Hwange National Park supports about 500 lions, making it a crucial area for conserving these big cats. However, it’s also a haven for tens of thousands of elephants. How these species interact is a testament to the efforts of many, past and present, to protect the wildlife of southern Africa. But, no matter what we do, Mother Nature may always intercede.
At 15,000km2 Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s largest protected areas. Nestled within the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), the park is part of a much bigger ecosystem. Despite this, Hwange is managed as its own entity. One management approach that has been debated over the years is the pumping of water from adjacent boreholes directly into pans to ensure the wildlife has sufficient water to drink throughout the year, especially during droughts.
Decades of supplementing the park’s water supply has resulted in Hwange bursting at its seams with elephants; some 45,000 call it home. This population increase has created what ecologists call a “state-shift.” As the elephants have increased in numbers over the years, the Hwange lions have seemed to develop a taste for them, especially in the late dry season or during severe droughts.
How do droughts impact elephant survival? Even in quite severe droughts, adult elephants are mostly still able to find sufficient forage that, no matter how dry and seemingly unpalatable, they can digest as long as they have enough water to drink. Young calves, however, are not able to feed in all the ways adult elephants can since they aren’t strong or tall enough to get access to many food sources. These poor calves end up starving; they get lost or left behind by the herds and become food for lions and spotted hyaenas.
Recently at the Ngweshla waterhole, I experienced this first-hand with the Ngweshla Pride (also known as Cecil’s Pride or the ‘Spice Girls’). I don’t know the exact number of females that make up the pride but it could be as many as five or six. At the time, there was a core three and their six cubs, as well as their proud fathers Humba and Netsai. There were other lionesses in the area, who I later found out were nursing small cubs, making us believe that the pride now consists of five lionesses and 12 cubs. In my week of observation, the family easily attacked and killednine elephant calves!
Lions use their carnassial molars as a surgeon would a pair of large scissors to eat through prey carcasses. In most cases, they would consume most of their kill until only skin and bones remain, but here they would more often catch another one before finishing their first meal. There were so many calves to feed upon that the lions didn’t bother consuming the entire carcass, often leaving older kills to wither and rot in the baking sun so not even the vultures could feed on them.
Southern Africa has not experienced a severe drought in the last two decades, but one is predicted very soon. The state-shift that the artificial pumping of pans in Hwange has created, and the fact that the park supports so many elephants and such a healthy population of lions, creates asad but inevitable scenario. In the dry season, lions kill elephant calves almost more than any other prey species (except for African buffalo). When the next severe drought strikes, which it surely will this year, a devasting number of elephants will die. However, at some stage, the balance needs to be restored and this will not be the time to intervene but rather to let nature takes its course.
My days spent with the lions at Ngweshla taught me more about lion photography and subtle aspects of their behavior than I have learned in many years. The ebb and flow of all the wildlife coming to the pan to drink was fascinating to observe. Lions full of elephant meat would lie in the shade of the trees and watch as the other game species came to drink. The giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, roan and sable antelopes knew the lions were no threat to them with their bellies already so full.
I was also struck by how frequently the lions and elephants intermingled. When in a group the elephants had safety in numbers and would largely ignore the lions. At times they would even displace the big cats from their spots in the shade. The unease was always palpable, but with adult elephants alongside them, the calves were safe as long as they stayed in the group.
Panthera works with many partners in Hwange to mitigate human killing of lions in and around the park. The fruits of our labors are the increased size and social stability of the lions prides on the edge of Hwange National Park. Nature is not always easy to watch, and the drama of drought in Hwange will result in severe stress for the animals and for us as we watch it unfold. We will need to resist the urge to intervene, and if anything, contemplate if the management of our parks with water provision is actually the best option.
While we do, at least for now, we should treasure what Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park has to offer, despite all its challenges, and be thankful that its lions still rank some of the most numerous of all African countries.