By Learnmore Nyoni
Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s largest wildlife sanctuary. It is located in the southwestern part of Zimbabwe, 330 km from Bulawayo.
It has a faunal biodiversity with more than 100 types of mammals, including the “Big Five”, and more than 400 species of birds.
It was declared a game reserve in 1928 by the colonial government of the day and Ted Davison became its first guardian.
Hwange National Park is located in a semi-desert area with very low rainfall.
When the game park was established, local white farmers harvested an average of one sack of corn from every acre of planted land.
Davison had to drill boreholes to prevent wildlife from leaving the area.
As we were walking around the park a few days ago, we realized that the park had a serious water problem.
We observed solar powered water pumps scattered throughout the national park.
Our guide told us that the natural water dries up around August, then the pumping of water sustains the park during the dry months and during the dry spells of the rainy season.
Driving to Hwange National Park during the rainy season is not every tourist’s favorite as the lush vegetation camouflages the wide variety of animal and bird species away from the tourist’s prying eye.
We were lucky enough to see a variety of wildlife such as elephants, hippos, giraffes, bushbucks and zebras during our five hour game drive.
However, beyond this seemingly pristine wildlife bush lies a story of the effects of climate change on this wildlife park.
The verdant canopies provide an ideal nesting ground for all species this breeding season.
Nevertheless, there are very few natural water pools in Hwange National Park and they only last for a few months, a problem that was discovered by the park’s first ranger, Davison, in 1928.
Davison dug boreholes through the park to keep the animals free in the park.
Water pumping has continued over the years, first with diesel engines and now with solar pumps.
Private lodges around Hwange National Park also dig water troughs which they pump daily to provide valuable liquid to wildlife, as does the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) to counter the severe water shortages during dry seasons.
The rainy season in Zimbabwe generally runs from late November to April.
Due to climate change in southern Africa, the rains have become erratic, leading to heat waves, floods, storms and frequent droughts.
This has cost the wildlife resources of the wildlife reserves very dearly. Large herbivores such as elephants and hippos easily succumb to these climatic changes due to their ecology.
The artificial ponds are necessary in Hwange National Park, lest large herds of wildlife are lost during the dry season.
Without water ponds where private actors and national parks pump water, animals have to leave the demarcated area of the national park in search of the precious liquid.
In drought years, some succumb to the effects of high temperatures and very low rainfall which quickly evaporates from the earth’s surface.
For example, a long period of drought led to the death of no less than 100 elephants in 2019.
Miombo is a safari lodge located just 300 meters from the railway line which marks the boundary of the national park.
This lodge uses electricity to pump water into their man-made ponds, to provide water for wildlife.
This is a very commendable corporate social responsibility in support of wildlife conservation efforts.
This is a win-win arrangement, with the animals getting ‘free’ water from these lodges while guests booked into the lodge get ‘free’ game viewing.
Davie Mudimba of Miombo Safari Lodge says lodge guests can spot buffalo, elephant, leopard, bushbuck and other wildlife when they come to the watering hole.
“Elephants don’t bathe in muddy water, they like fresh water and that’s why we make sure to pump fresh water daily. The elephants come to bathe and drink from this pond.
“It is necessary to increase the water points around this area, because during the dry season, the elephants end up drinking dirty water, or even come to our pool to drink water. times when there is very little water, the elephants end up breaking our water pipes in search of water,” Mudimba said.
While pumping water to support wildlife is a very commendable short-term initiative, it has long-term detrimental effects on the environmental sustainability of the park.
Experts warn that ‘artificial’ ecosystems created by the continuous pumping of groundwater into water basins are leading to desertification of Zimbabwe’s largest wildlife park.
Allan Savory, a renowned Zimbabwean scientist based in the United States, says mismanagement of parks by many governments around the world is leading to the desertification of these important resources.
“Environmental degradation, desertification and climate change are spiraling out of control. When I was invited to speak at the COP26 Climate Conference, I decided not to talk about agriculture because a lot of people were talking about it and chose to focus on the cause of climate change” .
“Climate change is not causing land degradation. It is poor management that leads to climate change and environmental degradation,” he said.
Savory has helped many companies around the world adopt his holistic management concept to fight climate change with tremendous success.
Holistic management mimics the migration of animals in search of water and nourishing grass and other natural resources time to regenerate.
He argues that the herding of animals, whether in a game park or in a communal area, will lead to resource scarcity, leading to conflict, desertification and climate change.
Without holistic management, national parks like Hwange will turn into desert over time, says Savory.
He said he had offered to help President Emmerson Mnangagwa and was awaiting his response.
Tom Varley, a wildlife cameraman with decades of experience in and around Hwange National Park, supports Savory’s thinking.
Elephants migrate to areas where there is plenty of water and food, even outside the boundaries of national park areas and they even cross the Zambezi River, he said.
“We have heard in the past, for financial reasons, that some pumps have broken and the parks have failed to fix them and animals have died. The animals had obviously become dependent on these pumped water points and the animals stayed there and died”.
“This was due to lack of funds and poor management at the time. However, for the last couple of years or so we have had good rains and the elephants are leaving the pumped water areas deep into the wilderness and spending the majority of their time there until the start of the dry season,” said he declared.
To support human tourist activity, ZimParks uses pumped waterholes to attract game to tourist areas where they then build platforms for tourist game viewing and sometimes to the detriment of the environment.
Situated on over one million hectares of land, Hwange Wildlife Sanctuary has an elephant population of over 50,000. A single elephant consumes between 100 and 200 liters of water per day. Water is a very scarce resource and good game water management is essential.
ZimParks has publicly stated that the running costs and management of national parks are funded by tourism activities, but due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2019, tourist arrivals in the country have drastically decreased, as have tourist arrivals. funds for wildlife management.
These claims could not be verified as ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo did not respond to questions sent to him when going to the press.
Thanks to the support of non-governmental organizations, philanthropists and other wildlife lovers who made donations that kept the water pumping even in the age of COVID-19.
For a park without natural water bodies, dependent on water pumped from its 80 water basins, game water supplies are very expensive to support the ever-growing herd of wild animals.
Erratic weather patterns across southern Africa have led to biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and the death of many animals inside and outside national parks.
The groundwater that is pumped into the surface water basins of Hwange National Park to create places where tourists can easily view animals also creates another problem.
The vegetation around these water points is quickly depleted and leads to the desertification of these water points. The clearing of the areas around these ponds is widening, eating away at the bush from year to year.
Meteorological records show that the phenomenon of climate change will worsen if the greening of economies is not prioritized.
Hwange is one of Africa’s largest national parks, but park managers are in a quagmire playing the delicate balance of earning tourist money, while preserving biodiversity and the ecosystem in the face of to climate change.