JACK ZIMBA, Itezhi Tezhi
WHEN we arrived at the scene, we were greeted by the smell of rotting hides and bones scattered on the river bank and in the shallow water.
“This is where it happened,” Elliot Kasempa announced once our vehicles had come to a stop. He is the warden in charge of an area covering about 30,000sq/km in the Kafue National Park.
On November 16, a herd of buffalo was crossing at the confluence of the Musa and Luang’andu rivers when a suspected stampede caused the death of 105 heads.
According to Mr Kasempa, the dead buffaloes were discovered a day later by some fishermen, who reported the incident to his office.
When the warden and his team reached the scene, they counted 105 carcasses, most of them already bloated. The dead buffaloes provided a meal for the resident crocodiles as well as the vultures and hyenas.
The steep shoreline of the Musa River creates a death trap for the buffaloes moving in a large herd. And usually, it is the weak and young that fall victim.
According to Mr Kasempa, over 90 percent of the dead animals were juveniles.
“Drowning or ‘suspected stampede’ of the buffaloes has become a recurrent problem in the Kafue National Park. This has raised management concerns as the incidence that leads to loss of numbers of buffalo happens at the same location and at around the same period of the year and yet, the cause remains unknown,” he says.
In 2012, 80 buffaloes died and in 2014, 52 died, while 53 died in 2016.
All four incidents have happened at the same spot.
“We highly suspect that the location where the buffaloes died from is a corridor for this species,” Mr Kasempa says. “This suspicion comes amidst observations that drowning and stampede of buffalo happens around this same place all the time. Therefore, we highly suspect that the buffaloes follow this route perpetually in the third and fourth quota every year.”
When the incident happened in 2014, many villagers from the fishing islands, as well as residents of Itezhi Tezhi had a feast of buffalo meat. But this time, only the crocodiles, hyenas and scavenging birds had a feast.
As to what might have caused the herd to panic and stampede remains speculative.
“We suspect the leading buffaloes struggled to get on shore causing panic to the rest that were still on the water. This panic was prolonged leading to stampede and drowning of a number of buffaloes,” says Mr Kasempa.
The warden says panic of animals when under strange circumstances is a normal behaviour but may lead to stampede when groups of animals in question are big. He also suspects some juvenile animals may have failed to climb the three-metre embankment and fell back into the water and drowned. He also thinks some animals could have been weak coming from a dry season.
But could such incidents be prevented?
Mr Kasempa believes the mass death of buffaloes is a natural occurrence, nature taking care of itself.
But he is still worried about the mass death of animals in a single incident.
“Mortality of buffaloes through drowning has persisted in Kafue National Park. If this remains unchecked, loss of this important animal species will continue to the detriment of the socio-economic and ecological balance of the park ecosystem,” he says.
Buffalo is considered an ecologically critical species in the Kafue ecosystem together with the elephant, puku and the red lechwe.
Although some people have suggested fencing off the death spot, Mr Kasempa is against any human intervention.
“We don’t need any human intervention,” he says. ‘Personally, I’m against fencing because that will interfere with nature.”
Instead, he proposes mounting of trail cameras at strategic places to monitor the animals.
“We propose a monitoring programme that will include the usage of trail cameras to monitor animal activity. This will provide management with empirical information as opposed to the assumptions being depended upon currently,” says Mr Kasempa.
Mr Kasempa and his team, which includes a veterinarian, also plan to physically track the herd to check if there is any injured animal that may require treatment.
Senior ecologist Clive Chifunthe thinks the huge number of juveniles that died at the river crossing may be indicative of an increase in population of buffalo in the park.
The ecologist says the last count revealed that the park had about 8,000 buffaloes.
As to what happened on the river crossing, Mr Chifunthe considers it a mystery that needs research to understand.
“It is difficult to understand what happens there,” the young ecologist says.
He wants to do research to understand the movement of the buffaloes.
Mr Chifunthe wants to work with ecologists from other parks where mass migration of animals happens, such as Liuwa National Park in Western Province where herds of wildebeest migrate. It is the second largest migration of ungulates on the continent.
Without doubt, the biggest and most famous migration of hoofed mammals happens in the Serengeti in Tanzania involving about two million wildebeest.