Banhine In The Grip Of Drought

Banhine is a national park approximately 700,000ha in extent and situated in central southern Mozambique midway between Pafuri in the west and Vilanculos in the east. Banhine was established in 1973 with the express purpose of conserving the giraffe and ostrich populations found there. Although Banhine is situated midway between Pafuri and the coast, it is an arid environment with an annual rainfall of approximately 430mm. 

Yet despite the arid environment Banhine has a wetland that covers more than one percent of its surface area, as well as over a thousand pans that vary in extent from a few square metres to a few hundred hectares. Not only is there great diversity in the nature of the pans, but also in the chemical composition of the water.

Many of the pans and wells have a high dissolved salt content and are almost as salty as sea water, while others, that may only be separated by short distances, are potable and "sweet". Even within the wetland itself the salinity of water changes according to the replenishment status of the wetland as well as the position in the wetland. Some areas have a higher level of salinity than others.

This diversity in habitat structure is also reflected in the aquatic organisms found in the wetlands and 18 species of fish have been identified including African lungfish (Protopterus annnectans) and two species of killifish (Nothobranchius furzeri and N.orthonotus).

These three fish together with the two species of barbel (Clarias gariepinus and C. ngamensis) have all developed ways to overcome periods of drought. This is in keeping with the arid conditions in the reserve and suggests periods of drought. The wetland in the reserve is dependent on water originating far to the north-west near the boundary with Zimbabwe.

This water flows through numerous channels into the Banhine wetland where an alluvial plug determines the outflow into the Changane River. Thus in the midst of this dry, arid environment one experiences a mini Okavango coupled with the grass plains of the Serengeti.

Currently the wetland is dry after almost three years of well below average rainfall and there is not a drop of surface water in the entire 700,000ha park Associated with the wetland and most probably as a result of periodic inundation there is a well-developed grassland that stretches for kilometres on end with an occasional fever tree or clump of palms.

In years gone by these grasslands supported large herds of zebra, wildebeest, tsessebe and ostriches as well as more scarce antelope such as oribi and reedbuck. Unfortunately all that remains of these populations are a few reedbuck, ostriches and oribi.

The rest were all eradicated during the war as were the giraffes, sable, roan, buffalo and elephant populations, although there is still limited movement of elephants from Gonarezhou and from a small isolated population further east.

Impala, kudu and nyala are still present mostly in the more forested areas in the south. A small resident predator population still exists and includes some of the larger species such as lion, leopard and spotted hyena. Banhine with its wetland, associated grassland as well as tall mopane woodland, sand veld and limited ironwood forests, provides a varied matrix of habitats and ecotones.

Scattered in between all of this, are large baobabs and the ever-present pod mahoganies. The bird life in Banhine is interesting and diverse. In addition to the ostriches, ground hornbills are well represented as well as blackbellied korhaans in the grassland.

Numerous eagles and smaller raptors were seen, with lizard buzzards most probably being the most common raptor at present. The most interesting sighting so far has been two pairs of rednecked falcons on the grassland. The present absence of water has eliminated all the water birds and even the numbers of other passerines are reduced.

Cape parrots are encountered from time to time as are brown headed parrots. The concentrations of birds around wells are phenomenal, with doves forming the largest part of the congregation. To add to this matrix there is a small human population living inside the reserve. These people impact on the reserve by way of their "slash and burn" agricultural practices and crops include maize, sorghum, cassava and sugar cane.

As a result of the drought most of their crops have failed and most have reverted to hunting and fishing (before the water dried up). Needless to say this places added strain on the limited game resources.

In some cases people have moved out of the reserve to larger villages where there is a permanent water source, while the government is encouraging these relocations by developing permanent water sources outside of the reserve and offering incentives to people to move out of the park.

The objective is to remove as many people as possible out of the reserve without reverting to forced removals. Many of the inhabitants have agreed to move especially with the stated intention of the administrators to reintroduce game into the area including elephant and buffalo.

Under the acute drought conditions that presently prevail people and animals alike are reliant on the few sparsely scattered wells. These are mainly into perched water tables and can be anything from two metres below the surface to fifteen metres deep. The water too can vary from perfectly potable and drinkable water to water so salty that it should not be consumed by humans, but there are no alternatives.

In some instances there are women walking over forty kilometres carrying 25 litres of water on their heads on the return trip in temperatures of over 40º C. The shallow wells are shared by animals (there are numerous cattle goats and sheep in the reserve) and become contaminated. In the case of deep wells where the water has to be drawn up, the animals all lie in the surrounding bush waiting for someone to draw water for them.

The water is then poured into hollowed out logs (like dug-out canoes) for the animals. In one instance, being ignorant of the protocol, I opened the branch fence surrounding such a well to take photographs. Immediately there was a rush of hooves and incessant bleating as goats and sheep came from all points of the compass expecting water.

Banhine, together with Zinave and Limpopo National Parks in Mozambique and Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and the KNP and the associated protected areas to the west of the KNP form the backbone of the Transfrontier Conservation Area aimed at linking the Drakensberg Mountains in the west to the Save River Estuary in the east, an area in excess of 95 624km².

In Mozambique a special TFCA unit has been established within the Conservation Directorate to administer this area and special emphasis is at this stage being placed on the development of the Maputo Special Elephant Reserve, Limpopo National Park (which is being co-funded and administered by the Peace Parks Foundation), Banhine National Park (which is being co-funded and administered by the African Wildlife Foundation) and Zinave National Park.

The purpose of the involvement of AWF, in addition to co-funding the project with the World Bank and other donor countries and agencies, is to ensure sustainable development and the transfer of expertise to local personnel and to enhance the tourism potential of the park.

AWF has already developed an international research camp in Banhine consisting of four luxury two-bedded tents and a main "building" which includes a simple kitchen. This camp is available to scientists and institutions studying crucial aspects required to understand the ecosystems of Banhine with the intention of gaining as much insight into the complexities of these systems in order to be able to manage them more effectively.

The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) comprises Kruger National Park (South Africa), Limpopo National Park (Mozambique) and Gonarezhou National Park (Zimbabwe). However, the GLTP is only part of the much larger Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA), which includes more land in both Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Two other large conservation areas to be included in the GLTFCA are Banhine National Park, which lies to the northeast of the Limpopo National Park and to the southeast of Gonarezhou National Park, and Zinave National Park which is further north and east of Banhine. Errol Pietersen was recently appointed by the African Wildlife Foundation as a technical advisor to establish management systems and infrastructure in Banhine National Park.

By Errol Pietersen
In Banhine, Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area

Kruger National Park - South African Safari