Down in the far South-Eastern corner of Zimbabwe is a large chunk of hard, wild bush, Zimbabwe’s second largest National Park, Gonarezhou. Covering some 5000 km2, this park that has withstood tough times, suffering heavily from poaching around the 1980’s during Zimbabwe’s transition to independence, again in the 1990’s as the unrest in Mozambique filtered across the border, then enduring one of the region’s worst droughts ever in 1992.
During recent years, a combination of concerted effort by Zimbabwe National Parks, and their partnership with the Frankfurt Zoological Society ( FZS ), finally brought recognition to the plight of Gonarezhou. Serious steps towards its sustainable rehabilitation have been and are still underway.
The FZS is an independent non profit organisation that was first established in 1858 and was further modernized as a Society in the 1950’s. It is committed to conserving biological diversity with a serious focus on Africa. The FZS has a long history in Zimbabwe, a country it has identified for its unique, expansive wildlife and natural asset. In the 1980’s the organisation supported the Rhino Conservation schemes in the country, and in 2007 a MOU was signed between the FSZ and Zimparks. In 2010 the FZS entered into a 10 year partnership in the management of Gonarezhou National Park, a move that although not directly related to, coincided more or less with the establishment of the TFCA now known as the Greater Limpopo Trans Frontier Park ( GLTP ) . A wonderfully diverse area, including three countries and covering some 30 000km2.
Many people, including Zimbabweans, are unaware of the extent of the work being done in the park. The focus of the partnership between FZS and Zimparks has been to build a robust, effective and sustainable management plan for Gonarezhou, through investment of capital, as well as the employment of a dedicated team of staff employed by the FZS, based at the Chipinda Pools offices of Gonarezhou, where they directly support the efforts of Zimparks. The following areas have seen improvements so far:
- Fire protection and management through fire breaks and better alert systems.
- Tourist accommodation facilities, including new and refurbished lodges and camp sites. A tented camp has been built in the Chipinda Pools area.
- Staff accommodation, training and working conditions have improved.
- Two large Fence lines have been erected to reduce the movement of rural livestock into the park as well as to reduce the effects of human wildlife conflict in problem areas.
- Road networks have been restored and new roads have been opened resulting in a more viable park for tourism, as well as better and more effective management of a Park so vast that some areas are seldom visited.
- Community outreach schemes have been set up and are running, effectively these are encouraging the buy in from the local communities to the benefits of wildlife and tourism.
Runde Gorge. Photo by Ant Kaschula: Gonarezhou Bushcamps
All of these areas are part of a long and arduous task to rebuild the park. The results have begun to show and the proof of this is in the resurgence of tourism to the park and to this region of Zimbabwe. Looking through the statistics that were openly available to me when doing some homework on the project, I found that from 1500 visitors to the park in 2009, the number of visitors had increased to over 6000 in 2013. A conservative estimate, based only on numbers of tourists entering via the northern section of the Park.
But it was the animal statistics that impressed me the most.
Wildlife populations have been on the rise since the severe drought in 1992, which had a massive impact on both the vegetation and animal numbers in the Park. Natural population growth has been supplemented with some wildlife re-introductions as well, which included 200 buffalo, 390 wildebeeste and 35 giraffe in recent years. Wildlife sightings have also improved in Gonarezhou , attributable to animals becoming more habituated to tourism traffic as well as a moratorium on shooting game for management rations.
To monitor the effectiveness of the projects above the FSZ and Zimparks have undertaken two surveys of the park, one in 2009 and one in 2013. Data analysis and the publishing of the information was conducted by a third party. The results are encouraging with a peak in elephant populations in 2013 of over 10 000 animals, buffalo numbers stood at 2000 in 2009 ad are now over 4000 animals. It is also encouraging to see the predator numbers on the increase in line with the herbivores. The lion population , for example, is now estimated to be over 60 animals, from just 30 in 2009.
FZS and ZPWMA are collaborating with the African Wildlife Conservation Fund in the monitoring of wild dog and other large carnivore populations in the Park. Wild Dog numbers have increased significantly, from a population of just 40 in 2009, there are now in excess of 100 wild dog in the park, making a viable population and one likely to sustain to greater concentrations in years to come. Longer term plans include the reintroduction of Black Rhino into the Park, as well as Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest, a rare species of antelope that were originally found in the Park.
It is through partnerships such as these between the Frankfurt Zoological Society and our Zimbabwe National Parks that will ensure the survival of our wildlife asset in Zimbabwe. An asset that many of us take for granted, and yet it is more valuable than any pile of diamonds with a potential to sustain us through years if properly managed. We should be commending our Zimparks for their foresight in entering into such partnerships and encouraging more of the same.