The rescuers of #CycloneIdai: after the people, the animals

While the initial focus after Cyclone Idai was on retrieving trapped and injured humans and then the bodies of those who'd died, there are animals in need of rescue too.

Cyclone survivors leave the Ngangu township with their belongings to Chimanimani Hotel where hundreds are sheltered on 18 March 2019 in Ngangu township Chimanimani, Manicaland Province, eastern Zimbabwe, after the area was hit by the cyclone Idai. Picture: AFP

Villagers have been burning the carcasses. Cattle, chickens. Some dogs.

After more than 100 people died when Cyclone Idai sent a landslide crashing into a township built on the side of a hill in Zimbabwe's Chimanimani, there were other casualties.

And while the focus was first on retrieving trapped and injured humans and then, sadly, the bodies of those who'd lost their lives, there are animals in need of rescue too.

A small team of inspectors from the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA) has just travelled to Chimanimani.

“The team was shocked. The village used to be thriving with domestic animals and livestock. Now there are fewer than before - mainly chickens, goats and cows. A lot of the animals were displaced in the disaster and are slowly making their way back from higher ground,” said ZNSPCA administration manager Amanda Naude.

“There have been a few domestic animals but apparently, so many are gone - it’s frightening.”

DISAPPEARED IN THE STORM

Many human survivors have been traumatised by the destruction of their township and are starting to move away, and the ZNSPCA is working hard to encourage people to take their animals with them, or to give them up so that they can be re-homed.

Abandonment is a major concern.

“Whatever sustains them as families - they’re going to try and move that. But when it comes to domestic animals - obviously those are the ones that are going to suffer,” said Naude.

Another priority is feeding the animals. Families in affected areas have barely enough food to feed themselves, let alone their animals. And when, in the wake of the storm, stores reopened – they were either quickly emptied or had had much of their stock destroyed.

Aid groups have provided a lot of food and medicine for survivors – both human and animal. Local feed stock companies have been generous in their donations.

The ZNSPCA will be helping to rebuild animal housing – such as chicken coops and goat kraals, as well as vaccinating animals against parasitic diseases that emerge weeks after a disaster like Cyclone Idai.

But residents say that in some of the worst-hit areas, like Chimanimani’s Ngangu township and in the nearby Rusitu Valley, dogs and cats simply disappeared in the storm.

“It’s the same story everywhere. People cannot find their dogs and cats. There are just a few around,” one resident, who asked not to be named, told Eyewitness News.

“There is still the hope that they will come home.”

The resident, who has spent much of the last 24 years befriending and caring for the town’s animals, painted a heart-rending picture.

“There just aren't the words.”

One cyclone survivor, whose own home escaped the landslide, lost four relatives.

“Every day, he and his dog were digging in the rubble together for the bodies,” she said.

“It’s so scary walking through these areas, seeing the mud; seeing the stones, the rocks that have crushed homes and houses and knowing, smelling that there are things underneath there. You don’t know if they are human or animal. But you know there is something that has been trapped and died. It is just awful. There just aren’t the words.”

But she also tells of the tiny signs of hope that the town’s way of life, including for its animals, will be restored. At least two of the town’s dogs have just given birth to litters of pups, including one who gave birth while hiding out during the cyclone.

“We’ve since found her, safe with her puppies and we’re feeding her.”