HARARE, Zimbabwe — Starvation Island in northern Zimbabwe is living up to its name for the first time in 50 years as rising lake waters have submerged grazing land for hundreds of animals, conservationists say.
Rescuers are holding exhausted impalas by their horns just to keep their heads above water after the hungry, exhausted animals desperately tried to escape the flooded island.
Starvation Island was once a staging post for rescued animals, named after many perished from hunger there during the building of the massive Kariba hydroelectric dam.
Now Starvation Island has shrunk to about one-third of its original size after record seasonal rains from central Africa drained into the Kariba lake.
The 2-square-mile island has become four dots of land in the lake, stranding hundreds of animals without enough to eat. At least 200 animals are in immediate danger of starvation.
"There is zero grazing and animals are starting to die," wildlife guide Richard said.
Eight impalas, a common medium-size antelope, were stuck on the smallest dot surrounded by encroaching water, Vickery said. Two impalas managed to swim to larger rocks nearby as their tiny refuge shrank. But on Tuesday, more than 20 animals plunged into the water and seven of them drowned, Vickery said.
Some of the exhausted survivors swam to safety and others were assisted by a boat of rescuers holding them by the horns to keep their heads above water for the last stretch of their escape.
Elephants and some other animals have routinely swum to and from the island, but smaller species of antelope, kudu, buck, warthogs and monkeys either won't dare swim more than a few feet or are too weak reach the main lake shore about 2 miles away.
Funds are being raised by conservationists, including the SAVE Foundation of Australia, to take hay bales and food blocks to the animals who remain on the island.
"We would rather try to feed them than dart and capture them and bring them out because they are weak and have not been exposed to predators except for crocodiles," Vickery said.
The largest remaining island dot has the highest number of animals but the worst grazing conditions on sandy soil. A breeding herd of waterbuck and a troop of baboons are crammed onto a second island.
Vickery said high water levels also drove buffalo herds and other species from their usual grazing below the cliff atop Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, one of Zimbabwe top wildlife facilities.
"The mainland is under pressure for grazing and overpopulation," Vickery said.
The Kariba dam was completed in 1960 and stretches about 190 miles along Zimbabwe's northern border with Zambia. During the dam construction on the Zambezi River, tens of thousands of animals were herded inland from the vast valley as it filled. Others were captured and relocated from high ground and outcrops like Starvation Island. That program was known as Operation Noah.