THE Victoria Falls Region is in dire need of rain, as I write. By the end of February last year, we had received 645mm (25”) of rain, with the whole of March still to follow. Our annual average for Victoria Falls is only 600mm (24”), and we ended up well above average with 767mm (31”) for the 2017/18 season. At the end of February 2019, we had only received 253mm (9”) – just 36% of last year’s rains at the same time.
Unless we get substantial rainfall in March 2019, we will be the victims of a very serious drought in an already arid part of Africa. This corner of Zimbabwe joins Chobe National Park in Botswana and the Eastern end of the Caprivi Strip in Namibia to provide a home for an estimated 130 000 elephants, which is one third of Africa’s remaining population. In a normal rainy season, the elephants wait until the rain sets in properly, before moving away from the Zambezi River for a few months.
This gives the riverine vegetation a chance to recover through summer, and the elephant herds can find enough water to drink at seasonal pans and pumped boreholes further inland to keep them going. In a tribute to their widely revered intelligence, many elephants did not leave us – as they typically do – late last year. I believe that they saw the drought coming and chose to stay where they could at least be sure of enough drinking water from the Zambezi.
Rains upstream in the catchment areas of Western Zambia and Central Angola have been poor this season too. According to the Zambezi River Authority website, the volume of water going over the Falls on 25 February this year was 705 cubic meters per second. On the same date last year, the volume was 1,965 cubic meters per second, nearly three times as much. The repercussions further downstream are already apparent. Lake Kariba is only 43% full, and electricity offtake for both Zambia and Zimbabwe (who share the hydro-electric power generated) is being reduced. This has major implications for the copper mines in Zambia, who are huge consumers of electricity. Power cuts for us here in Zambezi National Park are therefore almost certainly due to become more frequent in the months ahead, so it’s a great comfort having our new standby generator in place on the island.
On a quiet day in February I finally managed to count the mature Northern Ilala Palms (Hyphaene Petersiana) growing on Kandahar Island. Double counting is easy to do, but I estimate that we have an astonishing 108 mature palms here on just 4.2 hectares of land. Of those 108 trees, 67 are males and 41 are females. The females are laden with green fruits at this time of year. Once the rains stop at the end of summer, they turn brown and become a much sought-after food source for the elephants. Elephants have poor eyesight compared to their other senses, and I don’t think they can see to the top of the 20-meter-high palms too well. They often head-butt the male trees in the hope of getting fruit to drop. One of the enduring mysteries of these palms is that there are only two sizes in this part of Africa; fully grown adults, and babies just a foot tall. Where are the ones in the middle stages of the growth cycle?
The island opposite us in Zambian waters is called Palm Island on maps, but there is not one Ilala Palm on an island more than twice the size of ours. One possible explanation for this second mystery is that all the palms on Palm Island were tapped to make palm wine by local people, and the process killed them. Perhaps Kandahar Island’s palms were better protected because they are in Zambezi National Park?
Our little group of Banded Mongooses on the island have taken a terrible pounding with a snake killing a litter of babies just a few days old, and several adults presumably met the same fate trying to protect them. We are now left with two adults only, and we hope they will soon grow in numbers as these intensely sociable little animals give us much joy on the island.