Etosha fires fanned by exceptional conditions

The more than 130 big game that perished in the devastating fires at the Etosha National Park is a national loss, according to the Minister of Environment and Tourism Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah.

It is estimated that the animals have a monetary value of N$18,6 million and approximately 30 000 hectares of vegetation was destroyed during the fires. A total of 25 black rhino were killed, as well as 5 white rhino, 11 elephants, 60 giraffes, 30 kudu and three lions. It is also possible that many other smaller-sized species may have perished in the fires.

This is the biggest loss of wildlife due to fire which the Park has ever experienced. However, during the 2006/2007 season about 24 different fires occurred in Etosha, with nearly one million hectares destroyed. This was probably the largest fire in the park’s recorded history.

Immediate mitigation and prevention measures will be implemented by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to deal with fires of this nature in the future. “Measures are needed to manage and deal with such fires to prevent or minimise the loss of high-value species such as elephant, rhino and lions,” she said. But allegations have been circulating that proper control measures were not implemented during the fires and that resulted in the high mortality as the animals were trapped between the wild fire and a counterfire.

The Minister first of all pointed out that fire-breaks in the Etosha National park were cleared in preparation for any fires. She furthermore explained that when the fire started it was accompanied by heavy thick smoke of approximately 2km deep and winds reaching up to more than 50 knots. This heavy smoke apparently caused confusion and panic amongst the animals and drove them into the fire.

According to Nandi-Ndaitwah, the animal mortalities were particularly severe as animals were trapped in the fire and could not escape. “Oxygen became limited and it was difficult for the animals to breathe.” The loss of the endangered black rhino not only sets the rhino population in Etosha back a number of years, but it will also affect the Custodian Programme and impact on the social structure of the behaviour of black rhino in the Park.

Destroyed The fire started on Farm Success located south of the Etosha National Park and it spread through several farms namely Streben, Lyn Plaas, Mara and Vrede before it entered Etosha on 22 September. The cause of the fire is suspected to be charcoal production on Farm Success. According to Nandi-Ndaitwah, the fire in Etosha was extremely difficult to fight due to the heavy fuel load (dry grass) and strong winds. Despite joint efforts by MET staff and staff from the Ministry of Defence, the fire burnt for four days before it was finally put out on 25 September.

Approximately 300 000 hectares of vegetation was destroyed by several fires and covers an area from the south and east of Halali Camp up to the Kalkheuwel waterhole.

“The Government is concerned and this has been an unfortunate incident which occurred, but steps will be implemented to prevent future incidents,” promised the Minister. The Ministry will immediately implement adaptive and mitigating procedures.

According to Nandi-Ndaitwah, a controlled burning programme will be implemented to reduce the grass biomass before the onset of the dry season. This will ensure that a patch-work of burnt and non-burnt areas exist in the park prior to the onset of the dry season which will minimise the detrimental effects of fires over large areas of the park.

She further noted that the capacity of field staff will be strengthened and improve to deal with large fires over big areas.

Ellanie Smit - Windhoek
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