An African Park in Peril

2015 was an annus horribilis for Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. In July the killing of photogenic park resident Cecil the lion by a trophy mad Minnesota dentist became a global media sensation. Then in early October cyanide poisoning killed around 40 elephants. Later that month, the heartbreaking news broke of the gruesome killings of 22 more elephants, including several babies, allegedly slaughtered by a syndicate of Zimbabwean police officers, Hwange park rangers and Chinese ivory smugglers.

On a continent where 100,000 elephants were killed from 2011 to 2013, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, such poaching incidents are becoming all too familiar. Tanzania alone has lost over 50% of its pachyderm population over the past five years, as has neighbouring Mozambique. The illegal wildlife trade is now a $20-billion annual industry, according to Public Radio International.

Before the Cecil saga, Zimbabwe’s oldest and largest park – a 14,600 square kilometer swath of Kalahari sandveld, Zambezi teak forests and arid savannah that is home to over 100 species of mammals and over 400 bird species – was most famous as home to some of Africa’s largest elephant herds. Numbering around 46,000, they are – along with Botswana’s vast herds – part of the world’s largest contiguous elephant population inhabiting the Kavango Zambezi Trans Frontier Conservation Area. During the dry season from June to November they congregate by the hundreds around the park’s waterholes in a daily cycle that runs from morning until well into the night.

Observing Hwange’s elephants up close from one of the semi-buried shipping containers disguised as termite hills that serve as hides or “Look Ups”, you see tangles of tusks and trunks jostling for the chance to drink the cool, clean borehole water. Dumbo-eared babies snuggling against their mothers’ legs, waving their miniature trunks in the air.  Testosterone driven bulls dueling for dominance. Proud matriarchs trumpeting their arrival, clearing a path to their rightful place at the water’s edge.

Normally scenes that safari dreams are made of.  But in the case of Hwange, that dream has become a nightmare. The park’s elephant herds may be one of the world's most amazing wildlife spectacles, but each dry season this giant population is pushing the park closer to a crisis point. Prolonged periods of drought, increased human encroachment and decades old reliance on artificial water supplies have created catastrophic effects in the park that threaten its elephants, along with many other species. Until a humane solution is found for Hwange’s elephant overpopulation problem, it will remain a park in peril.


Water for Elephants

“I’ve watched elephants die of hunger and thirst. It’s not a pretty sight,” says Mark Butcher, a former game ranger turned safari operator who has invited me to spend a week with him traversing Hwange as he delivers fuel and supplies to the diesel powered pumps that keep its elephants alive. I will also spend time with an anti-poaching squad and visit some of Mark’s camps, including a new one he has set up in a remote part of the park notorious as the site of a series of 2013 poaching incidents that left some 300 elephants dead.

Few know Hwange better than Mark Butcher. Lanky and lean, with a white David Niven moustache, this son of a fourth generation Zimbabwean farmer embarked on a wildlife career in 1979 as a ranger for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. He then completed a BSc in Zoology and Botany at Rhodes University before working for Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission, where he was responsible for all the wildlife within 1.8-million acres of indigenous forest. In the mid 1990s Mark started building safari lodges and camps in and around Hwange and nearby Victoria Falls. His company, Imvelo Safari Lodges, is now one of Zimbabwe’s leading operators, winning numerous industry awards for its ethical practises and community involvement.

While admitting that continuing to rely on pumping water is not a viable long-term solution, Mark says he has no intention of shutting down the pumps until one is  found. “We created this water problem with the best of intentions and we’ve appointed ourselves to be the caretakers of these animals,” he says.  “Now we are morally obliged to sort it out. We can’t just turn off the taps and walk away from it.”  

Unlike most of Africa’s great parks, Hwange has no lakes or major rivers running through it, which made it a relatively poor location for a major game reserve when it was created in 1928. Its elephants and other wildlife tended to migrate away from the park annually in search of water, often coming into conflict with ever expanding human populations.  Then Hwange’s original warden, 22-year old Ted Davidson, had the ingenious idea to build windmills to pump water during the dry season so the elephants didn't have to migrate. The park’s elephants flourished under Davidson’s legacy of protection and year round access to water within the park. Within a decade their population doubled, and continued to grow at an astonishing 5% per annum. Even as their massive daily diet of up to 600lbs of leaves, grass and shrubs began to impact the environment, particularly during the dry season, their birth rates showed no sign of decline. Hwange was on its way to becoming the elephant capital of the world.

