This is my best-loved of all Zimbabwean Parks, and for 40 years now I’ve boated it, walked it, flown it, and even lived in it for a while. I’ve also played a part in its conservation, during my years as founder-chair and subsequently director of the Zambezi Society (https://zamsoc.org/). So maybe I can add a little perspective. I’m sure others have already done so, but here’s my two-cents-worth anyway.
“Dramatic declines” of lion and other species in Matusadona have featured strongly in recent publicity, but – from personal observation – cannot be viewed in isolation from the longer-term history of Matusadona and its past and future relationship with Lake Kariba.
I was living on Fothergill Island in the late 1970’s, when lake levels were high, and had been for years. So it was something of a shock when long-term drought struck in the early 1980’s. By January 1984 Kariba was at its lowest level since the dam first filled, revealing vast expanses of lake shore that hadn’t been seen for many years, especially on the gentler eastern and northern shorelines (think Kemurara, etc).
However, these shores were swiftly colonised by a riot of rapidly-changing vegetation that ultimately settled down to a predominance of Panicum repens and a few other species (one of which, I recall, we termed “elephant strawberries” because of their striking attraction for elephants).*
The years that followed, as these low lake levels persisted, saw an explosion of grazers in particular. Dr Russell Taylor is the key authority on this but, as I recall, he cited a buffalo growth rate of 10% per annum for several years. Predators followed suit, and by the 1990’s Matusadona did indeed hold Africa’s second highest density of lions on its lowland portion. During this period, incidentally, at least two and maybe more people were killed in the Park by lions.
Thereafter, lake levels began to rise again, ultimately submerging the entire lakeshore area previously colonised by P. repens and other species. All that grazing was lost. Populations of buffalo and other grazers crashed and – totally predictably – so did the lion population. In more recent years – and very subjectively – Matusadona has looked remarkably similar to the way it did when I first saw it, all those years ago in 1979, after a long period of high lake levels. Today, though, the lake is once more at the lowest level seen for many years. The vegetation is redeveloping on the long exposed shorelines.
In other words: the lowland/lakeshore wildlife populations have been, and probably will continue to be, cyclical – and no intervention can halt this, short of radical management of Kariba lake levels for environmental reasons, which is about as likely as the lake freezing over in October. And if today’s low lake levels persist I’d suggest it’s highly probable that we will see another period of redevelopment of both grazers and lion numbers.
This redevelopment is, I suspect, likely to continue without the need for any significant human intervention except one: intensive protection; because the biggest threat to Matusadona’s wildlife is illegal hunting, a.k.a. poaching. It is common knowledge that the Sebungwe region experienced a severe outbreak of ivory poaching between 2006 and 2014, resulting in a 70% decline in elephant numbers and serious declines in other large mammals across the region as a whole.
Matusadona suffered accordingly, with an apparent decline from ±1900 elephant in 2006 to ±650 in 2014. Concerted action by local conservationists has done much to halt this decline; but the lake shore – where the highest densities of wildlife are likely to redevelop – is still particularly vulnerable. There is extensive human activity at “fishing camps” such as King’s Camp and Msampakaruma; lake traffic including kapenta boats and their attendant tenders and transporters – in short, a laughably easy way of transporting high-value wildlife products including meat and ivory across an international border.
There are dozens of houseboat crews that moor up in Matusadona bays, who have cellphones and know where the elephants are on a day-by-day basis, and I suspect this may have had something to do with the loss of the “big tuskers” in the Palm Bay area. And you don’t eliminate an entire black rhino population without a high degree of local complicity, either.
However: please note, very importantly, that these comments are focused on the 400-odd sq km of lowland and lakeshore north of the Matusadona hills. Heaven only knows what’s been going on in the escarpment hinterland, which is both highly vulnerable and poorly protected.
So, first and foremost, I’d respectfully suggest that the most urgent requirement in Matusadona is a heavy investment in good old law enforcement, with ground and lake patrols, aerial surveillance by day and radar surveillance of the adjacent lake areas by night, and heavy investment in intelligence networks focused on both lake traffic and the settled lands around the rest of the Park.
– Dick Pitman –
*Such conditions aren’t without their hazards, though. One is never entirely certain about exactly which vegetation species will also arrive, besides nourishing grasses. We had a major scare, during the last period of low lake levels, about so-called “floppy trunk disease”, which affected a lot of elephants. Its cause was never pinned down, but some kind of “imported exotic” could have been responsible (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floppy_trunk_syndrome), but lead poisoning was also cited as a possible cause (https://www.newscientist.com/…/mg13618470-700-lead-in-lake…/ , in which I now see that I’m quoted, but not until the last paragraph...).