Hwange, Zimbabwe’s biggest National Park, turns 90 this week.
Review the state of conservation before Hwange.
The oldest National Park in the world was declared as such in 1778, consisting of the area surrounding Bogd Khan Uul Mountain, in Mongolia.
Its natural beauty inspired the local Mongolian government of the Qing Dynasty to make an effort to give it legal protection.
A century later, in the USA, Yellowstone was declared a National Park in 1872, to bring tourists to an area thanks to efforts by Northern Pacific Railroad Company which controlled the area.
In southern Africa, the first area to be set aside for the protection of wildlife and the natural environment were the Umfolozi and Hluhluwe reserves, established in 1895 in the old royal Zulu hunting grounds.
In 1898, the Sabi Game Reserve, now part of Kruger National Park, was proclaimed by the South African Republic.
Kruger National Park was officially created in 1926 with an area of 19 623 square km.
In pre-colonial Zimbabwe, conservation areas were created in by local Shona peoples who used taboos and rules to protect sacred forests, mountains and rivers, while the Ndebele Kings set aside tracts of land between the Khami and Gwaai Rivers as controlled hunting reserves.
In modern times, the first conservation areas were proclaimed in 1902, created out of the Matobo and Inyanga estates owned by Cecil Rhodes, who bequeathed them to the people for their “education and enjoyment.”
Why was Hwange created?
The final transformation of Hwange from a district of farmers in scattered villages to a sanctuary for wild animals began in 1926, the year Kruger National Park was proclaimed.
In that year, member of Parliament for Midlands Province, Edinburgh‐born Major W.J. Boggie, introduced a motion in Parliament, “That the Government take into consideration at the earliest possible date the advisability of proclaiming a game reserve” in the then-Rhodesia.
In a motion on May 11, 1927 specifically promoting Hwange as the place for the game park, Boggie quoted a tourist authority who had rated Rhodesia’s three greatest public attractions as:
(1) Victoria Falls,
(2) Great Zimbabwe, and
(3) the country’s wild animals.
When Boggie quoted the authority as saying that game viewing could be “worth millions,” he struck the deciding note with the government.
On February 24, 1928 Southern Rhodesian Government Gazette notice number 124 was published proclaiming a list of game species to be protected from hunting for a period of five years in the Wankie district.
Who was the first warden?
The job went to Edward Hartley Davison, born in the town of Hartley (Chegutu).
He was 22 years old, with two years experience as a tsetse fly ranger in the Lomagundi District.
He was given £500 the first year to create and run the reserve (about US $2,500.00 at the time), a small amount of money for such a large area.
Perhaps the very low cost of maintaining the reserve encouraged the government to continue funding it throughout the Great Depression years to come.
Davison’s top priority was to survey the reserve, an unexplored and unmapped blank in the colonial maps, increase the water supply available to the game animals, eject the poachers, and reduce the number of four‐legged predators – which is now known to have been a mistake.
Who lived there at the time?
Today National Park Rangers walk through the woodlands and bush where the stone walls built by the Nambya people are toppling, often knocked down by elephants and buffalo, and they must see the sharp stone flakes made by San/Bushman ancestors who strode through the landscape for thousands of years.
Anthropologist Robert Hitchcock has studied how the Tyua (Bushman) people of the 20th century lived in the country just beyond Hwange National Park’s southern and western edges.
They stayed in small groups, exploited territories of 200‐400 square km, and shifted camps frequently to maximise water and other resources.
By the early 1900s, many still chose to live as nomadic foragers moving back and forth into Botswana.
With the creation of the Reserve and then the National Park, those that did not find jobs within the Park, were evicted to the fringes of the Park.
There was a great deal of tension between the rangers and the Bushmen, who were often seen as poachers by the former.
In the communal lands south of Hwange National Park around the Amanzimnyama River, in Tsholotsho down to Plumtree, about 2500 KhoiSan people live today, many afflicted with HIV/AIDS, according to the Tsoro-o-otso Development Trust.
Where does the name Hwange come from?
The Nambya people have a close and deep relationship with Hwange, ever since they settled there about 300 years ago.
One tradition relating their origin, is that early in the 18th Century, one of the Rozvi’s three sons named Dhende Sadundu left his father’s rule to set up an independent state, travelling for some time with a substantial following before settling near the Gwayi River and building a new capital at Shangano, near the confluence of the Lukosi and Chibungo Rivers.