Nearly sixty years after Ted Davison installed his first windmill, Mark Butcher established his first lodge within the communal tribal lands bordering the park. At the time, chronically understaffed and underfunded National Parks was struggling to pump the now critical water supplies. Due to financial constraints, it had been forced to shut down a number of pumps. As Hwange’s elephants and other wildlife struggled for water and their conditions deteriorated, Mark and several fellow safari operators decided to reopen and maintain the pumps that National Parks had abandoned. At one point they even tried installing solar powered pumps but thieves kept stealing the valuable panels. So diesel it was. And will be, says Mark, until a theft-proof solar solution can be devised.

Over the years solutions to Hwange’s elephant overpopulation problem have been tried and discarded. Mass contraception was considered but ultimately deemed medically unfeasible and far too expensive to implement for such an enormous population. Translocation on a large enough scale to make a real dent in elephant numbers was ruled out because of the massive logistics required. Once considered a practical solution, culling is no longer an acceptable option. And letting ‘nature take its course’ by simply shutting off the water supply, as wildlife experts like the University of Pretoria’s Rudi J van Aarde have recommended, would almost certainly lead to mass death, with thousands of elephant bodies left to rot in the bush.

The killing of a single lion was harmful enough to Hwange’s image. Imagine how scenes of such an elephant apocalypse would play across the world.  Horrified tourists would stop coming to Hwange, its safari camps would eventually close, hundreds locals would lose their jobs and the park would be ultimately left even more vulnerable than it presently is to widespread poaching.  

Building a Better Future

After spending my first night in Hwange at Imvelo’s flagship Camelthorn Lodge, a cluster of luxurious bungalows tucked into a woodland area on the southeastern edge of the park, I’m eager to visit my first waterhole and see for myself the state of Hwange’s elephants. But before we embark, Mark has arranged for me to ‘meet the neighbours’, as he refers to the regular visits Imvelo offers its guests to nearby villages. Today, we will spend the morning at Ngamo (pop. 400) located within the Tsholotsho communal land adjacent to Hwange’s southeastern boundary.

During the half hour drive across the meandering sandy tracks that serve as roads around here Mark tells me that his involvement with neighbouring villages like Ngamo began with a government-sponsored program that supported local community involvement in tourism and wildlife conservation called CAMPFIRE, an acronym for Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources. “We had these impoverished communities out here living next door to this very valuable natural resource called wildlife,” explains Mark. “But they had no vested interest in keeping the animals found on their ancestral lands alive because they received no benefits from them.”

First, Mark convinced ‘frontline’ villages like Ngamo in these human wildlife conflict zones to let him build safari lodges on their lands. Then he started weaning them off of their wholesale slaughter of park animals like lions and elephants that  threatened to their survival by killing their livestock, raiding their crops and terrorizing their villages. This included offering communities most burdened by living next to wildlife financial incentives to not kill these animals – providing jobs in his lodges, digging village wells, building schools and supporting medical and dental care. To date, Imvelo has ploughed over US$ 1.5 million into local communities like Ngamo to ensure the local people are benefiting directly from tourism.  “It’s about the concept of a cat like Cecil being more valuable in the long run alive than he is dead,” says Mark. In other words, to use a phrase I’ve often heard in Africa’s game reserves, ‘if it pays, it stays.’

Johnson Ncube, agrees. A grandfather who lives with his extended family in a tidy walled compound, he is Ngamo’s ‘headman’, or hereditary leader. “In the past I would simply assign someone in the village to deal with a problem lion,” he tells me as we sit drinking tea in his open-air kitchen, adding that all too often the resulting attempt to poison a single offender would wipe out the whole pride. Now he says he no longer approves of anyone from Ngamo killing a lion like Cecil because he understands that wildlife are more valuable to his people alive than dead. Hwange’s elephants, however, present a far greater challenge than the occasional hungry lion.

“We would love to conserve the elephants because they bring us tourists but their numbers are just too much for this park,” he says. “They come over the park fence and into our village day and night. If something is not done there won’t be any food for them or the other animals.” Johnson is quick to assure me that local poaching is now under control, although foreign poachers are still killing the elephants. “Local people have stopped poaching because they know that whatever is happening here is because of these animals,” he says. “We need them. Otherwise, no tourists will visit our country.”

“If someone helps you offer education to your people, you take advantage of it because our children can't do anything without education,” says Johnson as we tour his newly installed chicken coops. He is referring to Ngamo Primary School, our final ‘village visit’ stop. Classes for approximately 300 children are conducted either in sturdy cement school blocks or on the ground under a shady acacia tree. With donations from guests, Imvelo paid for the construction of two of these classrooms, along with furniture, electricity, water and books. The teachers are now housed in comfortable electrified cottages, also funded by Imvelo.

