Hwange National Park (formerly Wankie Game Reserve) is the largest natural reserve in Zimbabwe. The park lies in the west, on the main road between Bulawayo and the Victoria Falls and near to Dete.
The park is close to the edge of the Kalahari desert, a region with little water and very sparse, xerophile vegetation. The Kalahari woodland is dominated by Zambezi Teak, Sand Camwood (Baphia) and Kalahari bauhinia. Seasonal wetlands form grasslands in this area.
The north and north-west of the park are dominated by mopane woodland. Although it has been argued that elephant populations cause change in vegetation structure, some recent studies suggest that this is not the case, even with the large increases in elephant population recorded in the late 1980s.
The Park hosts over 100 mammal and 400 bird species, including 19 large herbivores and eight large carnivores. All Zimbabwe’s specially protected animals are to be found in Hwange and it is the only protected area where gemsbok and brown hyena occur in reasonable numbers.
Grazing herbivores are more common in the Main Camp Wild Area and Linkwasha Concession Area, with mixed feeders more common in the Robins and Sinamatella Wild Areas, which are more heavily wooded. Distribution fluctuates seasonally, with large herbivores concentrating in areas where intensive water pumping is maintained during the dry season.
Other major predators include the lion, whose distribution and hunting in Hwange is strongly related to the pans and waterholes. Since 2005, the protected area is considered a Lion Conservation Unit together with the Okavango Delta.
Elephants have been enormously successful in Hwange and the population has increased to far above that naturally supported by such an area. This population of elephants has put a lot of strain on the resources of the park. There has been a lot of debate on how to deal with this, with parks authorities implementing culling to reduce populations, especially during 1967 to 1986. The elephant population doubled in the five years following the end of culling in 1986.
National Parks Scientific Services co-ordinates two major conservation and research projects in the park:
- National Leopard Project, which is surveying numbers of leopard to obtain base-line data for later comparative analysis with status of leopard in consumptive (hunting) areas and Communal Land bordering the National Park. This is carried out at Hwange in conjunction with the Wildlife Conservation and Research Unit of Oxford University and the Dete Animal Rescue Trust, a registered wildlife conservation Trust
- Painted Dog Project: The project aims to protect and increase the range and numbers of African wild dog both in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa, and operates through the Painted Dog Conservation organisation in Dete.
This overview is only one indication of the diversity of birds in the park and is not a complete list.