The killing fields of Hwange

They had heard of the painted wolf – or Cape hunting dog – but they had never seen this wild predator in the full flight of terrible action.

Now there was a pack of eight hunting their quarry to death. They chased a kudu across the plain before their eyes and ripped it to pieces, disembowelling it as it was standing.

A former manager recalled: “These wild dogs are dangerous – the most efficient of all the killers in the park. They are a dying species as they are treated more like vermin and being hunted themselves because quite often, as they roam over vast areas, they seize cattle on the farms.

“They have a terrible way of killing. They run their prey ‘ usually a species of antelope ‘ to the ground and then tear it to to pieces, leaving half an animal on its feet.

“You can imagine, we had a very mixed reaction to the Christmas Day incident. The game enthusiasts found it a great opportunity to see nature in the raw, but those who came for a relaxing holiday were rather shocked.

This scene even on the Dete Vlei, a marshy valley renowned for its game, is perhaps rare in such a panorama, but not in terms of the predator who hunts for survival. The 14,600 sq. km Hwange National Park is used to killing – and that extends to action by the birds of prey such as the crested eagle, marshal eagle and giant eagle owl which are protected species.

But the park, one of the largest regions in Africa to provide an ecosystem – that is a community of animals bound together with indigenous vegetation – also has a great reputation for protection of wildlife and the environment that it inhabits.

It boasts a remarkably rich fauna with more than 1 00 species of mammals and over 400 different kinds of birds.

The park’s creation in 1928 was quite visionary. In those days the area was considered a useless wasteland except for having a good nucleus of game and many attractive strands of trees. Today it is a wild life showpiece.

The first warden, Ted Davison, soon realised that water was the critical factor that would change the huge arid area into a permanent reserve for large game populations which up to then only appeared seasonally. So borehole pumping was introduced into pans, or dried-up waterholes, and a permanent water supply established to discourage migration.

The results over the years have been phenomenal. Drawn to the life-giving water, animals such as elephant, buffalo and zebra have increased prolifically while the beautiful sable heads a list of 16 of the 33 southern African antelope attracted to the park.

The park has also provided a refuge for some of the black rhino which i n the past have been a tragic target for poaching in the Zambezi Valley and all the major African predators including, of course, the painted wolf.

It is, however, the elephants that command most attention at Hwange. There are an estimated 35,000 of them and they are in this national park because they know they are safe from wanton destruction.

In Kenya where the poachers have been savagely at work for their ivory they show acute signs of stress and nervousness. In Zimbabwe they come right up to safari Landrovers and study the aerials.

The elephants are known to be very intelligent. There is a railway line across the park and instinctively they use this as a boundary, sensing that on the one side is danger and on the other safety.

However, elephants can be a target for controlled culling, an operation that sometimes brings intense anger from conservationists.

One chief ranger at an elite safari lodge overlooking Lake Kariba has been one of those involved in the past. He admits it is a “pretty sordid business” but the alternative could be death by starvation. For the elephant, which digests 400 kgs of vegetation a day and attacks the bark of trees to reach its delicacy, can destroy its own environment and that of many other animals.

Chobe in Botswana was a very good example, he said. In the drought years a huge population of elephant decimated all the afforestation, wiping out a centuries-old landscape. Today only riverine scrub remains in place of thousands of healthy trees. And in Tsavo National Park in Kenya elephants just died because there was nothing else to eat.

In Hwange there is highly professional control of the elephant population and the environment, and when culling is deemed necessary it is an exercise in great depth involving teams of specialists and a spotter aircraft.

The aircraft has a double duty. It controls the elephant when rangers move in to cull, using a semi-circle approach rather like the horn attack of the Zulus, and makes sure there are no wounded animals on the loose, warning through air-to-ground communication.

“The animals know that when they hear the aircraft that this is bad news”, says the ranger. “If they try to break, the plane will dive and herd them back. The trick is to get the matriarch – the cow – first as she is the leader of the herd and the rest will then stand around in confusion.”

The matriarch a sort of “godmother” among elephants can be a most dangerous adversary, inside or outside of culling. There are many legends concerning her fury when she is separated from her calf.

Even the most experienced armed professionals have been at hazard. One of the early developers of Hwange Safari Lodge, Johnny Uys, was trampled to death on the vlei where the wild dogs hunted, and Rob Fynn, a man of many enterprises on the Zambezi, escaped within an inch of his life when under the feet and tusks of a raging cow elephant.

Today a chapel stands on Fothergill Island, the bird and wild life sanctuary which he owned. It was built as a tribute to his remarkable escape from one of Africa’s giants.

December 2006
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