It was here that Dhende became known as Sawanga and his people as Nambya; Sawanga was later abbreviated to Wange which became the hereditary dynastic title of all Nambya rulers.
There are several stone-built ruins in and adjacent to the National Park which were used by the Nambya elites for ritual and domestic purposes.
What makes Hwange so special?
Today, it is the large mammals that draw most visitors to the park – the lion, elephant, buffalo, giraffe and antelopes.
Records indicate that there are 107 species of mammals (including 27 species of carnivore) and at least 420 species of birds in the Park, two thirds of the total number found in Zimbabwe.
The park and surrounding forestry areas are part of the Hwange Sanyati Biological Corridor Project, which seeks to, among other things, support the conservation and sustainable use of bio-diversity by strengthening the management of Hwange and its buffer zones.
Hwange today is part of the KAZA (Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) region, the largest conservation area on the planet, included in part because of its incredible biodiversity.
For those who have had the good fortune to travel around this exceptional National Park know that the chance for an unparalleled wildlife encounter is always very high – anything from watching a lion hunt, to a family group of elephants playing at a waterhole, to gamebirds flocking around a termite mound.
Hwange is a place of rare, if harsh, beauty.
How did the National Park develop?
Hwange was accorded National Park status in 1932 and with the provision of water for game, built up a population of wildlife.
The first visitors to the park, were little more than guests of the warden, accommodated in rough huts at Main Camp.
The best way to see the reserve, according to the newspapers of the day, was to take a train to Dete, spend a night in the little hotel there, hire the proprietor Van Niekerk to drive you the 70 miles around, or spend the night up one of the platforms in the reserve.
During World War II, tourist traffic to the Park dropped, and as a result the reserve’s animals became car‐shy.
The Reserve’s 320 kilometres of tourist roads were not maintained over the war years and suffered badly.
Main Camp got its first electricity in the early 1950s, thanks to a generator, and the roads through the Park’s heart were cleared, repaired, and surfaced with gravel.
What about visitor numbers?
The newly formed Rhodesian Department of National Parks (created in 1949) was surprised at the incredible postwar boom in the park’s popularity.
In 1950 four thousand people visited Wankie National Park.
By 1960, 27,236 people had visited in a year with a revenue of £50,302, growing to 38,373 visitors in 1971 and massively increasing in by 1994 89,504 people passed through the gates, earning over Z$30 million (then about US$4 million).
During the years 2000-2010, the park regularly reported the lowest visitor numbers of any tourist region in Zimbabwe, while the number of lodges were reduced to a handful from a high of 42 in 1998.
In 2015, 55,644 visitors entered the park and tourism continues to grow.
Has the park ever changed size?
Between 1950 and 1958 a government committee met to re‐apportion lands, as carrying capacity dropped in neighbouring Communal Areas due to drought, woodland destruction by people desperately seeking new fields, combined with bad farming practices.
Parliament slashed 218,000 acres from the Park for reassignment for resettlement, which led to serious deliberations about how to ensure that lands would be permanently dedicated to game preservation and tourism.
Since 1980, the policy has been to maintain the National Park at its current size.
And what’s this about famous lions being shot?
“Cecil” was a 13-year old lion that lived primarily in Hwange.
For high-paying, foreign visitors, and lodge and parks staff, he was a major attraction due to his approachability and fascinating life story.
The publicity he would receive in death was in part due to the way he was being studied and tracked by the University of Oxford as part of a larger study, and the gruesome, extended manner of his death.
Cecil was initially wounded with an arrow by Walter Palmer, an American dentist, then tracked, and reportedly killed with a rifle some 40 hours later on July 1, 2015.
To the outrage of activists around the globe, Palmer had a permit and was not convicted of any crime.
The killing resulted in unprecedented international media attention, caused outrage among animal conservationists, ill-informed criticism by politicians and celebrities and a strong negative response against hunting in general.
Several Western countries and airlines announced policies refusing the import or transport of lion trophies derived from sport hunting.
Cecil’s life went largely unnoticed in Zimbabwe until his killing.
As the Chronicle summed up: “It is not an overstatement that almost 99.99 percent of Zimbabweans didn’t know about this animal until Monday.
Now we have just learnt, thanks to the British media, that we had Africa’s most famous lion all along, an icon!”
