Hwange, Zimbabwe – Elephant Central (11.07.19)

At such a crucial time in the long-term survival of the African elephant – which faces real danger of extinction – Hwange National Park is bucking the continental trend. It is presently home to the magnificent number of some 45,000 pachyderms, living in around 350 super-herds.

It’s a phenomenal amount when you consider that there are only an estimated 415,000 African elephants alive today.

As well as offering dramatic open-sky African scenery, Hwange allows visitors to enjoy one of the continent’s greatest wildlife opportunities. Recently returning to the region after my first visit 35 years ago, I was mesmerised by the abundance of healthy elephants.

Accompanied by well-trained guides who take you to the right watering holes, you soon become enthralled by the plentiful opportunities to get touchingly close to a herd. Watch, with a Cheshire cat grin, as the massive matriarch elephants lead their troops out of the dry bush down to the water. Charging with trunks trumpeting, they look for all the world as if they have just stepped out of a film set from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Especially as the bigger bull elephants, observing from one side, resemble Walt Disney’s Colonel Hathi. Commanding, in charge and paternally grumpy.

The strong family bonds are immediately evident, with a constant chorus of deep grunts and growls allowing for inter-herd communication across large distances. Excited baby elephants tug at their mothers’ tails before rushing off through the mud to practise their newfound charging routine with elder, less-impressed siblings. I was transfixed from the first moment.

Which was perhaps a tad naive, as the success of Hwange’s elephant herds is putting a considerable strain on the national park. The Pan African Elephant Survey has highlighted that at 14,600sq km, Hwange is better suited to support about half the current elephant population. The herds’ success is putting a disproportionate strain on the local environment.

Although a dry and often desperate landscape, the success of the 70+ boreholes that sustain the elephants has brought into sharp focus the delicate balancing act between conservation, sustainability and a healthy eco-environment.

Although this is a serious issue, it’s different in a rather surreal way, to ‘over poaching’, which is rife in so many other African national parks.