Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe - A Wildlife Success Story!
The Gonarezhou National Park is situated in the south eastern lowveld of Zimbabwe and covers an area in excess of 5000 square kilometres. “Gonarezhou” meaning “Place of many Elephants” is an extremely scenic park full of rugged and beautiful landscapes.
Alternative folklore suggests the area was named for the herbalists who would stock their medicines in tusks (known as gona in the Shona language).
Three major rivers – The Save, Runde and Mwenezi – cut their courses through the Park, forming pools and natural oases from which hundreds of species of birds, wildlife and fish gather to feed and drink. As its name implies, Gonarezhou is famous for its elephants, and many of the largest-tusked elephants in the region maybe found within the Park.
In 1979, Kabakwe was the legendary bull that was the first to be given special legal protection from hunting. One of the biggest of recent times (tusks of 45 kilograms each) was shot in the Malapati hunting area adjacent to Gonarezhou in October 2015. So the bulls with big ivory are still here, only there used to be far more of them.
Long before Gonarezhou was a conservation area, elephant hunters shot what they wanted. In the 1960s, to rid the area of tsetse fly – which infected cattle and people with nagana (sleeping sickness) – huge tracts of riverine and ironwood forest were bulldozed. So too were many of the natural pans that had taken centuries to form. Thousands of wild animals were shot, including buck, buffalo and elephant. The land was enclosed with wire fencing and sprayed with pesticides such as dieldrin and DDT.
Just as it was finally proclaimed a national park in 1975 and wildlife populations had started rebuilding naturally, the Mozambican civil war began. To feed themselves, soldiers set thousands of snares using wire from the fences. In addition, almost 10000 elephants were culled over the course of two decades by authorities worried about habitat damage.
The park has an unfenced 110-kilometre border with Mozambique, where nine hunting concessions are interspersed with poor communities desperate for protein. Snare poaching and poisoning used to be rife. Some game farms were placing bait and water close to the boundary, drawing predators, elephants and other wildlife across into Mozambique for safari hunting.
Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife has never received subsidies from the government, so revenue from safari tourism was and is crucial. With dwindling wildlife and visitor numbers, funding dried up. But, in 2010, the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) signed an agreement with Zim Parks to support the park for 20 years. The latest cause for celebration is the recent creation of a trust, made up of both FZS and park officials, that will control Gonarezhou.
The 2014 aerial survey counted just over 11000 elephants in the park, up from 4000 in 1994. Gonarezhou has more elephants than the whole of Mozambique, and one of the highest densities in Africa (at about two per square kilometre).
And crucially, all tourism money generated (about $400000 currently) will from now on be invested back into the park. Previously, it had disappeared into central state coffers and Gonarezhou hardly benefitted.
Now, thanks to stringent anti-poaching measures, the animal statistics make for reassuring reading. The last predator survey in 2015 showed that there are approximately 125 lions, up from just 31 in 2009. Other predators have also increased significantly: 642 spotted hyenas (from 407), 279 wild dogs (from 30) and 90 cheetahs (from 22).
And it gets better: the 'Tuskers' of Gonarezhou are the biggest in Zimbabwe, clearly sharing DNA with the famed large bulls in Kruger.
All herbivore species have increased significantly too. At the last count in 2014, there were 8000 impalas, 1700 kudus, 6000 Cape buffaloes, 1300 Burchell’s zebras, 900 wildebeest, 500 giraffes and 500 hippos. Roan and sable have never recovered to former levels, and black rhinos and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest are now locally extinct, but on the whole things are much better. If all goes to plan, the increase in tourism revenue will allow the reintroduction of rhino, which could happen as soon as this year (2018).
Gonarezhou National Park has had its fair share of challenges and now clearly boasts a wildlife environmental success. Still heavily reliant on tourism, raising awareness and spreading the word of this wonderful place is definitely good for all.
In 2015, Zimbabwean wildlife artist Larry Norton travelled to Gonarezhou National Park, accompanied by his assistant, Stanley, and a TV cameraman to record Larry's toughest assignment to date.
Conditions were such that Larry had had to endure temperatures well into the mid 40s, 'massive' dust-winds, and not to mention the thieving wildlife!
A 12 minute TV documentary was produced (below) which captures his mastery as it unfolds, the stunning scenery of Gonarezhou and its abundant wildlife.
A selection of his very best work is available here.
Larry has been actively involved in wildlife conservation over the years, and has contributed to various charities ranging from the Rainforest Foundation, Children's Cancer Unit to Mdala Trust for Old Age Pensioners. Details can be found here.
5% of Larry's work sold through Continental Shift go to Friends of Rietvlei, a Rhino anti-poaching foundation based in Pretoria.
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