Integrated approach to elephant conservation in Zimbabwe : The numbers speak!
The park is also home to over 150 mammalian species including the the big five (viz. lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino) and the endangered African wild dog. This rich biodiversity is however, threatened in the long term should degradation heighten. The prevailing high elephant population is now twice HNP’s ecological carrying capacity and clearly more than what the park can handle as evidenced by signs of habitat degradation and alteration of flora structure and composition and distribution of fauna species.
One might ask the question, why so many elephants in Hwange National Park? Several factors have been noted to be contributing to this scenario with two major ones being: the provision of artificial game water within the park; and the enhancement of anti poaching activities, both factors foster a sense of a ‘safe haven’ for the elephants.
Naturally, Hwange National Park is a very dry area without any surface water and has traditionally sunk boreholes as a source of water for the artificial game watering holes. While 71 boreholes have been sunk to date, WWF and its partners commissioned a groundwater study to assess the long term viability of providing artificial game water supply in HNP and the surrounding gazetted forests in 2016.
The results of the study shows that rate of groundwater recharge exceeded abstraction rate at the time and more boreholes could be sunk without compromising the water balance. As such, WWF and other players are drilling new boreholes fitted with solar powered submersible pumps to reduce recurrent costs associated with diesel pumping. The study also informed plans for establishing a water table monitoring system to monitor the sustainability of the game water supply program.
Despite the economic challenges that crippled most sectors in the country, WWF and partners have made significant strides to ensure anti-poaching investments continue to flow into Hwange National Park to safeguard the rich biodiversity. A Global Environment Facility, through the World Bank under the Hwange Sanyati Biological Corridor project contributed towards the game water supply as well as sophisticated cutting edge modern technologies in dealing with anti-poaching.
The Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (PWMA) and WWF in collaboration with other stakeholders designed and are implementing an integrated wildlife anti-poaching plan that directs support towards the improvement of anti-poaching operations, infrastructure, equipment, monitoring, information management and collaboration. Consequently the project has better resourced and provided state of the art patrol equipment, ranger training; digital communication infrastructure; improved ranger mobility and collaboration with other law enforcement agencies through joint operations in the park and buffer areas.
While these anti poaching mechanisms have been common to the park, WWF and partner’s support to the park took a new dimension, leaving no stone unturned when a K9 unit was established at the park. The K9 unit comprises several sets of Rottweiler, Labradors and German Shepherd dogs as part of the anti-poaching response team. The vicious dogs complement each other as their strengths are spread to sniff, track and attack respectively.Having witnessed their capabilities at a dog show, the HNP buffer communities were left both awe-struck and confident that no poachers would escape.
These buffer communities share a 250km unfenced stretch with the park, wherein wildlife has free movement outside and into the park. Despite the Human Wildlife Conflict (HWC) experienced by the communities, they remain the first line of defence against poachers. As such, WWF supported PWMA to engage with communities and avoid the traditional top down management approach which created animosity with the local communities who felt alienated in key decision making. Through round table discussions, agreements are now in place for chiefs to access traditional shrines in Hwange National Park and eco-tourism based enterprises promoted.
WWF Zimbabwe appreciates that although these are steps and efforts in the right direction, the fight against anti-poaching continues in order to protect the rich biodiversity threatened by new and sophisticated ways of poaching such as cyanide poisoning. As such, an effort to engage partners within the WWF network and beyond continues with more urgency now than ever to secure the rich biodiversity of Hwange National Park and its buffer zone.