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Hwange's Dilemma (Please excuse the fact that this is a terrible over-simplification of the issue, but I've strived to keep it concise) Hwange is the largest Park in Zimbabwe occupying roughly 14 650 square kilometers. It is one of THE places to see elephants in Africa. According to the 2015 African elephant census it is home to 44,000 elephants, roughly 50% of Zimbabwe's elephant population. And therein lies the dilemma. Actually it is not Hwange's dilemma. What to do about Hwange is a dilemma for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA). On their website they set out their Vision and Mission Statement: It sounds good but is that really what they are doing? "effective, efficient and sustainable utilisation of natural resources" In the case of Hwange I think not. From its inception, Hwange (then called Wankie) was established on land not suitable for agriculture because it had not reliable source of year round water. The first warden – Ted Davison - found is the dry season his new domain had few animals. Those that frequented the area in the wet season departed as soon as the waterholes dried up. If his new reserve was going to attract visitors it needed animals, throughout the year. Davison saw that the only way to entice animals in and to persuade them to remain through the dry season was to provide permanent water. To achieve this Davison created a series of pump driven boreholes. His strategy worked. Animal numbers rose steadily; elephants and buffaloes in particular. (source Keith Meadows – Afterword in Ted Davison's book “Wankie – The Story of a Great Game Reserve) In earlier times, the way that this burgeoning elephant population was kept under control was through culling. (source Keith Meadows – Afterword in Ted Davison's book “Wankie – The Story of a Great Game Reserve) Unsurprisingly, once the culling had ceased, the elephant population grew unhindered and the food supply became more depleted each year, with animals having to walk further and further between food and water as the vegetation was pushed further and further from the water holes. As large mammals, the elephants can move with relative ease over the increasingly large distances between food and water, but other, smaller, animals cannot. Even when they can get to the waterholes they do not have free access as the elephants keep other species away until they have drunk their fill. Consequently, species diversity is declining in Hwange. What to do? To answer that we must first decide what we want Hwange to be. Do we want a natural sustainable habitat for animals or do we want a national park where the animals are a spectacle for tourists? (This of course begs the question of whether tourists really want to see elephants clustered around a pumped waterhole that sits in the middle of a desert?) Start (resume) culling? The situation has been allowed to slide for so long that, right now, the number of elephants that would need to be culled to achieve a sustainable population is huge. The international outcry would be deafening and it is hard to see this happening. So what else could be done? A decision could be made to turn off some or all pumps? This would force the elephants to move elsewhere and allow time for the vegetation to recover. Certainly elephants would die as a result, but other species would benefit. Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area Hwange is part of the massive Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area – a Peace Parks Foundation initiative. Can elephants be enticed to move elsewhere within the park? Or have their migration routes been effectively blocked by human settlement? But although the KAZA TFCA looks great on paper, has it actually achieved anything? There are certainly areas within the KAZA TFCA that could accommodate more elephants but although It encompasses several National Parks they are divided by large areas of human settlement that prevent any significant animal movement between them. I could not even get through to them by phone and emails I sent just bounced back. I have not bothered to mention trans-location as the number of elephants that would need to be moved and the cost involved makes it unworkable. Doing nothing is not an option One thing seems certain – if we do nothing, the elephants will eat Hwange out of existence. Once they have devoured the food supply to a point where it is unable to regenerate during the wet season they will either die or move elsewhere. If we let that happen Hwange will be finished as a viable National Park. The question for the cash strapped ZPWMA is whether to take action now and risk alienating tourists (and the 'armchair and social media conservationists') in the short term to save their resource or do nothing and watch their National Park decline until tourists no longer find it attractive; at which point it will cease to be a source of revenue. Impact on local communities The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many businesses and communities are dependent on Hwange's continued existence for their livelihoods - not because of handouts but as a source of employment and education. Many of the communities around Hwange NP are models of how communities can become involved in and benefit from their country's wildlife and tourism. If the tourists stop coming then the lodges and safari operators will go out of business and then all the local communities that rely on their support will suffer too. And that will create yet another problem for Zimbabwe's government.
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