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updated 11/23/2011 1:28:00 PM ET 2011-11-23T18:28:00

Scores of elephants have died in a three-month heat wave that has dried up watering holes in western Zimbabwe, wildlife authorities said Wednesday.

Rangers in the Hwange National Park have counted 18 calves and 21 adolescent elephants among the dead animals, the state Parks and Wildlife Authority said in statement. Elephant carcasses were found mainly in large areas of bush surrounding three tourism and conservation camps in Zimbabwe's biggest nature preserve.

Since September, Hwange National Park has seen temperatures soar to above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 C), far higher than annual averages.

"Our information is that animals are dying of thirst right across the park," said Johnny Rodrigues, head of the independent Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.

The Hwange National Park has no year-round rivers and little natural surface water, making it dependent on wells supplying artificial watering holes known as pans. An adult elephant needs nearly 50 gallons (200 liters) of water a day. But some watering holes have broken down because of scarce funding, the state wildlife authority said.

Rodrigues said voluntary animal welfare groups helped provide pumping equipment for some of the 60 watering holes in the preserve. Many now need replacement pumps and the underfunded state authority has failed to keep them maintained or buy spare parts and gasoline.

He said private conservation groups also installed solar pumps and windmills to draw water from the wells.

"There's very little wind at this time of year and the solar pumps can't provide the amount of water required by the number of animals reaching them" and overwhelming the pans, he said.

Park officials said more than 77 elephants have died. Some media reports said an estimated 100 elephants have died in the park.

An estimated 30,000 elephants live in the massive preserve, along with giraffes, lions and most other game animals.

Independent conservationists say the death toll of elephants, buffalo, zebra and antelope species could be larger in many inaccessible areas of the park. The reserve is 9,000 square miles (14,000 square kilometer) and adjacent to the western border with neighboring Botswana.

The state authority's statement said officials estimated that the death of the 77 elephants represents a loss of $1.5 million in "compensation value," the term used for animals lost to poaching or unforeseen deaths.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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