Hwange National Park

by Mike Cadman

Hwange National Park

Maps will tell you that Hwange National Park covers some 14 650 sq. km (5656 sq. miles) of north-western Zimbabwe and while this is entirely true, the reality is that Hwange is part of a much larger ecosystem that extends deep into Botswana to the west, and is even linked ecologically to parts of Namibia, Angola and Zambia.

Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest national park and one of the most popular. With more than 100 species of mammals, including elephant, lion, leopard, and sable antelope, 400 species of birds and a wide range of vegetation, it attracts visitors from all over the world. The diverse wildlife, and the fact that the famous Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River, are only 100 km from the park’s main gate by road, ensures that Hwange is always high on visitor itineraries.

The reserve has a long history as a protected area. It was declared a game reserve in 1928 and a National Park in 1930, making it the oldest national park in the country. Initially, the government of the day considered the area to be useless, as it was too dry for cattle or crop farming.

A few groups of hunter-gatherers still moved through the area in the 1920’s, but due to a scarcity of water and a long history of hunting, game was scarce. Ted Davison, the first warden of the area, set about controlling hunting and creating a network of boreholes which slowly helped establish a significant permanent wildlife population, thus making Hwange (known then as Wankie Game Reserve) attractive to the nascent wildlife tourism industry.

Today wildlife conservation and tourism has grown to a scale unimaginable to Davison and his colleagues. Hwange is now a key component of the planned Kavango-Okavango Transfrontier Conservation Area – KAZA – which will reach across vast parts of Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, and Angola.

Hwange N.P.

Hwange boasts an extremely broad mosaic of vegetation, a diversity that is due to variations in rainfall and soil types. Rainfall is highest in the northern regions and the annual average across the park is about 610-630 mm.

Most rain falls in summer between November and the end of March. Summers can be very hot, in excess of 40 °C (104 °F) but frost occurs in many parts of the park in winter (June-September).

Visitors arriving at the main gate are greeted by thick miombo woodland, characterised by tall trees, some reaching as high as 30-metres, which have a broad canopy that allows sufficient sunlight through to encourage the growth of long grass. Many of the trees in these woodlands drop their leaves at the end of the dry season and the new leaves, which emerge just before the rainy season commences in November, turn a mixture of vivid orange and red, creating an unusual spectacle in the usually muted tones of the African bush.

The well-known Zambezi teak, widely used in manufacturing beautiful furniture, is common here. (Although Zambezi teak is still used to manufacture furniture and carvings, the tree is now considered to be “near threatened” and determined efforts are being made by the authorities to protect the species from over-exploitation).

The vegetation changes quickly as the visitor travels to different regions within Hwange. Mopane trees are common across much of the north of the park and although this species sometimes dominates large areas, it is rich in game.

Further to the south the vegetation changes because the soil becomes very sandy but many types of thorn trees and shrubs, as well as grassland occur here and attract a wide range of animal life.

This sand forms the basis of the Kalahari Desert, which is not a true desert at all and is more accurately known as  “arid savanna.” It supports a wide variety of grasses, shrubs, and trees. Perhaps the best-known tree of this region is the camelthorn, which provides nesting sites for many species of birds, and food for browsers such as kudu and giraffe.

During the dry season, June-October many natural pans dry up, making the artificially fed waterholes critically important to wildlife and, as a consequence, game viewing at pans during this period is often spectacular.

At some dams and waterholes, permanent hides have been constructed to enable good wildlife viewing.

Many a visitor has captured treasured photographs of large numbers of elephant or buffalo drinking at pans, the animals being silently watched over by the stark outline of dead leadwood trees, a species with wood so hard that it is impervious to termites and lasts for hundreds of years after the tree has died.

Another, no less iconic image, is that of tall slender ilala palms, scattered across grassy plains, or near a pan at sunset. Although Hwange is huge, the park is part of a much larger ecosystem that goes way beyond its formal boundaries.

In the northern regions of the park some areas lie at an altitude of about 1 000 metres (3 300 feet) and form part of the Gwaai River drainage basin, itself part of the Zambezi River catchment area. The topography is relatively broken with hills.

Much of Hwange falls within the western limits of the Kalahari Desert, which extends west into Botswana and runs all the way to northern Namibia, southern Angola and even parts of south-western Zambia (Map). The Kalahari forms the largest unbroken expanse of sand in the world (Many parts of the Sahara Desert are rocky).

