The Heartbeat of Hwange

The Heartbeat of Hwange

On my recent visit to Hwange we were gathered for coffee before setting off on our morning game drive and – as you do – I asked one of the ladies if she had slept OK.
She said that she had not, because the sound of the pump close to camp running all night disturbed her; couldn’t it be turned off at night?

Our guide had the perfect response – well practised I am sure – “That’s the heartbeat of Hwange, if it stops the park will die.”

There are no rivers in Hwange, only pumps
There are no rivers in Hwange, only pumps

And it is true, without the pumps most of Hwange would be completely without water in the dry season and the animals would have to move elsewhere or die.

In his book “Wankie – The Story of a Great Game Reserve” Ted Davison, Wankie’s first Game Warden, puts his finger on the problem that the park faced from its very inception in 1928.

“The boundaries of the reserve which had been decided upon were fairly well defined on the maps but not on the ground”


“The natural boundaries of this vast expanse of unoccupied land from an ecological point of view were the Deka river in the north, the Gwaai river to the east and the Nata river to the south. But all these rivers had been denied to the reserve for political reasons and even in those early days I could see trouble when game increased as eventually it would if my work was to be successful and the animals started drifting to the bigger natural water supplies during the dry season.”

Wankie had been created as a game reserve but due to the area’s lack of permanent water it was not an area where game naturally congregate except during the rainy season. Indeed on his first exploratory patrols through his new domain, undertaken by necessity during the dry season, Davison found that both water and game were scarce.
Yet it was the dry season when visitors could come to Wankie expecting to see game.

Davison knew that for Wankie to succeed as a game reserve he needed to create a habitat where the animals would remain during the dry season. That meant water.
To prevent the animals leaving the reserve and venturing onto land where they could be shot as pests or poached Davison set about the task of converting the seasonal pans into a year round water supply.
He sank boreholes to tap into the underground water supplies near the pans.

“… erecting windmills on the boreholes and pumping into the pans. By this means it was hoped to build up a sufficient supply during the rains and early dry season – when the game pressure on the pans was not very high – to carry the pan over into the next rainy season.”

A windmill pumped pan
A windmill pumped pan

“Windmills, however, did not provide the idea setup as they did not pump sufficient water to keep game satisfied. During windy weather the mills could pump only about 5,000 gallons a day; while towards the end of the dry season when water was most needed, I doubt if some of them pumped more than fifty gallons a day. A herd of a hundred elephant (and there were several herds of that number as early as 1940) would consume 5,000 gallons in one drink. If they visited a pan and did not get sufficient water they would change their routine, moving to some other watering point, often outside the reserve, where they would remain until the rains had started.”

by the early 1940’s Davison observed that

“The permanency of water supplies soon began to have its effect on game migration. Those animals which had previously been present in small numbers now appeared in greater numbers.”

“Buffalo, too, soon discovered the improved conditions. …. There were indications that some came in from Botswana during the dry season and returned when the rains set in. In time these buffalo stopped the return migration to the west and were joined by more and more from outside the reserve. It became evident by 1945 that the buffalo population, as much as the elephant, were one day going to present an over-stocking problem.”

Yet even Davison would be astounded to see just how the elephant population in Hwange has grown.

In 1973 – 12 years after Davison’s departure from Wankie – an in-depth survey of Wankie’s wildlife estimated the park’s elephant population to be around 10,500.

A Growing Problem

In 1995 the Warden of Hwange’s Main Camp presented a report to a workshop held in Hwange on the current management problems; one of the most significant of which was “Provision of artificial water for game in Hwange National Park”.

Here’s an excerpt of his report:

“The provision and management of artificial water supplies in Hwange National Park (HNP) is an extremely important management activity. To keep viable game populations within the park, it is essential that water is pumped for them. The old dry season migration route taken by water dependent species to the Gwaai river, has long been cut off by the commercial farms on the Gwaai (which are usually enclosed by strong game fence and the veterinary fence for the control of foot and mouth disease.

“Since the early 1930’s, when the first boreholes were pumped in HNP, the provision of water to animals in the dry season (which lasts almost seven months of the year) has resulted in an increase in number of all species. If water is not provided, animals will die in large numbers and this could inflict irreversible damage to the most diverse wildlife population in the country.”

“During the past four years the provision of water for game in the Park has gradually become worse and in fact, every year since 1990 the Park has faced a major water crisis. During the 1994 pumping season, game water supply operations fell into a total state of collapse.”

“Certain boreholes considered not strategic by the Park Wardens have had to be shut down to cannibalise spares to maintain others, particularly on the tourist routes. This has resulted in the ‘unnatural’ concentrations of animals around key water points and the associated degradation of the ecosystem. Only about 6% of the Park is savanna grassland ad most of this area is being subjected to extreme hoof pressure, over-grazing and destruction of trees, mainly around the water points.

