I will never forget the first night that I spent at Londolozi. Myself and the newest group of Londolozi rangers were lucky enough to spend our very first night under the stars, on the banks of the Sand River. As much as I wanted to stay awake to take in the beauty of the Milky Way and constellations moving across the sky, the sound of the fire crackling nearby and the therapeutic noise of the Sand River flowing a few days after being in flood was enough to induce one of the best nights of sleep I have ever had!
So why am I telling you about this? After driving along the Sand River on a game drive a few days ago I started to wonder whether the Sand River would again flood this coming summer. The water level of the Sand River and its potential to flood directly correlates to the amount of rainfall to the west of us up into the Drakensberg mountains. Since that first night under the stars, we have experienced above-average rainfall on the reserve, and around the country too. The predictions, however, for this coming summer, and potentially the next few years are that rainfall will be below average. Potentially significantly below and this is due to the phenomenon of El Nino and La Nina. Last year Chris Taylor wrote a blog on the phenomenon of El Nino and its counterpart La Nina, I thought it relevant to remind you as the reader (and me…) about these climatic phenomenons in light of El Nino being on the horizon.
Without getting into a detailed scientific explanation, I’ll touch on the cause of El Nino and La Nina and the effects they have on the South African (and therefore Londolozi’s) weather. Both El Niño and La Niña are two phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, which is a climate pattern that originates in the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño is characterized by the warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific, which leads to drought conditions in Southern Africa and increased rainfall and flooding in the eastern stretches of the Americas. La Niña, on the other hand, is the opposite phase. It is marked by cooler sea surface temperatures in the same tropical Pacific region. It typically brings about increased rainfall and cooler conditions in Southern Africa and dry weather phases in the western Pacific and the Americas.
These events typically last about a year, but can sometimes continue for longer. They occur every two to seven years, on average, but not on a regular schedule. For the last three years, we have experienced a La Nina cycle and have therefore enjoyed above-average rainfall. Climatologists however expect that we are entering the cycle of El Nino, bringing with it warm, dry conditions.
Below is an incredible video documenting the transformation of the bushveld as it recovered from the last drought here where we had experienced an intense El Nino.
So what does this mean for the animals? The large herbivores that are heavily dependent on water are the first to feel the effects of drought. Less rainfall results in the river and water holes drying up causing more competition for space amongst hippos and limited drinking water for Elephants, buffalos and the like. Predators on the other hand tend to thrive. Weak prey becomes easy targets and the blood they consume at these kills is a form of hydration itself.
So although we have had an incredibly healthy amount of rain over the last little while, this could be changing going forward and things may begin to dry out a little more. But with everything out here, nature will take its course and with the harsher times, the weaker animals and the weaker genes are eliminated and the stronger animals and genes survive and thrive. Rain is a blessing and as quickly as it can bring life, so too can it take it away. Time will tell whether a period of drought is in fact going to strike and if so, just how dry it will be.