Thursday, March 24, 2016


It doesn’t matter what you believe the reasons are for why the climate is changing, the reality is that things are changing.  And changing quickly.  In all sorts of unexpected ways.

In a sense, it is the unpredictability of the changes that has caught us off guard. Throughout the world, weather patterns are weird - places having higher highs or lower lows; areas, normally dry, having floods; areas, normally wet, having droughts.  

For many people arguing about the role humans have played in climate change is the extent to which they get involved.  Their involvement is academic.  Certainly they read about what may happen if the oceans rise a metre or so.  What will happen to Miami or New York City, not to mention many Pacific Ocean islands and island nations that may disappear all together?

They may also notice a rise in some food prices.  But few actually experience what climate change can really mean to a community.

South Africa is experiencing a terrible drought this summer – not all of the country, of course, but much of the food-basket areas in the centre of the country, as well as the area around Cape Town, where severe water restrictions are in place.

I read about the fact that the farmers of the Free State province won’t have any crops this year.  

Non-existent crops in the Free State
Dams are empty or nearly so.
Dead sheep
I see hundreds of plastic bottles of water outside filling stations, all donated, that will be transported to the affected areas.  

There are hundreds of water collection points around the country.

People queuing for water.

Waiting for water.
I see photographs of cracked, arid soil with nothing growing.  I speak to people who normally use local beef to make biltong - the South Africa equivalent of jerky, but who now are importing beef so they can keep their businesses alive.  Many of the local cattle have died.

However, other than paying increased costs if I don’t cut my average water consumption in Cape Town by 20%, I don’t actually experience the effects of the drought firsthand.  I can still get water whenever I want it.

This week, for the first time, I saw for myself the effects of the drought firsthand.

I travelled to Ingwelala, a private game reserve bordering the famed Kruger National Park.  Normally it is rich in game because of its abundant grazing and browsing, as well as its dams, full of water pumped from boreholes.

This year, the dams are still full, but there are few animals because there is no grass to eat.  Having water to drink is nice, but if there is nothing to eat, it’s time to leave and find something better elsewhere.

What is strange is that the bushes and trees seem to have found water deep underground and are in decent shape, but there is no grass whatsoever – just barren sand.

No grass

Nothing for grazers to eat
The most noticeable difference from normal times is the devastation of trees and bushes by elephants desperate for something to eat.  Hungry elephants have toppled hundreds of trees just to get to the few delicious leaves at the top.  The same elephants have uprooted hundreds, if not thousands, of bushes to get to the moisture of the root systems.  

Apparently elephants find some moisture around the roots

Could be a scene after a WWI bombardment

More devastation

Elephants are breaking through electric fences into camp to get to the fresh-water pipes.

Baobabs store water in the trunk.  Elephants often dig into the trunks to get to the moisture.  Rocks placed around the base of the tree are designed to keep the ellies away.

Concrete pyramids to keep ellies away
To make things worse, the elephants are so stressed that they are behaving unpredictably.  An Ingwelala member, casually watching some elephants, was chased for no reason for over 600 metres by an irritable elephant, which needed to blow off some steam.  Fortunately nobody was hurt.  My co-author, earlier in the year was also charged, and friends Aron and Jenny had their car damaged by an irritated ellie - while they were in it!

Elephant charging Aron and Jennie's car - photo by very scared passenger (Roger Taylor)
We normally have a few hippos on the property, but they’ve also left because here is nothing to eat.  A friend who just returned from Kruger told me that the hippos there are in such bad shape that they are foraging during the day (instead of at night).  Many are severely undernourished.  In fact, Kruger is considering culling hippos because of the drought.  Read more about it here.  

Kubu would definitely be short-tempered if he found himself in such a situation.  

Even though it is a very depressing sight to drive around Ingwelala, there are a few bright spots:  the impala and kudu are doing well, probably because they can browse as well as graze; the giraffes are fine because they can reach those succulent leaves high up, and the lions and leopards are in hog heaven (that doesn’t sound right!) because all they have to do is hang around a waterhole and dinner comes to them.
Giraffes are browsers - fortunately for them.
The kudu are in good condition - they browse as well.
The warthogs hogging a small pond.
The point I’m trying to make is that if you want to understand the real effects of climate change, go and stay somewhere where changes are having a dire impact, where lives are at stake, where the future is uncertain.

PS.  After I had finished writing this blog, I came across this video of a game park, Madikwe, in another part of South Africa.  As I said, the weather is weird everywhere.  Click here to watch.


  1. If it were possible, I'd send you our surplus of water. We have plenty. I once read that even if it never rained for 100 years, we'd still have enough water. It's something I am grateful for, this verdant land.

  2. I hope we are more adaptable than I think we are. I fear the worse, however.

  3. Absolutely heartbreaking! I heard a report on the radio that, because of drought, 40% of the population of Zimbabwe is undernourished already. It has to be a BIG thing before on hears news about Zimbabwe in the US.

  4. When the phrase "Just say No," was coined, who would have thought it would be adopted by climate change deniers as their mantra--including lawn-waterers in drought stricken California.