During the dry winter months, thousands of elephants roam the vast Kalahari savannah in search of water. The largest of earth’s land animals have been known to walk hundreds of kilometres across the dry plains to quench their thirst at waterholes that are often few and far between. Named after a local Nhanzwa chief, Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s largest protected area and one of the greatest elephant sanctuaries in southern Africa.
Situated on the easternmost edge of the Kalahari, the absence of permanent surface water in Hwange means that animals rely heavily on man-made waterholes to survive. Over the years, a series of boreholes have been drilled deep into the ground, pumping life-sustaining water for the park’s wildlife. Overlooking one of these pumped waterholes, Wilderness Safaris Davison’s Camp is named after Ted Davison, the first warden in the park.
When Hwange was declared a protected reserve in 1928, wildlife numbers were low, partly due to the lack of water sources. Back then, the only drinking water available to animals was the water caught in natural depressions. Courteney Johnson, the Operations Director of Wilderness Safaris Zimbabwe, said: “These shallow pans and waterholes were generally quite small and with use, evaporation and drainage, very few carried water to the next rainy season.”
When the waterholes shrank to muddy pools or dried up, animals had to cover huge distances to find water, often leaving the park boundaries. “Recognising the need to create a permanent supply of drinking water throughout the year, Ted Davison began drilling boreholes in the early 1930s,” said Johnson. Since that time, elephant numbers have climbed steadily and it is estimated that there are now more than 35,000 of these massive mammals in Hwange.
This success is not without its challenges, as the current elephant population far exceeds the recommended carrying capacity of the 14,651 square kilometre park. Habitat, water and food resources are put under great pressure, Johnson told us, and the situation was exacerbated by Zimbabwe’s economic crisis: “During that difficult time, the park lacked the necessary funding and many of the animals moved into our concession from elsewhere in the park.”
Despite these drawbacks, boreholes remain essential for the future of Hwange’s wildlife. Within their private concession, Wilderness Safaris pumps 16 of the 57 boreholes in the park year-round, helping to create a sanctuary for elephants and other African animals. According to Johnson, “removing the boreholes would have dire consequences for many animal species living in the park as most have become reliant on this pumped water.”
Game viewing is at its best in the dry season, when the scarcity of water attracts large numbers of elephants to the waterholes. The thirsty giants congregate at the water’s edge, drinking and spraying themselves with their trunks while the calves play in the mud around their feet. “It’s special to see such big herds and to be totally surrounded by them,” Johnson said. “It makes you realise and truly appreciate the huge wild space that we are so fortunate to be in.”
For more information about the elephant population problem in Zimbabwe go to: http://elephantpopulationcontrol.library.uu.nl/paginas/txt07.html
Marcus and Kate were hosted by Wilderness Safaris Davison’s Camp (www.wilderness-safaris.com).
For more photos from Hwange, visit Life Through A Lens Photography.