We recently asked a Friends of Hwange (FOH) Trustee for a comment on the elephant situation in Hwange National Park and how they would be affected by the approaching dry season. His comment follows below:
Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s premier National Park. With an area of about 14,500 sq. km it is roughly the size of Switzerland and lies between the burnt Kalahari Desert of Botswana and the savannah woodlands and teak forests of Zimbabwe. It is one of the most diverse parks in the world with more than 100 mammals and over 400 bird species as well as a wide variety of grasses, trees, insects, reptiles and other wildlife. There is very little natural surface water and the park relies on pumped water from the large number of boreholes scattered throughout the park. When all the pumps are working the animals thrive.
Problems arise when the authorities, for various reasons, can’t cope and the pumps stop working.
Friends of Hwange Trust (FOH) is a non-profit organization that was established shortly after the 2005 drought in which many animals needlessly perished. The Trust’s main focus is providing water but it also assists with fireguards, antipoaching, road and borehole maintenance as well as helping the Wildlife Authority whenever the situation warrants it. Two years ago the Trust was donated the funds required to purchase a tractor and this has proved most valuable. We have started to dredge the silt out of many pans. Silt reduces the water holding capacity of the pans and makes them a death trap for animals that get stuck in the mud.
Another long dry season is upon us and FOH has already started the arduous task of keeping the pumps going till the rain arrives at the end of the year. Safari camps do assist where possible as they share the workload and pump water into the pans within their immediate vicinity. Although the Park’s staff on the ground do their best the monetary inflows, due to lack of tourism and the general adverse economic climate, are simply not enough to keep the Park going without assistance.
Hwange National Park was established in an area that is not suitable for farming as the available surface water is not adequate. The problem the animals face is that the semi‐arid area they are allocated has no large rivers whereas the areas adjacent to the Park, where rivers are located, are reserved for human habitation and hunting safaris. Obviously the animals feel more comfortable and safer within the protected area but they need to be provided with pumped water through the dry season.
With water provided, animal numbers, especially elephant and buffalo, have increased substantially over the years to the extent that in the past the authorities deemed it necessary to control the numbers. In recent years, and after more research, the thinking is that left alone the numbers will level off, which we believe is happening.
Historically the animals have had their own biological ways of keeping their populations in check. For example elephants adjust their breeding rate and dominant clans become more territorial and force less dominant animals to occupy marginal areas. This is a form of natural selection and is essential for evolution to take its course to ensure survival of the fittest.
Elephants can control their breeding rate in a number of ways. These include adjusting the age of first calving and most effectively by controlling the inter‐calving period. Calving usually occurs at the onset of the rain and gives the young animals the best chance of surviving as food is plentiful.
Elephants occupying marginal areas, where food and water are less plentiful, have a higher mortality rate than those in better areas. In these tough conditions the animals that don’t survive are mainly the very young and old who are too weak and don’t have the energy to cover the ever increasing distances between water and food. Interestingly another group which suffers badly are young males when they have had to leave the safety of the breeding herd and are not yet big enough to contest with dominant bulls at the waterholes resulting in loss of condition and even death.
Although FOH and the other stakeholders do their best to provide water, deaths do occur. However, most mortalities are as a result of inadequate food, not lack of water. As Hwange is a vast wild area it is not possible to provide food and we have to accept that when resources are limited there is an increased death rate.
The most likely cause of death for an elephant will be starvation; it’s just a question of when! Elephants are born with 6 sets of teeth and when one set wears down another replaces it. When all 6 sets are worn they can’t feed adequately and die. Predators do kill some but the numbers are insignificant.
In the semi‐arid vegetation of Hwange elephant densities should probably be less than 2 animals per square kilometer as more than this may result in excessive habitat damage. The elephant population in Hwange is transient with most of the animals emigrating out of the Park in the wet season. They return in the dry season with the resultant pressure on the water resources and corresponding localized damage to the vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the water.
The fact that elephants are so large and need to consume vast quantities of food coupled with the high numbers around water in the dry season results in elephants having a significant impact on the general vegetation.
Elephants prefer to graze when suitable grass is available but when this is limited they need to browse, especially in the dry season. Obviously this will have an impact on the trees. As the twigs and bark are very coarse they need to ingest large quantities in order to sustain themselves and this in turn increases the wear on their teeth and reduces their life expectancy. This in the long term will reduce their numbers.
Elephants have been the architects of the environment for millions of years and have transformed the vegetation in a constant cycle of destruction and re‐growth often opening up areas and making them more suitable for the smaller animals.
In Hwange National Park a relatively large number of animals perished in the last few years and the signs are that this will happen again this year as the numbers returning to the northern half of the Park are quite high. The elephants have returned in large numbers early in the season presumably to take advantage of the abundant crop of acacia pods produced this year as a result of decent rain. These pods are nutritionally very rich and provide the animals with much needed protein. Another reason for the early return of the herds to the northern parts could be the poor rains in the southern parts of the Park and across the border into Botswana.
Friends of Hwange Trust is committed to assisting Hwange National Park on an ongoing basis in the future as well as through the current crisis. The hope is that one day the tourists will return in sufficient numbers to ensure adequate income to sustain the Park but for now our work is essential. In order to ensure we make a significant and continued contribution we plan to lease property from Hwange Town Council to build a permanent base from which we can operate more effectively.
In the long term FOH intends to become more involved with Research and Ecological Studies so we have recently teamed up with Hwange Lion Research for the purposes of building the proposed base. This should be mutually beneficial as we can not only work more closely but share resources such as offices and workshops.
FOH relies totally on donated funds so any financial assistance is appreciated and we are especially grateful to those who have supported us over the years. It is our policy to ensure that all donated funds directly benefit the Park.
Below are our Bank details, should you be concerned enough and in a position to help. We have launched a “supporters club” with members paying annual subscriptions. This will provide income on a regular basis.
If you would like to join, forms are available on our website
For subscriptions and any other contributions please use the following account:
For local (within Zimbabwe) deposits and transfers:
Bank Name: NMB Bank
Account Name: Friends of Hwange Trust
Account Number: 260093754
Branch: Borrowdale Branch
Branch Code: 11106
Swift Code: NMBLZWHX
For International Transfers:
Intermediary Bank: Commerz Bank
Swift Code: COBADEFF
Beneficiary Bank: NMB Bank Zimbabwe
Swift Code: NMBLZWHX
Account Name: Friends of Hwange Trust
Account Number: 260093754
Please remember to send us confirmation of payment to either of the following people so that the funds can be accounted for:
Rosie Gaisford e‐mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you prefer to make alternative arrangements for payment please get in touch so we can provide you with suitable options.
Over years the Friends of Hwange Trust has established very good relationships with many stakeholders in Hwange National Park. We enjoy a particularly good relationship with the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, and with Wildlife & Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ).
FOH’s mandate comes through WEZ Matabeleland with particular reference to “Hwange Water Project”. In 2012 Gary Cantle, the FOH man who works within the Park, was awarded the TED HYSON TROPHY which is presented by WEZ MAT for the person who has made an outstanding contribution to conservation.
The Trustees of FOH are very proud of this award as not only is it recognition for the work that Gary does but also for the whole FOH team and their supporters.
Thank you for supporting Zimbabwe Wildlife.
David Dell, Trustee, Friends of Hwange Trust
Date: 1 July 2013