Namibia — THE three separate fires that raged through the Etosha National Park killed roughly 30 rhinos, 50 giraffes, seven elephants, at least two lions and destroyed close to 370 000 hectares of vegetation.
Wildlife officials caution that the death toll could be higher but it will take time to account for exact numbers in a park that encompasses 2,2 million hectares. Environment Permanent Secretary Dr Kalumbi Shangula declined to comment on the estimated number of animal deaths and would only say that it will take time to get a clear picture. The first, largest and most destructive of the veld fires broke through the southern border of the park on September 22.
A park official said that despite the parks extensive preparation ahead of the fire season, the inferno was fuelled by strong winds. He said by the time the alarm bells went off the fire had already pushed up into four blocks.
It started off so huge and with the winds blowing there was nothing we could do. This was not the first fire in Etosha this year. According to Shayne Kötting, park warden at Okaukuejo, the park took extra steps this year to prepare for the fire season traditionally from October to November because we predicted we would have massive fires because of the rain we had. He said the park staff had successfully controlled a number of smaller fires during the past two months and were ready for the fire season.
However, the huge wall of fire fed by strong winds that rushed across the border into the park on September 22 made it impossible to manage and control despite extensive preparations taken by the park. He dismissed allegations that fire breaks were not properly serviced and maintained. He said the park had taken the threat of fires seriously and carefully maintained and even widened fire breaks, especially in areas most vulnerable to possible bush fires. My staff have been on standby for two months already. Everyone is ready, so that we can go at a drop of a hat, he said. After the Halali fire was put out four days after it broke out on September 25, a lightning strike led to a second fire breaking out close to the Charachas water hole in the Okaukuejo area on the night of September 26.
This fire was brought under control relatively quickly in two days, leaving behind 73 000 hectares of charred landscape. The next fire, which swept across 11 000 hectares, broke out from another lightning strike on 30 September at Gemsbokvlakte. It was this fire in which a lioness sustained such serious burns that she had to be put down last week. It is alleged that the Halali fire was started by charcoal burners on a farm south of Etosha.
It is claimed that the national park is plagued each year with fires started by charcoal burners who dont protect and dont do their job properly, a source said recently. Environment Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah visited the park a week ago, during which she was part of land and aerial surveys to witness the extent of the damage to Namibias biggest national park. The exact number of rhinos living in Etosha is kept secret for security reasons, and the Ministry could not yet say this week how many white or black rhinos died in the fires. It is estimated that Etosha is home to the largest population of black rhinos in the world.