ZimParks needs more resources to manage elephant population
Isdore Guvamombe-Assistant Editor
We are driving from Main Camp to Nyamandlovhu Aquifer on an ordinary September afternoon and Hwange National Park is tinder dry, as usual.
After, day after day of cloudless skies, the fierce sun has sucked moisture from the landscape, baking the earth into a dusty grey cake, leaving the grass withered and as brittle as straw.
Under this blistering heat, a breeding herd of elephants blocks our way and a cow nudges its calf under a huge baobab tree on the roadside. An irritated bull tells off a playful and wandering calf in a no-nonsense mood, with a shriek but firm voice. Incredible!
The elephants tolerate our presence for a few moments but as soon as their snorkelling trunks sniff us they retreat in polite disgust. At about 20 to 30 elephants, this is one of the smallest herds of Hwange, for, here it is common to come across more than a hundred elephants in a herd. This is called a “Super Herd”
Hwange National Park — Africa’s third largest wildlife sanctuary after Kenya’s Serengeti and South Africa’s Kruger national parks —is firewood dry, despite having one of the largest elephant populations in Africa, south of the Sahara.
But there is the other side of Hwange National Park that many people don’t know.
Covering roughly 14 650 square kilometres, Hwange is the pride of Zimbabwe but has almost treble the elephant population required for sustainable environment management.
Hwange National Parks shares the border with Botswana to the West and elephants criss cross the borders of the two countries since the history of mankind. Over the years elephants cross more to he Zimbabwe sides off the desert of Botswana because Zimbabwe has been pumping water from boreholes in Hwange.
Hwange is a difficult place to manage. It has no natural surface water and National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) has to pump water from an array of dotted boreholes, using solar, wind or diesel fuel. That is no joke at all, given that an adult elephant requires up to 200 litres of water per day. You can imagine how much borehole water 44 000 elephants require per day. And, the elephants are not the only wildlife in Hwange, there are 100 other mammal species that include the gnu, hippos, giraffes, the antelopes etc and more than 400 bird species. All these need water.
This naturally demands vast resources to effectively police and manage.
For sustainable management, an elephant requires a square km of land mass to survive, which means Hwange at 14 000 km sq has a holding capacity of 14 000 elephants and yet, the population runs to between 30 000 and 44 000, due to migration at times the population is as high as 50 000 elephants in Hwange and that is a lot of pressure.
If anything, Zimbabwe should be applauded for manning such a large herd of elephants on suppressed resources, given that the country has not been allowed to generate meaningful income from elephant sales, trophy hunting or live sales, due to sanctions imposed by the United States of America and its allies in Europe.
Apparently the United States, especially the billionaires and millionaires in Texas, had for years dominated the trophy hunting business in Zimbabwe, until the sanctions.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which is also control by Europe has downgraded Zimbabwe’s ivory trade and the country cannot sell freely. The odds are against Zimbabwe.
After all, given a chance to run its elephants sustainably, Zimbabwe could be generating millions of dollars though ivory sales that it could plough back to wildlife management.
Prior to the imposition of sanctions by US and its allies, ZimParks and CITES restrictions ZimParks had a proud history of effective management, underpinned by an elaborate National Conservation Strategy, introduced by Government in the mid-1980s.
Right now the elephant population in Hwange is unsustainable. It is an ecological disaster.
Besides water, the elephants need protection from menacing poachers, which means ZimParks has to employ and deploy rangers (the foot soldiers) who remunerations and modern equipment to counter the heavily armed poachers.
In some cases, the rangers have been forced to go on 21-day patrols without the requisite food rations and protective clothing such as patrol boots, sleeping bags and safe drinking water. It is serious commitment.
Rough calculation indicates that ZimParks needs about US$40 million to sustain wildlife sanctuaries, which are 13 percent of the country’s land mass. Hwange alone has more than half of the country’s entire wildlife population.
Because of the ballooning elephant population, human wildlife conflict has reached alarming proportions and ZimParks is grappling with many problems in that area.
Honestly, it is still a mystery how, on the back of increased elephant populations of 120 000 against the country’s holding capacity of 56 000 and the sanctions- induced dwindling of human and material resources, ZimParks has managed things this far.
The world standard space for each elephant is one beast per square kilometre, yet in Hwange National Park alone there are 45 000 elephants against a holding capacity of 14 600.
That in itself, entails that the authority actually needed more resources instead of sanctions.
ZimParks manages 5 million hectares of land or 13 percent of Zimbabwe’s total land area and vital to note is the fact that most of the parks are located in natural ecological Regions Four and Five or rugged mountainous areas, which would not have much alternative economic use.
To worsen its woes, the authority has a mandate to manage the entire wildlife population of Zimbabwe, whether on private or communal lands, as per dictates of the Parks and Wildlife Act (1975).
Hwange National Park is the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe, founded around 1928 and occupying 14 650 square km of a vast swathe in the north-western part of the country.
It has a tremendous selection of wildlife with over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 bird species.
The elephant population in particular, is the world’s largest concentration and a marvel to watch yet at some point one feels the park is getting overpopulated with the jumbos. For sustainable environmental management, each elephant requires a square kilometre, but in Hwange where 14 600 elephants are ideal, there are more than 44 000 elephants, roaming wild and free. You cannot go to Hwange and fail to see elephants. Never!
Hwange has three distinctive locations and administrative offices situated at Robins, Sinamatella and Main Camp. The main camp is the largest.
The area around the Main Camp has numerous pans and pumped waterholes, where game come to drink, much to the delight of the tourist.
One of Hwange National Park’s exclusive tourist attractions is moonlight game viewing, around the full moon and this is exclusive to the Main Camp.
This is why many people say travelling through Hwange National Park gives you an insight of what much of the interior of Africa might have been like more than 150 years ago.