Hwange National Park
Once this park was a hunting reserve for Ndebele kings. Then Europeans came and so overhunted prime areas that its rich wildlife populations dwindled. With protection, they rebounded.
Now on a quiet night during a full moon at one of Hwange’s water holes, huge numbers of elephants splash about in family groups of all ages. With them may be herds of buffalo, giraffes, 16 species of antelopes including relatively rare sable, roan, and gemsbok, such predators as lions and leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, and numbers of interesting smaller creatures in congregations seldom seen elsewhere.
More than 400 species of birds have been counted. Golden orioles feed on hanging commiphora berries and enliven the acacia and mopane canopy with liquid bubbling notes. So do their black-headed and green-headed cousins, weaving delicate baglike nests of lichens, moss tendrils, and spiderwebs.
Cuckoos of seven species, including the emerald, search for hairy caterpillars in trees or leaf litter on the ground.
Bradfield’s hornbills with ponderous-appearing (actually lightweight) bills manipulate not only fruits and nuts but large insects and even small reptiles, sometimes digging in elephant dung around the main camp. Burchell’s and double-banded sandgrouse come to the water and soak breast feathers to take droplets back to thirsty nestlings.
Eagles of many species make homes here—bateleur, martial, African hawk, brown snake, and black-breasted snake, joined by large numbers of steppe and lesser spotted eagles after the rains end. Black and yellow-billed kites snatch food from picnickers. Ospreys hover and plunge for fish at Mandavu Dam, and African skimmers scoop up minnows from the water’s surface with long lower mandibles.
Hwange, like many wildlife reserves, became a national park almost by default. Its dry soil, with no permanent water source, was unpromising either for agriculture or human habitation. It was set aside in 1929 and its first staff set about to make it attractive to wildlife, drilling boreholes and establishing permanent sources for dozens of water holes and seasonal pans.
This was so successful that more land was added and Hwange became Zimbabwe’s largest national park—5,655 square miles (14,651 km2)—in 1949. As a result it has supported an array of inviting habitats ranging from magnificent hardwood forests to large open grassy plains ringed with acacias, scrub mopane bush, and woodland. In them are more than 100 mammal species, 70 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, and a glorious assortment of birds.
Up to 26,000 elephants browse in winter, prying off bark with their tusks, grinding up tough dry grasses, reeds, even branches with their rasplike teeth. During the rains they disperse through the park and consume up to 330 pounds (150 kg) a day of tender grasses and herbs, returning in dry weather to concentrate again at the pans.
White rhinoceros frequently graze near the camp. (“White” is a misnomer; it should be “wide” referring to their wide, square mouths compared to narrow, pointed mouths of the black rhinos.)
Massive buffalo herds of 2,000 or so are not uncommon, and Hwange is an excellent place to see lions—particularly in the northwest section in the morning, where lions most often kill at night, but may remain on a kill for several hours before seeking cover. Leopards also are common but elusive, nocturnal, and not easily seen. Best times are April–June.