'Serengeti-by-the-Sea': shrinking Zim lake a grassy gift for buffalo
Falling water levels in Zimbabwe's Lake Kariba has meant drastically cut electricity supplies for the struggling southern African nation. But for wildlife on the dam's now exposed shores, things could hardly be better.
Game like buffalo, zebra and elephants are thriving on previously underwater rich grasses in Matusadona, a 137,000-hectare national park on the shores of Lake Kariba, northern Zimbabwe.
“A lower lake is more advantageous for wildlife,” says Mark Brightman, conservation manager with the Bumi Hills Anti Poaching Unit, which operates on a section of Kariba’s southern shoreline.
The level of the lake, which was Africa's biggest man-made dam when completed in 1959, has dropped to its lowest in years due to drought in the region that has reduced the flow in the Zambezi River, which feeds Kariba.
The result? Drastically reduced power generation at the Kariba hydro-power station, triggering household outages of up to 18 hours a day in Zimbabwe.
Good news only for the game
"As the lake subsides, it exposes large areas of Torpedo grass (Panicum repens), a very palatable species, much sought after by grazers,” Brightman told RFI.
“This grass became established in 1967 in rich profusion, and has proved to be a huge boon to the grazing herbivores of Kariba."
At one time, he said, Matusadona sustained herds of up to 2,000 buffalo, and the second highest density of lions after Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Brightman said if the lake levels remain low for the next few years, and poaching is kept under control, this could see a dramatic increase in game numbers.
This is the height of Zimbabwe’s dry season. Deeper inside the park, towards the Zambezi Valley escarpment, grazing and browse for animals is in short supply.
But along the shoreline the dropping lake levels have exposed the fresh green Torpedo grass.
The scenes caught the eye of Zimbabwe wildlife photographer and filmmaker, Neil Fairlie, while shooting a promotional video for one of the safari camps in Matusadona. He said he was struck by the vast swathes of open plains that have emerged along the shoreline. It was this vista that prompted him to come up with the phrase, “Serengeti-by-the-Sea.”
“Your typical Serengeti shot is one that shows an abundance of animal species accumulating on endless flat grassy plains. You can achieve the same look and perspective in Matusadona, the only difference here being the stark contrast as the grassy plains disappear and are replaced with endless deep blue water,” he told RFI.
“The new growth has attracted many of the animal species including elephant and buffalo,” he added.
The rise and fall of the lake is not something new
Brightman, who has worked in the area on and off since 1981, says he’s seen the lake drop lower than this. One such time was in 1995, another drought year.
“When the lake is high, these populations crash, with a resulting reduction of predators which feed upon them. If the lake continues to experience low levels for the next decade, which may happen, then populations will rise once more. The whole process is cyclic.”
The phenomenon does have some disadvantages for wildlife. With large numbers of animals congregating in one place, it makes it easier for poachers to find them. Brightman says poaching has had a very negative effect on animal numbers in Matusadona. But, he notes, having all the animals in one place “makes it easier for us to patrol – concentrating in these areas, knowing that that is where poachers will also be found.”