The rain, or rather the lack thereof has been the subject of a lot of conversation lately. We have been living in hope the last couple of weeks. Meteorologists have been predicting good rain almost daily for our region and it has been hot and humid enough to warrant this but the rain just never seems to reach us. The rain that did fall has been very patchy locally and it is interesting to note how the game responds to it.
An example would be some good rain we received towards the end of January, 30mm in a short down pour while Welverdiend village next door received not a drop. The game responds by moving into the area where the recent rains have fallen. Then just as that patch dries up another patch somewhere relatively close by would get a bit of rain, the grass would revive and because there is fresh water in little puddles, the game would move again. Almost like a natural rotational grazing system. In this way the animals seem to get by without losing too much condition.
As can be expected, the area to the west of us along the mountains has received a lot more rain. The grass is lush and green the streams all carry clean water and the Marula trees are in full fruit. I can just imagine that if there were no fences, just about all the game would be there at the present moment. I think that is exactly how it worked in the past.
Although the area where the Kruger National Park is today can be very productive and carry large amounts of animals, it is very rainfall dependent. Historically the Park did not have a lot of permanent water holes only seasonal rivers and pans. When good rains fell there would be large amounts of very nutritional sweet grass and water in the pans. Animals would move there in large numbers to take advantage of the bounty, but would soon be forced to move back west when the water dried up.
In dry periods like we are experiencing now, the animals would never have come down but would have lingered around the foothills of the mountains. This would have limited the impact on the vegetation. This is especially true for elephants as elephants are grazers by preference. Green grass has a fairly high protein content, is soft on the molars and easy to digest.
Mid-summer also heralds the height of the Marula harvest. In years of good rainfall in the Lowveld, elephants would be abundant but move out again when the season turned. Today elephants are trapped in protected areas like the Kruger and are thus forced to eat what they can find. Unfortunately that means pushing down and ring barking trees to get to stored nutrients.
Unfortunately for the above-mentioned reasons there is not a lot of game about at the College at the moment. There are of course the ever-present impala and wildebeest herds, occasional small herds of zebras and giraffes and a group of about eight kudu bulls hanging around the College. There has almost been a total lack of elephant in the training area except for the occasional young bull. The reason for this I assume is the lack of fresh green grass and almost no Marula fruit.
Mid-February is supposed to be the best time for elephants. It is the height of the growth season for grass and the Marula trees should be thick with fruit, but that is currently not the case in our area so the elephants are avoiding it. We have also not seen a herd of buffalo on the training area for weeks; only the occasional bachelor bulls around available water close to the Timbavati River. We have been lucky to spot a young male leopard at Mabotlel Pan three times in recent weeks while out with the Sustainable Use and Field Guiding students, but have not had any lion sightings lately.
We have however been extremely lucky to spot a pack of wild dogs around the College on a number of occasions this year. Once they killed an impala right next to fence of the staff houses and we woke up with them just lounging around the front of our house behind the perimeter fence.
And then it happened. The heavens opened late afternoon on the 21st of February. It started raining heavily for about two hours and then continued to rain softly for the remainder of the night, totalling a whopping 81.8mm; the best downpour of rain we’ve had in three years.
The previous best was 50mm over the Easter weekend last year. The transformation in the bush has been remarkable. All the drainage lines show signs of having a bit of a flow, the pans are brimming with water and even Hippo Quarry has received a decent amount of water. Previous brown and yellow patches turned green almost overnight. The grass is trying to make the best of the last period of the growth season and the Marula trees are fruiting well.
Unfortunately the sour plums are still conspicuous in their absence. Last year this time we had a bumper crop but I have only seen two trees in fruit so far this season. The game is also responding by spreading out over the entire area.
I saw the first breeding herd of elephant on our training area a few days after the rains and we had reports of a herd of buffalo moving in from Manyeleti. We even have a new-born wildebeest calf that must have been born soon after the rains, giving new meaning to the term “laat lammetjie”. On a walk with some donors two days after the rains fell, we found the tracks of large hippo bull exploring the area and testing some of the pans to the north of the College. He was obviously looking for a place of peace and quiet after months of being trapped in a small body of water with both irritated cows and calves.
The weather has been cool and cloudy since the rain with the occasional build-up, promising that the rains are not over yet. Whilst the drought continues, if we could receive another good down pour within the next few weeks or so, we will at least be well set for the dry season.