River that created one of the world’s largest man-made lakes, Lake Kariba.
This time it’s the lack of water that has made it necessary to move wildlife as their habitat has become parched by prolonged drought, said Tinashe Farawo, spokesman for the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
The parks agency issued permits to allow the animals to be moved to avert “a disaster from happening,” said Farawo.
“We are doing this to relieve pressure. For years we have fought poaching and just as we are winning that war, climate change has emerged as the biggest 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, they become a danger unto themselves and they encroach neighboring human settlements for food resulting in incessant conflict,” he said.
A solution would be to cull wildlife in order to lower its numbers, although conservation groups say such cruel killings are unacceptable. Farawo said that Zimbabwe’s last culling was in 1987.
Zimbabwe is not the only country where climate change has an impact on wildlife. Below-average rainfall, new infrastructure, and the loss of wildlife species like lions and elephants in national parks across Africa are making it more difficult for them to protect their habitats. According to experts and authorities, droughts have seriously endangered species like rhinos, elephants, giraffes or antelopes because they reduce the food supply.
For example, a recent study conducted in South Africa’s Kruger National Park 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 dry spells and hotter temperatures.
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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’s Center for Environmental Forensic Science and Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, according to the website.
Sapi Reserve, which is one of several new home for Zimbabwean animals that have been relocated to Zimbabwe from their previous homes, has become a permanent residence. The privately owned 280,000-acre concession lies east of Mana Pools National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its stunning setting on the Zambezi River, which forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Sapi “is the perfect solution for many reasons,” Great Plains chief executive officer Dereck Joubert said on the foundation’s website.
“This reserve forms the middle-Zambezi biosphere, totaling 1.6 million acres,” wrote Joubert. “From the 1950s until we took it over in 2017, decades of hunting had decimated wildlife populations in Sapi Reserve. We are rewilding and restoring the wild back to what it once was.”
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