With elephant numbers across Africa declining rapidly under the onslaught of ivory poachers, one national park faces an entirely different problem: Hwange’s elephant population just keeps growing. But what, on the face of it, might appear to be good news has become an equally serious problem, one that is as much a threat to the elephants’ long term survival as ivory poaching. Quite simply, Hwange has too many elephants; far more than the habitat can sustain. Martin Dunn talked to Mark ‘Butch’ Butcher
How many elephant are there at Hwange?
According to the aerial count done in 2014 by Elephants Without Borders, there are around 44,000.
How many can the habitat sustain?
Everyone has a different theory. When Ted Davison came to work here in 1928, there were around 1000 elephants. So is that the number that should be here? When I was a young ranger in the 80s, there were about 30,000-35,000. Heavy culling – for better or for worse, right or wrong – got the numbers down to about 14,000. Hwange used to work quite well when the numbers were between 14,000 and 20,000. There was enough pumped water in waterholes: there wasn’t congestion and the animals flourished. We also had young acacia trees. Now, our woodlands are in an absolute nose-dive. Arguably, we should have one elephant per square kilometre, which is 14,000 elephants. Clearly 44,000 is unsustainable.
If the pumps weren’t there, would there be any water?
When Ted Davison came to work here he had a couple of lines drawn on a map; this was his park. The local San people showed him around and what he found out, in time, was that there was no permanent surface water in Hwange. So he had this huge ‘game reserve’ with no year-round water supply. So what the wildlife used to migrate out of the park in dry season. Each year they’d return in the rains but there would be fewer and many wounded animals, as human populations were building up around the park. So he decided to put some windmills in to pump water in the dry season so that his animals wouldn’t have to and he could protect them all year round. It worked brilliantly but by the 1960s his windmills weren’t keeping up; there were too many animals. So he had to start using engines. By the late 1960s we had this huge conservation success story where the elephant population has been taken from about 1,000 up to 20,000. But it’s essentially all artificial. In the 1980s, the elephant population was still flourishing, so the powers that be and the ecologists ordered a cull. Then the culling was stopped because by 1992 there was an ivory ban. In the 2000s, again the population has blossomed again, even drawing in elephants from Botswana. In the dry season of 2002, I suddenly had a monstrous influx of elephants come pouring into our camp waterholes, literally thousands. I knew what had happened: they’d turned off the water in the centre of the park. Clearly this wasn’t something I could walk away from. I couldn’t just let these animals die, nor could I let them devastate the area around our camp. I had to do something; so we started pumping the water to buy ourselves breathing space until we could get on top of things. I know full well that pumping water is not the answer, because we’ve created an artificial system. My problem today is that I’ve been handed this artificial situation and what do we do with it? Turn off the waterholes?
Are there people who argue that would be a more natural state of affairs?
We could recreate the old Hwange with 500-1000 elephant, two to three prides of lions, half a pack of wild dogs, two to three cheetah, 10 sable and five giraffe. But what would happen is that there would be no tourism. National parks and wildlife survive on the back of tourism. In the absence of the animals, why would people come to Hwange? They wouldn’t. We’ve spent a lot of time developing the communities around the park to become dependent upon the park, so if we turn off the water inside the park it would potentially kill off all the animals and devastate the communities.
How much impact does such a vast population of elephants have on other species?
The elephant is the most important animal in our park, comprising more than 90% of the biomass, but we don’t really know what’s going on. What we do have is anecdotal evidence, from old men like myself. I remember we used to see herds of 100-plus sable in the park and herds of 3000-4000 buffalo. We would see big herds of eland, 500-800. You just don’t see that anymore. I know a lot of that is down to competition with the elephant because the single limiting factor is the water. Hwange is a paradise for nine months of the year, but for three months of the year it’s a tough dry season. Once every five years, you get a serious drought. Let’s say Hwange has around 40 functioning waterholes, with 44,000 elephants drinking there. By the end of the dry season, many pumps have broken so you’ve often only got something like 15-20 functioning waterholes, with 2000-3000 drinking at each – so the other animals can’t reach the water, devastating the buffalo and sable herds.
How do you think the elephant population could, or should, be managed?
I know how they used to do it in the old days. Clearly and critically that’s not politically acceptable and the backlash from tourism would be massive. Our tourism dollar would collapse and Hwange would collapse anyway. So culling is not an option. Contraception, too, is not an option. We know also that the old migration routes are essentially closed: The migration routes that are open have been occupied, the routes to the Chobe river, the Zambezi river are full up. Chobe’s got as many elephant as we have, maybe more. We know that we can’t just turn off some of the water, so we’d have to turn off all of the water. If we turn off all of the water there will be a collapse of tourism. I believe that there is no single magic solution. I really, really, really would like to see some serious science and dollars brought to Hwange to try and look at this problem. We are facing potential disaster.
How bad is poaching here in Hwange?
We have two kinds of poaching: subsistence and ivory poaching. In a really tough year, locals might sneak into the park and kills a duiker to feed the family. Then there are the commercial poachers, who were stealing wire and putting up huge snare lines and killing big numbers of buffalo and wildebeest and damaging elephant. There are then, of course, the commercial ivory and rhino poachers who were coming in armed. There has been an upswing in elephant poaching, the likes of which we’ve never seen. The elephant poisoning incident in 2013 was the worst case of elephant poaching we’ve ever had in the history of this park. However, this year more elephants will die of starvation in Hwange National Park than will be poached – and yet we’ve got more poaching than we’ve ever had.
In general, how supportive of the park and its wildlife are the communities that live on the periphery?
If you put communities on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 would be one that does not poach, works really well with the park’s rangers and lodges and has a good income from tourism; 5 would be one that dislikes the national park and hates wildlife), I would suggest that ten percent of our communities are a 1, 20-30 percent are a 5 and the rest are intermediate.
What is your prediction for the next five years at Hwange?
I think Hwange is under the biggest threat it has ever been under – firstly from our massive elephant population and secondly from the threat of elephant poaching. But I am a glass half full guy; I am confident that this is a fight we can win. We’ve got a lot of good responsible operators on the ground here; we’ve got a lot of communities that are coming onside; and we’ve got tourism dollars. Responsible tourism is getting behind the park again. I think we’ll take some knocks and it’s going to be hard, but I’m quietly confident that Hwange is still going to be a place that you’ll want to come to five or ten years from now.
To read the full interview and more of Martin Dunn’s blog, click here. Mark Butcher’s is Director of Imvelo Safari Lodges. Following his BSc in Zoology and Botany at Rhodes University, his wildlife career has included being a ranger for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management and Provincial Wildlife Officer for Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission. His lifelong passion for Hwange – its elephants, wildlife and communities – formed the cornerstone for Imvelo Safari Lodges.