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Elephants Rely on Man-Made Waterholes in Hwange NP, Zimbabwe

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.

 

A family herds walk in single-file across the open grasslands towards a watering hole
A family herds walk in single-file across the open grasslands towards a watering hole.

 

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.”

 

Elephants rely on pumped waterholes to survive the dry season between June and October
Elephants rely on pumped waterholes to survive the dry season between June and October.

 

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.”

 

Pumped waterholes are maintained year-round to provide drinking water for wildlife
Pumped waterholes are maintained year-round to provide drinking water for wildlife

 

Elephants use their tusks to dig for minerals in the sand as a way to supplement their diet
Elephants use their tusks to dig for minerals in the sand as a way to supplement their diet

 

A loo with a view at Davison’s overlooks a herd of elephants at the camp’s watering hole
A loo with a view at Davison’s overlooks a herd of elephants at the camp’s watering hole

 

Hwange’s range of habitats includes teak forests, Kalahari savannah and acacia woodlands
Hwange’s range of habitats includes teak forests, Kalahari savannah and acacia woodlands

 

The large concentrations of plains game at the waterholes attract predators such as these lions
The large concentrations of plains game at the waterholes attract predators such as these lions

 

Calves play together at the water’s edge but they always stay close to their family herd
Calves play together at the water’s edge but they always stay close to their family herd

 

The natural waterholes in Hwange dry up so it is necessary to have artificial water sources
The natural waterholes in Hwange dry up so it is necessary to have artificial water sources

 

Cheetahs scan the Kalahari savannah for prey that can be spotted more easily in the dry season
Cheetahs scan the Kalahari savannah for prey that can be spotted more easily in the dry season

 

Greater kudu are one of many antelope species in the park; others include impala, eland, sable and blue wildebeest
Greater kudu are one of many antelope species in the park; others include impala, eland, sable and blue wildebeest

 

Elephants cross the open plains to drink at the park’s waterholes at least once a day
Elephants cross the open plains to drink at the park’s waterholes at least once a day

 

Elephants no longer have to walk a long way to find water during the dry winter season
Elephants no longer have to walk a long way to find water during the dry winter season

 

With easy access to water elephants have no need to leave the park for the sake of survival
With easy access to water elephants have no need to leave the park for the sake of survival

 

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.

Comments

  1. robert
    hwange national park at Davison camp.
    September 10, 2013, 12:51 pm

    thats true about waterhole in the park , since we dnt have permanent river at al that wil sustaint the wildlife. Having the water it is a true heart bit of hwange that u wil see all animals coming to drink. Now at Davison camp we have alread started escosting guest they rooms after branch becouse of the huge number of elephants in the park.

  2. mudiw zhanje
    zimbabwe
    August 29, 2013, 7:27 am

    what a nice job done to the future genaretion to see these beautiful animals thank u

  3. sandip
    Charlotte, North carolina, USA
    March 14, 2013, 8:38 pm

    Great work by some great people

  4. Michael lapin
    Bromo national park
    March 9, 2013, 9:38 pm

    It’s beautiful to see and hear about people putting in so much hard work to sustain wildlife here without the need to put species into captivity. Top draw!

  5. robert l brown
    Kwangam-dong South Korea
    March 9, 2013, 7:23 am

    L love the outdoors whether its watching animals, or exploring mother nature, and I find that National Geographic magazines fits my needs.
    Thanks
    Robert.