“I remember visiting here in the late 1980’s when the school consisted of just a few very old buildings with collapsing roofs, dirt floors, very few  desks and major cracks in the walls,” Mark recalls as we drive from Johnson’s house to the school. “There was just one teacher here then. The kids used to huddle in a shadow as it moved across the classroom wall to escape the heat." Along the way we stop to give a ride to a group of children in their burgundy school uniforms. “Many of these kids walk well over ten kilometres to and from school each day,” Mark says. “Some, especially the smaller ones who don’t have enough food at home for a proper breakfast, are exhausted by the time they reach class, making it much harder for them to concentrate.”

To address this issue, Imvelo is helping to provide free school lunches. According to headmaster Moyo Mthenjwa, it is already making a huge impact. “You’ll find almost 100% class attendance now that we’re feeding these children,” he says as we observe form one students lining up for their daily bowl of beans, collard greens and sadza (cooked cornmeal that is the staple food in Zimbabwe and other parts of southern Africa). After lunch, I watch a group of little ones gather in a circle beneath an acacia tree to sing ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ with their teacher. Some of these children are so-called AIDS orphans. “As a community we take them in,” Mthenjwa says.  “And with the help of Imvelo we buy them school uniforms and make sure they get some education, clothing and food.  You have no choice. You see these children and you have to help them.”

Hwange's Heartbeat

Following our Ngamo village visit, Mark and I set out to explore some of Hwange’s most wild, remote and seldom visited areas.  The southern two thirds of the park is ecologically defined by deep Kalahari sands, which support impressive forests of Zambezi teak and other hardwoods. Scattered within these woodlands are ancient fossil lakebeds and drainage lines, which are now large savannah grasslands fringed with Acacia and Leadwood trees. Northern Hwange is distinctly different from the south, drained by the Lukosi and Deka Sand Rivers, dominated by Mopane woodlands, and even hills and kopjes. A fascinating feature of this region are natural seeps with names like Nehimba and Shakwanki where elephants and other wildlife still dig for water, as did the San people who once inhabited Hwange.

“I’ve seen people watch all of these elephants standing around drinking and think it’s wonderful. What they don’t understand is that these animals are at the absolute end of their tethers,” says Mark as we watch a herd of elephants gather at a sandy waterhole beneath a huge Leadwood tree. This is the first stop on the ‘Pump Run”, a hands-on activity open to Imvelo’s more adventurous guests. Traversing the park in his land cruiser, we will deliver fuel and supplies to the network of diesel pumps that keeps the water flowing and the elephants alive.  

As we watch the herd drink, I see seriously stressed bulls jostling for a place to drink, aggressively swinging their tusks at one another.  Skin hangs from their alarmingly thin torsos. Their skulls are sunken with dehydration and their ribs protrude. Weary mothers search frantically for feeble calves that have fallen behind on the kilometres long march between watering holes. A skeletal old matriarch trumpets and bellows, then leans her bony head against a tree. Under a broiling midday sun the stench of decay and death is in the air. Some of these poor creatures will not live to see the coming of the rains.

Mark calls these diesel pumps the true ‘heartbeat of Hwange’ because they keep the park’s elephants and other wildlife alive for months on end. As we pull up to another waterhole a young man named Oscar dressed in a tattered Zimbabwe national football team jersey emerges from his tin shack to greet the boss, or bwana. Mark smiles, chatting fluently with him in Ndebele while instructing the two Imvelo employees he has brought along to start syphoning diesel fuel from the truck’s tanks into a ten-gallon drum. “These guys from the local villages, they’re Hwange’s true unsung heroes,” Mark tells me as we unload oil and filters for the pump, plus rations for Oscar, who is manning it alone while his partner is on leave.

Once hired, pump attendants are deployed to isolated waterholes where they live in tin huts near their pumps. They start work at the end of the rains and finish at the start of the next rains six months later, spending the day monitoring their pump and keeping a lookout for any signs of poaching activity. Just before sundown they cook their dinners of sadza, beans and kapenta (a type of sardine) over campfires and then lock themselves into their tin huts, away from prowling lions. It’s a lonely, tedious existence but a job highly prized in a country with so few of them. “A lot of these pump attendants tell me that they are ok with being far away from their villages for so long at a time because it forces them to save money,” Mark says.

Arriving at  the next pump located on a parched plain called Secheche, we spot a long line of elephants slowly marching toward us across the savannah. But this pump is broken and no water will flow until it can be fixed in a day or two. Then I witness an extraordinary sight – dozens of thirsty, exhausted elephants arriving at the waterhole only to discover it bone dry and no sound of a pump running. Trumpeting in frustration, they fuss about angrily, looking our way as if to say, ‘hey, what the hell is going on with the water?’  

