KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa — At South Africa’s biggest national park, wildlife officials are warning of difficult weeks ahead: unless significant rains come, animals will start dying.
This is the harsh reality of life in a country suffering its worst drought in decades. Cattle are already dying, and crops have been destroyed. Many South Africans are dealing with drinking water shortages, and volunteers have been delivering emergency water supplies to communities in dire need.
William Mabasa, spokesman for the Kruger National Park, says that visitors to the park may be upset to see wildlife suffering, but drought is a natural cycle like fire and floods.
“Those with strong genes will survive,” he said.
Hippos will be among the first animals affected. They typically stay cool in rivers and water pools during the heat of the day, going to graze at night — but are now spending more time grazing during daytime as they struggle find enough food.
Kruger is a vast park in South Africa’s northeast, bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Animals here rely largely on rivers, though water holes are supplied by park management in some places.
Park officials say they are working with communities and farms outside Kruger’s boundaries to manage water usage in the five major rivers that flow through the park.
But rangers say they won’t be making any major changes to save plants and animals from the drought, seeing it as a natural process.
According to Mabasa, in the 1990s a drought reduced the park’s population of Cape buffalos by more than half, to around 14,000. The number of buffalos has since recovered and now stands at more than 40,000.
While hippos along with buffalo will suffer, larger predators including lions and leopards are expected to benefit from the drought, by giving them an advantage on weaker prey.
According to the South African Weather Service, 2015 was the country’s driest year since 1904 when record-keeping began.
The drought, during what is normally the summer rainy season in most of South Africa, has been exacerbated by a strong El Niño. The weather phenomenon brings drier conditions to southern Africa.