If the wind is in your favour, the smell hits you first. It’s rare to hear them, unless you surprise them – then the noise rings through your entire spine. They are so easy to miss, and yet you know that they are uncomfortably close. When you do come face to face, they tower over you with their agile trunk, iconic ears and tremendous tusks that can make your eyes water. Encountering elephants is common for villagers as these animals move onto their lands.
An elephant can guzzle up to 180 litres of water and gobble up 250 kilograms of vegetation every day, walking vast distances searching for these vital resources and leaving a trail of destruction behind.
If you think one is impressive, multiply that by 45,000. That’s the number of elephants in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, which has been my back garden for the last 7 months. My front garden has been the villages, which elephants dangerously spill into on a daily basis.
Every year, these beloved gentle giants attract thousands of tourists from across the world to Hwange, but this hasn’t always been the case.
When Ted Davidson became the first Park Game Warden in 1928, there were only about 4,000 elephants and almost no year-long water supplies. Natural pans appeared during the rainy season (from November to March) and disappeared one by one as the dry season progressed. This pushed elephants to wander into adjacent villages looking for water and food, where they got themselves harmed and even killed. To create a safe place for wildlife, including elephants, Ted Davidson installed water pumps powered by windmills to retain animals inside the Park during the dry season.
Today, these pumps have been replaced by innovative and efficient solar hybrid pumps that reliably supply water to animals on a continuous basis.
Ted Davidson’s water pumping ambitions worked… all too well! Now 45,000 elephants, nearly four times the Park’s capacity, roam the area. But as climate emergency impacts accentuate, rains during the wet season are evermore unreliable, erratic and sparse. Prolonged droughts mean that even if underground water is pumped, vegetation is not able to grow on a scale large enough to feed 45,000 elephants. As a result, elephants suffer from malnutrition, stress, dehydration and death.
How do we deal with the mammoth catch-22 that has become the elephant population in Hwange?
Many solutions have been trialled and considered, but financial and ethical implications make it an incredibly complicated predicament .
Translocations are colossal efforts, requiring equipment, expert teams, vets, large vehicles, containers, helicopters and a hefty budget. This makes translocations both financially and logistically impossible to tackle the elephant overpopulation problem in Hwange, not to mention the enormous amount of stress this puts on the animals involved.
Current contraceptive techniques seem to work in small confined populations but for the size of Hwange’s elephant population, it’s unthinkable. Contraception also disrupts the social structure of elephant herds, which is based on breeding; if unable to fulfil their reproductive imperative, elephants can become distressed and aggressive.
Monitoring and controlling water availability is ethically contentious. Elephants are entirely reliant on pumped water so deliberately shutting off water supplies will cause mass wildlife deaths. Dead animals will drive away tourists, reducing access to funds for wildlife, local communities, and ultimately the entire country.
Who doesn’t love witnessing amazing wildlife sightings? However, these will not endure forever unless we implement holistic and long-term solutions to conservation issues. A very first step is to bring field experts, including many of the people I have met here, together with professionals from different disciplines to identify required research. This includes mathematical models that explore population dynamics, GPS data that monitors herd movements, and land use maps. In the meantime, organisations pour tens of thousands of dollars annually into pumping water for elephants within Hwange and preventing catastrophic elephant deaths. But these organisations rely on tourism revenue to carry out such activities and in the current lock – and upside – down world we live in, this is increasingly challenging.
The first dead elephant I ever saw shocked me but the first field I saw destroyed by elephants shocked me just as much.
The damage they cause is immense and the truth is that animals will keep over-spilling into villages as long as Hwange is unable to sustain its elephant population. For the sake of both Hwange’s wildlife and the people, this crisis needs to be tackled now.
You can help people and wildlife co-exist in Hwange during these environmentally and economically difficult times. Get in touch with the Camelthorn Foundation.
Illustration by Helen Spence-Jones.
Una, writer and educator
Radu Toma, Romania
Financier and CEO, USA
Letizia, Saudi Arabia
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