Natural water is scarce in the south but there are a few seasonal streams which briefly flow into the Nata River. This river terminates in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans, the remnants of an inland sea that dried up thousands of years ago to form the largest salt pans in the world. The Makgadikgadi Pans include Nxai Pan, Sua Pan and Ntwetwe Pan, which collectively cover some 30 000 sq. km (11 583 sq. miles).


Hwange has an exceptionally large elephant population, somewhere in the region of 45 000 animals, but many move into surrounding communal areas and other protected areas. Researchers using satellite technology, have tracked some bull elephants moving from Hwange to the Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana, some 260 kilometres away.

Bull elephants are known to travel vast distances, some following routes used for generations, in search of food resources. This underscores the value of transboundary conservation projects like KAZA.

Moving out of Hwange poses a variety of risks to the elephants. Some may be tempted to eat subsistence farmer’s crops, which, in some cases, results in the animals being shot as “problem animals.”

Another threat to elephants, lions and other some other species is the fact that Hwange is surrounded by hunting concessions, including in neighbouring Botswana, and those species favoured by hunters risk being shot if they leave the park.

Hunting is a contentious issue, but the Zimbabwean and Botswanan Governments argue that well-managed trophy hunting can earn valuable foreign currency, most elephant trophy hunters are from outside Africa, which can contribute to the upliftment of local communities and help fund conservation projects.

Lions, which along with elephants and leopards are the species most tourists hope to photograph, are also common in Hwange, and they too sometimes move outside of the park. Researchers have tracked some lions which have walked hundreds of kilometres to and from Chizarira National Park in northern Zimbabwe. Again, this emphasises that Hwange is not an island and forms part of a broader conservation landscape and puts lions at risk of being shot while crossing hunting concessions.

Lions are sometimes shot in the hunting concessions.

Hwange has a relatively large population of endangered African Wild dogs as well as sable and roan antelope, animals which are uncommon in many other areas. Rare and unusual species including pangolin, aardwolf and aardvark also occur in Hwange.

The area is a well-known birding destination, and its varied habitats also offer much to those particularly interested in reptiles and other smaller creatures.


A wide variety of accommodation is available to tourists. This ranges from upmarket “fly-in” private lodges to self-catering campsites. Roads in the park are relatively good although some routes may require 4×4 vehicles, particularly in the rainy season.

Charter flights from Victoria Falls and elsewhere are used to by some of the more upmarket lodges to transport their guests to Hwange.

In addition to game drives, walking safaris are offered in some areas and these are always undertaken with a qualified armed guide.


Zimbabwe’s weak economy has resulted in a shortage of official funds for many aspects of conservation and community upliftment projects to enable rural people to see the benefits of large conservation areas like Hwange have become essential.

A wide range of biological research is undertaken and over the years specific projects have included work on elephants, lions, wild dogs, vultures, vegetation, and many other aspects of Hwange’s biodiversity.

Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ – formerly the Wildlife Society of Zimbabwe) have conducted wildlife counts in Hwange for more than 50 years, one of the longest unbroken wildlife census projects in Africa. Volunteers participate in the game count annually.

The data produced by WEZ assists the park management in understanding wildlife population trends, the incidence of poaching and other information.

Poaching is a constant problem in Hwange, as it is in all national parks and game reserves in Africa, and the anti-poaching teams run by Zimbabwe National Parks together with those conducted by private organisations play a critical role in reducing wildlife losses.

Subsistence poaching for meat, most commonly through the use of snares but sometimes by poachers using dogs, spears, and firearms, often takes place near the boundaries of the park.

Elephant poaching for ivory surged in 2013 when a large number of elephants were killed in Hwange by poachers using poison, but the number of elephants killed has declined to almost zero in recent years.

Much of this decline in poaching, growth in knowledge and maintenance of the parks has been the result of partnerships formed between Zimbabwean National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and individuals, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) as well as some lodges and tourism operators who assist in many aspects of managing Hwange. This includes maintaining solar-powered boreholes, anti-poaching operations, the construction of offices and accommodation for staff, funding research, and assisting with community projects, including the funding of schools in neighbouring areas.

Travel and tourism are the lifeblood of these vast and precious natural resources. So, the next time you travel in this area, know that you are not only having a holiday you are contributing to the sustainability of a huge and complex ecosystem and the communities that border it.

Mike Cadman

Mike has worked as a journalist for a variety of international and local media organisations as well as environmental NGO’s for the past 38 years and is the author of five books. During his career, he has covered all major news developments in southern Africa and has travelled extensively throughout many parts of the continent. He spends as much time as possible in the bush and has extensive knowledge of broader environmental issues as well as the creatures that live there.