Other ecological problems which also come into play because of the water shortages in the park are:

  1. The increase in the number of mortalities, particularly of water dependent species which are unable to walk long distances in search of water.
  2. The exclusion of other animals drinking at pans by elephant which dominate scarce water reserves, to the detriment of specially protected and rare species.”

He went on …

“The predicament has been made worse because of a long history of inadequate funding and the failure to replace ageing equipment such as diesel engines and borehole pumping equipment.”

Shortly afterwards, in 1997 another survey recorded that the elephant population had risen to about 25,000.

More and more elephants

And, at a time when other countries are seeing their elephant populations decline drastically, Hwange’s elephants keep on multiplying.
When they were counted in early 2015 as part of a continent wide elephant census, Hwange’s herds were estimated to number 44,000. That is about half of Zimbabwe’s total elephant population and three times as many elephants as the park can sustainably support.

Even when they are running 24/7 the pumps struggle to keep up with demand from thousands of thirsty elephants. At some pumps the water never reaches the pan because the elephants jostle to drink it directly from the outlet pipe.

Funding for Zimbabwe’s Parks department ZNPWMA (Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority) has not improved in the 20 years since the above report, it has got worse. In a country with so many problems facing its human population there are barely any funds available for wildlife and it is left to the tourism sector to tackle the problem.

That the pumps are able to operate 24/7 for up to 3 months a year is down to the dedication of organisations like Wilderness Safaries, Imvelo Safari Lodges and other companies operating lodges within Hwange NP. They have taken on the responsibility for the pumps; providing both fuel and maintenance.

The Pump Run

As an alternative to a more standard game drive, one of the activities on offer at Imvelo’s Bomani and Camelthorn lodges is the chance to go on a ‘pump run’.
A pump run is basically a full day game drive with a route that follows the chain of pumps that stretch southwards through the park from the lodges. The purpose of the pump run is to take fuel and other supplies to the crews that look after the pumps.

This is a revelation to many visitors.
On just about any game drive in Hwange you’ll see one or more pumps; positioned close to the pans they are a fixture of the park. But whereas the pumps close to the lodges can be easily re-fuelled with just a short drive, the ones deeper in the park take considerably more effort and some actually have 2 man teams looking after them day and night throughout the dry season.

Pump Maintenance
Pump Maintenance

These guys live in small shacks amongst the trees, close to the pump and their task is to make sure that their pump never stops. They re-fuel it several times each day and if it stops running hey are on hand to carry out repairs.

The chance to venture deeper into the park than a normal half day game drive would allow is a real treat and each pan brings new sightings.

A Bush Lunch

A real highlight of the day is the bush lunch under the trees overlooking Mfagazaan Pan. Here we relax for a few hours in the middle of the day and observe the wildlife as it moves to and fro between the waterhole and the forest.

As well as the elephants this is a great place to see Greater Kudu, Zebra and both Roan and Sable Antelope.

By being kept running around the clock these pumps can just about keep the park’s animals supplied with water.

Life for some is much harder than for others.

The elephants are large, with long legs and they are well able to walk the increasing distances between food and water. They usually arrive at the pumps in large family groups and adults can drink up to 200 litres each day. While the elephants are drinking no other animals can get close to the pumps.

But what about the smaller animals; the ones with shorter legs? As the distances they have to travel between feeding and drinking increases they find it harder and harder to cope and there is a real danger that before much longer the park will start to lose some of its species.

Ted Davison foresaw this more than seventy years ago.

“With the steady increase of the game population our problems began to loom ahead. The elephant and buffalo herds were increasing at a greater rate than other animals, not all from natural increase within the reserve, but by influx from outside. Clearly, the day would come when our water supplies would be so strongly patronised by big herds of these two species that the browsing and grazing in the country surrounding the permanent water supplies would become devastated and game animals would not be able to live there. That time was a long way ahead but until then the answer lay in the creation of more, and still more, watering points. There was, however, a limit to doing this, and sooner or later we would have to face up to the fact that as long as the elephants population went on increasing at the rate they were, either a drastic culling operation or an increased migration out of the reserve was inevitable.”

That elephant and other animals have thrived in Hwange for so long is a a huge endorsement of the work down by Ted Davison and those who came after him. More than seventy years after he installed the first pumps they system is still working.

Looking ahead, there are undoubtedly some tough decisions that need to be made to ensure that Hwange thrives for another seventy years but for now at least, as I lie in bed at night, the sound of a pump steadily chugging away in the distance is a not disturbance at all, it is reassuring. As long as I can hear the heartbeat, it means that Hwange is is alive.

Imvelo Elephant Trust

Friends of Hwange