What happened to Ted Davison?
Ted Davison stayed on as Warden of Hwange National Park for over 30 years.
In 1960 the higher‐ups shocked him when they moved him upstairs to become second‐ in‐command of all Rhodesia’s National Parks.
He was forced to move to Salisbury, the capital city.
It was the worst thing that had ever happened to him, as he told a journalist in 1974.
He had nearly single-handedly created Hwange, explored it and laid out many of its tracks, firebreaks, and tourist roads.
He had helped select the places to put windmills and, later, diesel pumps to provide watering points for the animals.
He had helped name its hundreds of pans and springs and seeps.
He told the world about his unhappiness in the last pages of his 1967 book Wankie, the Story of a Great Game Reserve; his heart stayed in the Park and would never leave it.
He foresaw the National Parks pressured to become no longer simply recreational playgrounds, but also meat and income producers for an burgeoning human population.
Ted Davison made Hwange the world treasure it is today.
He and his staff virtually stopped the game‐poaching, increased the numbers of elephants and hoofed animals, ended the unbridled exploitation that was stripping timber and wildlife resources, and established an international interest in the reserve.
He died in Harare on June 10, 1982 and his ashes are buried in the old Chegutu cemetery.
How many elephants are there?
Over 150 years ago, only a few thousand elephant lived in the vast expanse of what is today Hwange National Park.
The best estimate possible from various data sources, is that no more than 6,000 to 8,000 elephants ever lived between the Dete vlei and Pandamatenga in the middle 1800s.
Now Hwange has at least 30,000 elephants in the dry season.
Where they’ve come from is not easy to discover, but no doubt normal population increase by about 4‐5% per year has contributed much of this number, along with immigration from adjoining lands.
Research has revealed that the park should have one elephant per square kilometre, which is 14,000.
In the 1970s and 1980s the government allowed controlled elephant culling as a way to reduce numbers to preserve the larger environment.
When culling was halted in 1986, partly under international and tourist industry pressure, no options were developed to manage the rapidly increasing populations.
What most conservationists agree upon is that there are too many elephants within the park and surrounding areas, which is having a deleterious effect on the ecology and other animal populations.
There are no easy answers but this issue remains an emotional cause for concern.
And what about poaching?
According to ZimParks, a total of 893 elephants were killed in the Hwange area by poachers during the period between 2013 and 2016.
Out of this number, 249 elephants were killed through poisoning using cyanide and shooting.
Such poachers, who are mainly after ivory, are usually part of criminal syndicates, with backing at local and international levels.
In the last 10 years, countless other game animals were also killed by snares, poisoning and gunshot, often incidental to the elephant poaching.
In Hwange, staff shortages hamper anti-poaching efforts.
This has seen one game ranger being responsible for manning 1,000km2 of area when the ideal situation should be one ranger per 20km2.
There are several NGOs and societies assisting ZimParks (most notably Wildlife Environment Zimbabwe, Friends of Hwange Trust and the new Conservation & Wildlife Fund) although severe problems remain as the ongoing poisonings and trial over the theft of rhino horns and elephant tusks reveals.
Does Hwange have a future?
The Hwange story is still playing out.
There are recurring controversies – accusations of illegal hunting being allowed inside the Park for important clients or friends of government bigwigs; the capture and sale of wild animals to foreign governments; the near‐paralysis of management in the face of financial shortages; the total disregard for cultural impact assessments when development is undertaken or new tourist camps are built; the theft of rhino horns and elephant tusks; the conflict between people and wildlife as both populations begin to grow. And so forth.
Without the economic benefit and influence that tourism brings, wilderness areas like Hwange can offer little resistance to pressure from other business interests, notably mining.
Hwange is bordered by open-cast coal operations that are allegedly spilling over into the park.
In the face of short-term gains and political interests, wildlife everywhere is being called on to justify its existence.
If it is to survive, wildlife must have a value and tourism provides just that.
When it is said that these areas should be protected and not mined or exploited in any other way that appears economically viable, it is tourism, and the shared benefits to thousands of people in the surrounding communities, that gives a powerful argument for conservation and protection of this magnificent land.
Note: a large part of this briefing relies on research provided in: Gary Haynes. 2018. Hwange National Park: The Forest with a Desert Heart. Bulawayo: Pigeon Press.