Heat stress, water scarcity threatening Zimbabwe elephants

Recent report shows high mortality rates of elephants peaking 10.47 per cent
Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

The elephant population appears to be stable in Southern Africa, according to a new study unveiling a high mortality rate due to heat stress and drought is affecting the populations across national parks and impacting conservation efforts.

The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) recently released its survey on elephant population covering Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola, sharing common international borders along the Zambezi and Okavango river basins. The five countries together hold half of the world’s Savanna elephants.

The estimates carried over a two-month-long survey were calculated to be 2,27,900 indicating a stable population. Except Zambia, other countries have seen an increase in populations.

Elephant population estimates


2022: 227,900

2014-15: 216,970


KAZA survey

















The aerial survey covering over 67,000 kilometres was the first of its kind to collectively carry out a joint survey including five countries.

It also took cues from aerial survey standards and strict quality assurance metrics that consisted flight transect adherence, balanced observations between left and rear seat observers, speed and heights as prescribed by Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Nyambe Nyambe, Executive Director of the KAZA Secretariat, said in a press statement, “This rich dataset now gives us the opportunity to understand the health of our ecosystems and implement best practices for wildlife management and human-wildlife coexistence.” 

The aerial survey provided accurate estimates of live elephant population and elephant carcasses, along with other large herbivores regions. 

The carcasses, however, worried the observers. The overall carcass ratio was noted to be 10.47 per cent, which indicates heightened mortality rates. 

Multiple factors are possibly contributing to the high mortality rates, the statement added. Darren Potgieter, KAZA Elephant Survey coordinator stated, “Factors such as ageing populations, improved sampling methodologies, environmental conditions, and poaching could all be at play here.” 

However, heat stress due to climate change and forced migration in search of water seem to be the major reasons costing elephants their lives. 

Speaking with media, Tinashe Farawo, spokesman for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks), said elephants are unaware of boundaries and seen moving for water and food. The spokesperson said the management has mitigation plans, but severe crises such as ‘no rainfall’ are beyond their capacity.

“We are now relying more on artificial water from boreholes. It is an expensive process,” Farawo was quoted by British daily The Guardian. Apart from elephants, he said buffaloes and other large animals from Hwange National Park were observed to be leaving in masses.

Zimbabwe is estimated to be home to 100,000 elephants and Hwange alone is estimated to have half of them. It is difficult to ascertain the number of animals that may have migrated in search of food and water, Farawo said. 

The carcass rate is worrisomely huge and as highlighted, it will be investigated, he told Down To Earth. “This is only the first such survey, so it will only take experts to examine the bones to tell for how long each animal has been dead, this way we can come to a conclusion on how long it took for those carcasses to be there.”

The survey took place in 68 days between August and October 2022 and it is difficult to link it with climate change, he added. “Water crisis is affecting only a portion of the Zimbabwean side of the KAZA. No elephant deaths have been recorded so far this year,” he further said.

The growing population of elephants is also adding pressure on biodiversity, including competition for water and food. The local media reported 60 citizens have died in elephant attacks, while 50 others were injured until September alone. 

The issue is likely to aggravate as dry season will begin and cause herds to move more in search of water and food, Farawo said.

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