“When we get compound problems like running out of diesel and the pumps leaking and engines breaking down at the same time, it’s just a train smash,” says Mark in frustration as we watch an emaciated calf struggle to keep up with its mother.  Soon they give up and move on to the next waterhole, several kilometres distant. The heartbreaking image of an undernourished calf stumbling to keep up with the departing herd lingers with me long after this parched procession is gone. Where they are headed next will be already overcrowded with other herds. It’s a domino affect of problems.

The Forgotten Quarter

Our final pump run stop is near a new Imvelo camp called Jozibanini in the Dzivanini wilderness area in the southwest corner of Hwange. Seldom visited, this is a truly wild land of wind blown fossil sand dunes and Zambezi teak forests where roads of any kind cease to exist. Jozibanini was once the site of a ranger station. But after Zimbabwe’s post millennium economic meltdown the funds required to  maintain it dried up and this far-flung outpost was abandoned. Then, in 2013, industrial scale poaching returned to the area when up to 300 elephants were poisoned here over several months – reportedly the largest massacre of wildlife in southern Africa in the past quarter century.

In 2014, Imvelo took over an old lease in this area and built a small camp here consisting of three large canvas tents on raised teak platforms under the Acacia trees overlooking Jozibanini pan. It feels as off the grid as any camp I’ve ever visited in a decade of going on African safaris. “We wanted to reestablish a permanent presence in this neglected area after the 2013 poaching incident here, partly to help prevent another mass slaughter,” Mark explains as we sit around the camp’s fire pit after dinner. “Sure, you might get away with one or two, but then we’re going to find out and nail you.”

National Parks has since established a new ranger base not far away, and the increased eyes and ears on the ground in remote places like Jozibanini, along with increase cooperation from nearby villages, is making it harder for poachers to operate easily in secrecy. The animals, including elephants, are starting to return thanks to the resurrection of pumped water. On a mountain biking ride the next morning with Mark down the ancient elephant paths that run for miles and miles in this part of Hwange I spot lion, hyena and even spotted wild dog tracks.  It’s an encouraging sign in this long forgotten quarter of the park that was left to the poachers for nearly twenty years.

Poachers Turned Gamekeepers

The two men Mark has brought on our pump run actually used to be poachers.  Solomon Sibanda was poaching to feed his family back in 2004 when Mark and some park rangers caught him running snare lines with another local man, Japhet Mlilo. They were eventually convicted and incarcerated in Bulawayo Prison. “Jail was very, very tough,” recalls Solomon, looking into the fire’s glowing embers. “There wasn’t enough food so my family had to bring it.”

Solomon’s colleague, Melusi “Zebra” Mabhena, says he resorted to snaring animals to survive during Zimbabwe’s post 2000 era of violent land invasions, hyperinflation and economic apocalypse. Fearing arrest, he escaped and fled Zimbabwe, swimming across the Limpopo River into South Africa like so many of his desperate countrymen. He remained in exile for four years, occasionally working illegally, struggling to send money home to his wife and four children. “ It was a hard life and I eventually returned from South Africa and found a job with Mr. Butcher,” he recalls. “He kept me on even after I admitted to have once been a poacher.”

After Solo and Zebra retire to their tents for the night, Mark explains that he hired them both, along with Japhet and other ex-poachers, because he was concerned that they were going to go back to poaching. “I knew them to be smart guys and hard workers, not gangsters or thugs. Now they all have money to take care of their families without resorting to poaching.”

Like Solomon and Zebra, some of the members of an anti-poaching squad I go on patrol with a couple of days later likely also once did what they had to do to feed their families. Sponsored by an NGO and Hwange safari operators like Imvelo, the Scorpions were formed in 2009 and trained by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) to help deliver a lethal sting to anyone snaring and killing animals in Hwange. For the past decade professional poaching syndicates have been focusing primarily on East Africa.  But with dwindling numbers of elephants in that region their attention is now turning to countries like Zimbabwe , and parks like Hwange, that still have healthy elephant populations.

Two of the Scorpions I’m with were originally hunting safari trackers. The rest are local villagers from impoverished communities ringing the park who say they simply wanted to help out. Some may have even once been poachers themselves. All went through a weeklong selection process packed with grueling mental and physical tests. Out of 48 candidates, 11 were chosen. For some of these men, anti-poaching is more than a paying job in a country with few opportunities. “I love animals very much and I’m very proud of what we’re doing, protecting and preserving wildlife,” says 42-year old Collet Ndlovu as we set out just after dawn from the Scorpions’ basecamp, a cluster of tin roofed huts called Wexau.

