Mana Pools National Park

by Mike Cadman

Mana Pools National Park

Mana Pools N.P. lies in the broad, hot, valley of the Middle-Zambezi River, shielded by steep, wooded escarpment slopes to the south and also to the north in Zambia. Game-rich floodplains, which are between one to five km wide, flank the Zimbabwean side of the river, the rugged escarpment slopes soaring 900 metres (2 900 feet) above the valley.

The river here is almost two km wide (1.2 miles) at some points, and has many channels, sandbanks, and small islands. It forms part of what is known ecologically as the “Middle-Zambezi”, a zone beginning at the mouth of the Kariba Gorge about 60 km (38 miles) upstream and terminating in the waters of the Cahora Bassa Dam across the border in Mozambique.

(Although the Middle Zambezi was historically considered to begin at the Victoria Falls the construction of the Kariba Dam means that, in reality, the Middle Zambezi begins downstream of the impoundment).

Nearly all of the land of the Zimbabwean side of the Middle-Zambezi is devoted to wildlife, either as game reserve or hunting concessions and animals roam widely along this entire stretch of river.

(The Upper-Zambezi is the section of the river running from its source in northern Zambia to the Victoria Falls. The Lower-Zambezi is the section of the river from the Cahora Bassa dam wall to the Zambezi Delta where the river enters the Indian Ocean).

Mana Pools N.P., together with the Lower Zambezi National Park (the name is something of a misnomer given its location) across the river in Zambia, is part of a Transfrontier Park, as well as being a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site.

“The annual congregation of animals in riparian parkland across the broad Zambezi constitutes one of Africa’s outstanding wildlife spectacles,” UNESCO states in its 1984 declaration of Mana Pools as a World Heritage Site.

Elephants sometimes cross the Zambezi between the two parks and are often found on some of the islands. Lions sometimes cross the river too.

The area was also proclaimed as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 2013. (Ramsar is an international convention formed to help protect wetlands)

The park, which covers some 2 196 square km. (847 sq. miles) gets its name from four large pools, the longest stretches for almost six km, which have formed in channels created by the Zambezi changing course over thousands of years. Mana means “four” in Shona, one of Zimbabwe’s official languages.

The pools used to hold water throughout the dry season, although, most likely due to the impacts of climate change, two of the pools dried up in the extreme drought of 2019, and, by early 2023, had still not fully recovered, the first time this has happened.

During the rainy season numerous temporary pans (pools) form throughout the park, but, as the May to November dry season wears on these dry up and the density of game on the floodplains increases dramatically as the animals become increasingly dependent on the water in the four pools, and in the Zambezi itself.

There are very few permanent sources of water in the south of the park although the Chitake Springs near the edge of the escarpment produce water all year round. The Springs, the only permanent natural water source within a 40 km radius, are visited by large numbers of elephants, buffalo, and other animals throughout the dry season.

Although there are few small rivers that run from the escarpment into the valley, these only flow for a short period after heavy rain.

The intense utilisation of the floodplain results in most grass cover and other undergrowth being removed by the end of the dry season but the landscape changes dramatically when rain starts in November, verdant green grass, shrubs, and other vegetation growing rapidly transforming the landscape.

Mana Pools N.P., declared in 1964, is neighboured to the east by the Sapi Concession (478 sq. km – 185 sq. miles,) a game reserve which was formerly a hunting area. Sapi has been restocked with a wide variety of game including elephants, a development beneficial to conservation, and thus tourism, in the region.

There are hunting concessions to the west of Mana Pools N.P. (Hurungwe Safari Area) and to the east of the Sapi Concession (Dande Safari Area). The area to the south falls under community conservation administration and some animals are hunted as part of the Community Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) scheme, under which it is intended that rural villagers derive some income from controlled hunting.

The park has a large elephant population and buffalo, lion, Africa wild dogs, zebra, waterbuck, kudu, bushbuck, and other species of antelope are common. Crocodiles and hippo abound in the river and the bigger pools on the floodplain.

Some species, particularly elephant and buffalo, disperse throughout the park during the rainy season but concentrate on the floodplains for the rest of the year. The Chitake Springs are an exception and are utilised throughout the dry season, a situation exploited by the large prides of lions that hunt the buffalo drinking at the Springs. The buffalo have to descend through steep gullies to get to the springs, running the gauntlet of the lions waiting in ambush, a regularly repeated occurrence that makes for spectacular wildlife photography.

Although Mana Pools used to support a strong population of endangered Black rhino they were almost wiped out by intensive poaching in the 1980’s, after which the authorities captured the few remaining animals and relocated them to safer areas.

More than 450 species of birds have been recorded in the area, including 52 species of raptor.

Thousands of Carmine bee-eaters nest in colonies in the steep sand embankments along this section of river, breeding activity reaching a peak from August to November. These bee-eaters are a brilliant pink/carmine with turquoise heads, and the sight of thousands of these birds darting back and forth from their nests, which are tunnels dug into the embankments, attracts birders form all over the world. Crocodiles sometimes wait in the river below the nesting areas, hunting for fledglings that may fall from the nests.

The vegetation of much of the valley floor is dominated by mopane trees, interspersed with dense thickets of dry forest known locally as “jesse”. These thickets are so dense that elephant and buffalo feeding in them often remain hidden from view, even at relatively short distances.

The riparian woodlands along the Zambezi include large numbers of apple-ring trees, figs, nyala-tress as well as jackal-berry and sausage trees. Baobabs are common.

The seed pods of the apple-ring trees, so called because they resemble a spiral of dried apple, (this tree is also known in Zimbabwe as the winter-thorn) are highly nutritious and are an important food for many animals at the end of the dry season. Some large bull elephants have learnt to lift themselves onto their back feet and raise their trunks vertically to pluck pods of the trees at heights beyond the reach of other animals. Only a few elephants at Mana Pools have learnt this technique and it has not been recorded elsewhere.

Mana Pools N.P., like all protected areas, is sometimes adversely affected by developments elsewhere and the hydrology of the Middle-Zambezi has been altered by the construction of the Kariba Dam in 1959. The floodgates at Kariba are seldom opened and, as a result, the scouring effect of the annual floods has been lost and researchers have noted that siltation is changing the nature of the river, and the islands, in Mana Pools N.P.

Some scientists also believe that apple-ring trees are not growing in the numbers they once did, possibly because the moisture content of the floodplain has been altered without occasional flooding, although some observers argue this may also be related to climate change. Others believe the decline in the numbers of young apple-ring trees may also be due to over-utilisation by elephants, or antelope which eat the seedlings.

There are a number of public campsites in the park and an increasing number of lodges. Canoeing safaris are run along the Middle-Zambezi. Many of the lodges use charter flights to transport guests to the park although those visiting the public campsites use their own, or rented, 4×4 vehicles.

Zimbabwean National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority have drawn up strict rules and guidelines to try and alleviate the impact of tourism on the fragile Mana Pools ecosystem. These include regulations controlling camping sites and driving off-road.

A number of private organisations and civil society groups have entered into partnerships with the Zimbabwean National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to help fund and manage anti-poaching operation. The Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ – formerly the Wildlife Society of Zimbabwe) assists in undertaking a regular census of wildlife.

Although some Iron Age sites along the edge of the escarpment provide evidence of early human activity, few people lived in the valley permanently.

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.