According to an aerial count in 2014 there are around 44,000 elephants at Hwange

Too Many Elephants at Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park

By —— Bio and Archives--April 22, 2017

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Elephant numbers across Africa have been declining rapidly under the onslaught of ivory poachers. However, one national park faces an entirely different problem. Hwange’s elephant population just keeps growing. But what, on the face of it, might appear to be good news has become an equally serious problem, one that is more a threat to the elephants long-term survival than ivory poaching. Quite simply, Hwange has too many elephants reports Martin Dunn. 1

Zimbabwe’s Hwange National park is a six thousand square mile area founded in the 1920s as a hunting preserve. Right at the start waterholes were dug and pumps were installed to increase big game.


Now, almost a hundred years later, seventy man-made permanent watering holes, their diesel pumps chugging away, have completely transformed the ecosystem. In the evening, elephants come to water, and Tom Lutz did a rough count of some five hundred elephants of all ages coming for a drink at a single site. The country as a whole has an elephant population between two and three times the optimum suggested by leading conservation and wildlife groups, but in Hwange the problem is worse. 2
According to an aerial count in 2014 there are around 44,000 elephants at Hwange. 1

Across the park, the devastation wreaked by the elephants is easy to see. In the woodlands, the trees are reduced to shredded stubs. In the Kalahari woodland, major tree loss and erosion are visible everywhere. There are as many as twenty times as many elephants per square mile than can be sustained without environmental damage.

Although poaching in Hwange in 2016 was the highest ever encountered, more elephants died of starvation than poaching.

Mark Butcher, Director of Imvelo Safari Lodges, says the park should have one elephant per square kilometer, which is 14,000. Clearly, 44,000 is unsustainable. 1

The people who work in the park—rangers, guides, camp staff—have different explanations for why there are so many elephants, but the most common and most persuasive is this: tourists love pachyderms.

In the 1970s and 1980s the government allowed some elephant hunting as a way to cull the herds. When culling was halted in 1986 under international and tourist industry pressure, there were some twelve thousand elephants in Hwange. Compare this with some 44,000 today.

If the water to pumps within the park was turned off, the old Hwange could be re-created. However, with 500 to 1,000 elephants and a minimum number of other animals there would be no tourism. This would devastate surrounding communities that rely on tourism.

Mark Butcher sees no single magic solution. He really would like to see some serious science and dollars brought to Hwange to try and look at this problem. 1


  1. Martin Dunn, “Elephants at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park in crisis?”, travelafricamag.com January 14, 2016
  2. Tom Lutz, And the Monkey Learned Nothing, (Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2016), 212




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Jack Dini -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Jack Dini is author of Challenging Environmental Mythology.  He has also written for American Council on Science and Health, Environment & Climate News, and Hawaii Reporter.

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