Fanning out across the parched bush, we search for crude, noose-like wire snares placed on the pathway of park animals, as well as any other signs of illegal activity. Fittingly, Ndlovu means ‘elephant’ in Ndebele, rendering taboo the very notion of poaching one. “This was the African peoples’ way of preserving their wildlife in the time before the conservationists”, he explains. “ If my name is elephant I’m forbidden to eat elephants. Instead, I am supposed to protect them."

The Elephant Express

After walking through the bush all morning with the Scorpions, I look forward to hopping aboard one of Hwange’s highlights. Imvelo’s Elephant Express is a private rail car linking the park’s mountainous northern sector with the flat, arid Ngamo plains. It runs along the same railway line along the northeastern boundary of Hwange built just after the turn of the last century that crosses the bridge at Victoria Falls. Built from scratch with typical Zimbabwean ingenuity in a Bulawayo workshop using a Coaster bus chassis and two Toyota land cruiser engines and gearboxes, this safari on rails seats up to 24 passengers in its two open carriages. Designed to be able to travel either forwards or backwards  comfortably at over 80 kilometres per hour, it runs along the arrow straight railway line forming the eastern border of the park.

Today is the Elephant Express’s hundredth run and the champagne is flowing. Passing herds of kudu, buffalo and giraffe, we roll along smoothly, stopping every few kilometres to let elephants and giraffes cross the tracks. Halfway along the route we stop at a siding beside  a small cluster of huts and what appears to be a workshop half hidden in the bush just outside the park. “That’s the hunting camp where they skinned and beheaded Cecil,” says Mark. Obscured by underbrush, a man appears to be slicing up the carcass of a large animal with a machete. As I snap a photo Mark tells me that hunting on this old farm boarding the park is banned.  “I’m going to call this one in,” he says, pulling out his cellphone and dialling park headquarters to report this suspicious activity.

The story of Cecil’s murder began with an unscrupulous hunting guide named Theo Bronkhorst obtaining a permit to kill a single ‘problem ‘lion that was stalking livestock in a communal area far from the park. Unable to locate that lion for his wealthy American client, Walter Palmer, Bronkhorst brought him here with the intention of luring a lion out of the park instead.  After a swift kill they planned to return to the area where he had obtained the permit and claim to have killed the lion there. Bronkhorst’s bait and switch scheme might well have worked except for one inconvenient glitch – Cecil was wearing a satellite collar.

As soon as the Palmer shot Cecil with his crossbow, the NGO monitoring Cecil’s movements noticed something was amiss, notified park officials of a possible poaching incident and dispatched a search party.  Palmer and Bronkhorst might still have gotten away with the poaching had they made a clean kill. But Cecil survived for at least another day, giving park rangers enough time to catch the culprits red handed beheading their prize at this camp. That Palmer will likely never be held accountable for what he should have known was an illegal act of poaching underscores  Zimbabwe’s aversion to scaring off wealthy foreign trophy hunters who inject relatively huge amounts of money into its shambolic, chronically corrupt economy.

It might be too late for lions like Cecil and those poisoned elephants, but I like to think that tens of thousands more creatures that depend for their survival on Hwange’s diesel pumps may yet stand a chance as long as elephant men like Mark Butcher are around. As we exit the park en route to our final two stops at his lodges near Victoria Falls and along the Zambezi, he watches another herd heading toward water. “If we could find a few million dollars we could probably bring enough scientific minds together to come up with a solution to this problem,” he says. “One that hopefully doesn’t simply involve pumping more water for more elephants.” Perhaps Hwange National Park will eventually solve its elephant overpopulation crisis to again be the envy of Africa for its great herds of gentle giants.  Until then, there seems to me only one humane course of action. The flow must go on.

If You Go

Getting There

South African Airways and British Airways fly from Johannesburg to both Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and Livingstone (Zambia), while regional carrier Airlink flies direct to Livingstone and Bulawayo. Transfers to lodges can be arranged. 

Where to Stay

Imvelo Safari Lodges has three well-appointed lodges and an adventure camp in Hwange, along with two lodges located close to nearby Victoria Falls.

When to Go

Wildlife viewing is best between May and November when Hwange’s animals congregate around the park’s many waterholes.

Recommended Outfitters

Tourcan Vacations and Lion World Travels both specialize in tours to the region.

How You Help

Learn more about Imvelo’s conservation efforts and the plight of Hwange’s elephants at the Imvelo Elephant Trust.

More Photos

View more photos taken during my 2015 visit to Hwange National Park.

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