Buffalo Hwange panThe Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ) have released the data from their 2014 annual game count of Hwange National Park, conducted by 316 volunteers in 95 teams. Well done to all involved! These counts have been conducted since 1972, and give some interesting population trends.
Some trends noticed :
a) Elephant – a steady but noticeable increase over the years. There are some dips in the years of counting but these could be the result of the culling activities conducted in the early 80’s (which reduced the population by over 22,000 animalsover several years, but also served to scatter the remaining population) or simple widespread population distributions from good water supplies still remaining out in the bush after a good rainy season. In Ted Davisons report in 1930, he estimates elephant as “no more then 1000”. A 1973 report puts the population at 10,500. The latest aerial count just conducted suggests a population of about 58,000 elephant in Matabeleland North, of which the bulk would be in Hwange. This still leaves a discrepancy with the 22,343 counted on the 2014 waterhole count, but the high mobility of the animals to all corners of the Park (this year had good natural surface water throughout the year), plus that they do not need to drink everyday, could account for the differing figure. I would guess the elephant population in the Park is somewhere in the region of 30,000 and 50,000, fluctuating during the seasons.
b) Buffalo – increasing to stable – over the years have increased and spread. Whereas they originally were only found in the Robins area, they are now well established all over the Park. In the seventies there were no buffalo at all in Ngamo/Sikumi Forests, but now there are large herds occurring in these areas. Ted Davison’s 1930 report puts buffalo at “ no more then 100” (although Deka was excluded from the park at this time) The 1973 count puts buffalo at approx 10,000. However, the WEZ game count only came up with 3655 this year, with an even spread throughout the Park – I suspect this is a case of some of the big herds traversing outside the Park boundaries into Botswana, Matetsi , Deka and Ngamo areas, but it still does not fully explain the huge discrepancy in numbers.
c) Sable – decreasing – the increase in buffalo is to the detriment of the sable population, a trend noticed in several wildlife areas. Ted Davison states in 1930 that “eland are the most numerous animal in the Park, followed by sable. The sable occur in all parts of the reserve, often seen in herds as many as 100”. The 1973 stats gives the population at approximately 1800. The 2014 game count has come up with a figure of 213! Although sable do not need to drink daily, this still shows a dramatic drop in the population. This is mirrored in adjoining Ngamo Forest where in the DECEMBER 2014 NEWSLETTER By Trevor Lane “in the seventies we estimated the sable at about 1200 animals, and it now seems doubtful if there are 150 left”.
d) Roan Antelope – stable – seem to have fared better then sable, with a healthy population in the Robins area. Davison puts them as occurring in most parts of the Reserve, while the 1973 count puts them at about 600. The WEZ count was an encouraging 266.
e) Eland – decreasing – the most numerous animal in 1930, occurring in “very large herds” “over 200 not being uncommon”, according to Davison. The 1973
count gives a figure of approx. 1600, while the WEZ count only records 86!! In the 70’s and early 80’s we had herds several hundred strong in Ngamo and Gwaai Forest, but these are now herds of the past!
d) Wildebeest – decreasing – a strange history, with Davison recording that no wildebeest were present in the reserve before 1935, but that big migrations came through from Botswana during the drought years, leaving behind populations that settled at Ngamo, Kennedy and Main camp. In 1973 the population is recorded at approx.1800. However, this population has declined, with only 410 being recorded in the 2014 count. This is a very visible decline to those who remember the large wildebeest populations a few years ago, where they are scarcely seen now!
Other species which seem to have declined over the years, from personal observations, seem to be Bat-eared Foxes, Reedbuck (in the Main Camp area), Ostrich, and of course, the rhino….
Mike Chase, from Elephants Without Borders, working in the Okavango Delta area, has found a similar situation there to what we have in Hwange – a big increase in elephant, buffalo and hippo, and a dramatic decline in the populations of sable, wildebeest, zebra etc. These declines have been big and noticeable – up to 75% decrease in numbers in some species.
One could consider this is all natural cycles, but these days the ravages of rinderpest, anthrax etc have been controlled and no longer affect wild populations. Culling of excess populations of elephant and buffalo in this day and age is obviously no longer an option. How can we protect our population diversity?

From The Bhejani Trust

By Trevor Lane

8 January 2015