February 28, 1993
The old-timers said it would never happen, the Luangwa River would never dry up. But no one could remember drought like this; the rains of 1991-1992 had almost failed completely. The little river, which usually flows next to our cottages until October was a damp memory by June. In August even the infamous Luangwa, such a wild and reckless river, had been tamed by the drought. Only a trickle continued to seep between large pools that were stagnant and thick with debris. The hippos, pushed and shoved, charged and fought, as they competed for the shrinking water. They usually live in groups of fifteen to sixty, but now as many as three hundred and fifty crowded into pools that were too shallow. They could not submerge completely and their backs glistened in the sun like giant boulders.
The female elephants, Long Ear, Misty, and Marula and their family, usually climb up the cool Muchinga Escarpment in the dry season, but now most of the mountain streams were dry. They were forced to remain in the valley along the Mwaleshi River, which still flowed with a few inches of water. In previous years this had been very dangerous for them because poachers could easily ambush them when they came to drink. But there was something different about 1992. There were no poachers. Something else had changed. There had not been as many wild fires, so that now, even in the dry season, there was plenty of grass to eat.
Drought is hot and hard. But usually it is natural. Elephants can deal with it, and so can hippos. Some may die; they might even stop reproducing. But they come back with the rain. And the rain does come back as it did in November.
It started with big fat drops, one over here, one over there. Then the sky disappeared as rain filled the valley. The Luangwa is at the bottom of a three thousand foot escarpment and all the fat drops were headed its way. In a few days it swelled and gushed and washed its way between rugged banks and hippo backs. The dry dusty plains became green in a few weeks. Long Ear and fifteen hundred other elephants slogged over the wet ground to eat on the succulent new grasses.
We had expected a massive hippo die off, but that did not happen. Only a few individuals succumbed, and as far as we can tell no elephants died from the drought. The rains have returned and for the first time in years there is very little poaching in North Luangwa. The elephant population has been reduced from 12,000 to 1300 by poaching. But now everything is ripe for an elephant recovery.
His suitcase stuffed with elephant radio tracking collars, Mark returned to camp after our Fall lecture tour. One of the first things he did was fly an elephant survey over the plains where the herds gathered. He found that almost every family unit of females has at least one new calf. Long Ear and her family bathe in the Mwaleshi in full day light, something they never did when the poachers controlled the valley. So far in 1993 there has not been one poached elephant and no meat racks.
Our plan for this year is to radio collar a few of the elephants so that we can study their recovery. We are not going to do this, however, until we feel that we can do so without stressing them. They've been through a lot, we do not want to add to their trauma.
We will continue the Conservation Education Program and are thrilled with all the new American Sister Schools sharing the message of caring and conservation with their Zambian friends. Our Community Service Program continues to give jobs to ex-poachers. Our latest project is helping villagers grow sunflowers from seeds. When their first crop comes in, they can use our new oil presses to obtain much needed cooking oil. The Zambian government has asked us to design the tourism and management plan for North Luangwa, so we must do that as well. It is going to be a busy, but happy year.
We saw many of you last fall, and we would like to thank you again for the wonderful welcome and kindness you showed us wherever we went. It is because of all of us that the poachers and grass fires no longer rage through North Luangwa. It is because of you that Long Ear, Misty, and Marula can drink in the river. Oh, and Survivor is fine. He doesn't come by camp this time of year because the marula fruits are not ripe. Besides, I think he probably has other things on his mind with so many young receptive females in the valley!
I (Delia) have been at the University of California, Davis for a few weeks conducting library research and writing a few scientific papers. But I will return to Luangwa soon. Mark's last message was that he misses me so much that he is beginning to howl at the moon!