A helicopter guides thousands of impalas to a fence. A crane lifts the sedated elephants, upside down, to the trailers. Ranger crews put other animals in metal cages and a convoy of trucks begins a journey of nearly 435 miles (700 kilometers) to their new home.
Zimbabwe has begun moving more than 2,500 animals from a reserve in the south of the country to one in the north, to save them from drought, as the ravages caused by climate change replace poaching as the main threat to wildlife.
Around 400 elephants, 2,000 impalas, 70 giraffes, 50 buffaloes, 50 wildebeests, 50 zebras, 50 elands, 10 lions and a pack of 10 African wild dogs are some of the animals being taken from the Save Valley reserve to three others in the north — Sapi, Matusadonha and Chizarira — in one of the largest live animal capture and transfer operations carried out in southern Africa.
The “Rehabilitate the Zambezi Project,” as the operation is called, leaves the animals in an area of the Zambezi River Valley where populations will be rebuilt.
It is the first time in 60 years that Zimbabwe has embarked on an internal transfer of wild species of that magnitude. Between 1958 and 1964, when the country was Rhodesia and ruled by a white minority, more than 5,000 animals were moved in the so-called “Operation Noah.” On that occasion they were rescued from the flood caused by the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam in the Zambezi, which gave rise to one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, Lake Kariba.
On this occasion, it is the lack of water that forced the animals that inhabited an area hit by the prolonged drought to be moved, said Tinashe Farawo, spokesman for the country’s National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
The agency issued permits to allow the moves in order to prevent “a disaster from occurring,” Farawo said.
“What we’re doing is relieving the pressure. For years, we’ve fought poaching, and just as we were winning that war, climate change has become the biggest threat to our wildlife,” Farawo told The Associated Press.
“Many of our parks are becoming overcrowded and there is little water or food. The animals end up destroying their own habitat, become a danger to themselves and invade nearby human settlements in search of food, resulting in incessant conflict.”
One option would have been to reduce the wild population, but environmental groups allege that such killings are cruel. The last time Zimbabwe did such an operation was in 1987, Farawo said.
The effects of climate change on wildlife are not unique to Zimbabwe. Across Africa, national parks that are home to countless species such as lions, elephants and buffaloes are increasingly threatened by poor rainfall and new infrastructure projects. Both authorities and experts say the drought has severely threatened species such as rhinos, giraffes and antelopes by reducing the amount of food available.