Matusadona National Park

by Mike Cadman

Matusadona National Park

Matusadona, Zimbabwe’s fourth largest national park, lies on the southern shores of the giant Lake Kariba, the lake’s seemingly endless waters extending as far as the eye can see.

Broad grasslands have developed along the shoreline, creating a marked contrast between the water and the rugged and thickly wooded hills and mountains that are typical of the rest of the 1 470 sq. km. (567 sq. mi.) park.

The steep sided gorge of the Sanyati River, which is navigable for about 10 km. (six miles) from the lake, forms the eastern boundary of the park and the perennial Ume River marks the western boundary. There are numerous small springs scattered along the edge of the Zambezi escarpment, which towers 700 m. (2296 feet) above the lake.

Matusadona was first declared a game reserve in 1963, and a national park in 1975, and much of its development is linked directly to the lake which was formed after the Kariba dam wall on the Zambezi River was closed in 1959.

The closure of the river flooded vast areas and threatened thousands of wild animals prompting local game rangers to launch a rescue operation which was conducted over a five-year period. Dubbed Operation Noah, rangers, led by Rupert Fothergill, initially used their bare hands, ropes, and nets, but later tranquilisers, to capture animals. (For more on Operation Noah please see the Lake Kariba segment)

Eventually more than 6 000 animals, including lions, rhinos, elephants, zebra, warthogs, and antelope were moved to safety, many to what is now Matusadona which soon became well-known for thriving populations of black rhino, elephant, and buffalo. Buffalo, in particular, proliferated on the grasslands growing along the shores of the newly created lake.

Sadly, a surge of poaching in the 1980s, combined with human-wildlife conflict and changing environmental conditions, collectively devastated wildlife populations. The poaching, which also took place in many other parts of the Zambezi Valley at the time, focused on rhinos for their horns, elephants for their tusks, and buffalo for meat.

The buffalo population also declined steeply when the grasslands along the shoreline were severely reduced in size due to increases in the levels of the lake.  This had a serious impact on the lions, which preyed primarily on buffalo, and by 2004 only a few dozen of these predators remained.

Despite these setbacks, innovative conservation initiatives have recently been launched, and wildlife populations have begun recovering. In 2019 the Zimbabwe Parks and Management Authority and the not-for-profit wildlife organisation African Parks, announced a 20-year agreement to manage the park and new community engagement programmes have been developed, conservation law enforcement has been upgraded and wildlife reintroduction projects have been undertaken.

Tourism infrastructure is also being upgraded and new projects are underway to supplement existing lodges and camps.

Several islands are included within the park boundary and two, Spurwing and Fothergill, are used as bases for lodges that run game viewing and birdwatching tours by boat. Houseboats, based in the town of Kariba, also visit the park, often mooring near the shore overnight.

Due to the intensified conservation efforts wildlife populations are recovering and in addition to elephants, lion, leopards, buffalo, and zebra, a wide range of antelope occur, and the lake teems with hippo and crocodiles. The Bumi Hills, although not part of Matusadona, lie to the west of the park and also offer good wildlife viewing.

More than 250 species of birds have been recorded in the park, including the iconic African fish eagle.
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.