Mana Pools ecosystem…

When I was in Mana Pools, I wondered how the magnificent trees managed to grow when all the animals appeared to congregate along the river and strip any shoot off edible trees.


The trees are HUGE…


Look at the teeny-tiny Elephant!



These photos were taken this time last year (2018) and although it was hot, there was still water about. I’m told, that this year (as there was in 2016) there is a massive drought in Mana, and caring people have raised money, are saving animals stuck in the mud and delivering bales of hay and stockfeed.


Scrolling through a “Friends of Mana Pools” Facebook page, I came across this very interesting article written by someone who has spent many years in the conservation field, Dick Pitman.

Social media have been awash with uninformed comments about Mana, many of them inferring that the Middle Zambezi Valley – including Mana – has been an Edenic wildlife paradise since the beginning of Time, should be preserved like an insect in amber, and indeed could be were it not for the evil influence of man. They also display a near-total ignorance of the real purpose of a National Park besides “protecting the animals” and of the implications for Park management that arise from the legislation that governs their goals and objectives.

Fairly obviously, we have no information regarding the Mana wildlife scenario before humans arrived on the scene, other than a fossil record consisting almost entirely of trees and dinosaurs that existed here 150million and more years ago. But we do know a number of things from more recent times.

One is that the idea of a human-free Africa, populated solely by other species, is a modern-day, developed-world fairy-tale. Mankind’s roots are in Africa. Humans have lived alongside wildlife here for a million years or more, as both predator and prey; and today’s Zambezi Valley wildlife areas, including Mana Pools, were inhabited by people within living memory. You will find pottery shards on the sandstone ridges immediately south of Chine Pool; and other evidence elsewhere in the Park.

A second thing is that – although there is very little reliable historical data on the abundance or otherwise of Zambezi Valley wildlife – the Middle Zambezi Valley has been traversed, occupied, inhabited and hunted over for centuries. Elephants were a particular “target” species because of the high commercial value of ivory.

Thirdly, we know that – as a result of this hunting – elephant populations south of the Zambezi had been virtually annihilated by the late 19th century, and that elephants were a rarity in the Mana Pools area. In about 1880, Frederic Selous said that “Every year elephants were becoming scarcer and wilder south of the Zambezi, so that it had become impossible to make a living by hunting at all.” He failed to find any elephants in the Middle Valley area, and headed north into the Zambian plateau to find them.

Marcel Mytton, a hunter who roamed the Middle Valley in the early 20th century, said that he never even bothered to look for elephants because he knew he wouldn’t find them. He hunted his elephant on the plateau to the south, near today’s Karoi and Chinhoyi – habitats now eliminated by the spread of agricultural and urban developments.

And an old villager who once lived near the confluence of the Zambezi and Chewore told a Parks warden that the entire village would turn out to see an elephant if it appeared in the neighbourhood.

Fourthly, we also know that today’s alluvial river terraces (aka, wrongly, as “floodplains”) and the associated Faidherbia albida (winterthorn) woodlands are a recent – and almost certainly transient – development; and that the growth of the woodlands was probably facilitated by a near-total absence of elephant .
So modern commentators are broadly correct in their assertion that human activity has shaped the current wildlife scenario in the region, and often for the worse.

Where they are wrong is in assuming that this influence has remained equally malign in recent history. In fact, today’s common perception of Mana as a timeless wildlife Eden is almost entirely the result of enlightened mid-20th century legislation.

Initially promulgated as a “non-hunting reserve” , Mana Pools was gazetted as a “game reserve” in 1963 and as a National Park in 1975. Along the way, the major casualties resulting from this legislation were the human inhabitants of the area, who were evicted and moved to areas south of the Zambezi Escarpment. The memory of this event still lives on, not only in the form of resentment, but also in the survival of legends such as that of Changamuchiri, the “rolling stone” in Mana Pools and the Chimombe “Iron God legend” from the Chewore.

You can call this eviction either callous, or farsighted, or both; but the fact remains that it facilitated an explosion of wildlife populations. As regards elephant: because of these measures, Zimbabwe’s total elephant population has grown from that estimated ±4000 countrywide in 1900, to ±80 000 in 2014, when the most recent nationwide census took place.
As regards Mana: at the last official count, in the 2014 dry season, there were ±11500 elephant throughout the Mid-Zambezi Valley between Kariba and Kanyemba.

About 3000 of them were in the Mana Pools National park at an overall density of 1.4 per sq km, but ranging up to 2.8 per sq km in the survey area closest to the Zambezi frontage and including the alluvial terraces – a level at which the integrity of woodlands and biodiversity is severely compromised.

Today, all these data are available, including full reports of the 2014 nationwide wildlife population surveys and the 2015-2020 Zimbabwe National Elephant Management Plan. But – and we’ll come back to this later – you have to search for it, and be motivated enough to find and read the publications involved.

Nonetheless, bad news is always easily available, because it hits the headlines. As most conservationists with any involvement in the Park will know only too well, the elimination of human predation has only been partly successful. Illegal hunting – i.e. “poaching” – reduced the Zambezi Valley’s elephant population by 40% between 2001 and 2014. Several other species also underwent serious declines throughout the Valley during this period.

It’s possible to argue that the poachers have simply done a job that should have been done by the management authority, i.e. eliminated a large proportion of the impact of Zambezi Valley wildlife on its environment. The obvious flaw, of course, is that it has been an uncontrolled “management action” which, if allowed to persist, could ultimately result in the local extinction of the species concerned.

For this reason, anti-poaching activity is – rightly – a top priority for the Parks Authority, supported by the non-governmental Zambezi Elephant Fund. But because of the success of this effort in eliminating this form of human predation, further management actions will almost certainly be required to mitigate the consequences and achieve the stated management goals and objectives of a National Park.

So – what, in fact, are these goals and objectives? They are identified as follows, in Section 21 of Zimbabwe’s 1975 Parks Act:
“Purposes of national parks and duties of Minister in relation thereto:
(1) The purposes for which national parks are or may be constituted under this Act shall be—
(a) to preserve and protect the natural landscape and scenery therein; and
(b) to preserve and protect wild life and plants and the natural ecological stability of wild life and plant communities therein;
for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of the public.”

Let’s just focus on two key aspects of these goals. Firstly, (1) (b): to protect wild life and plants… etc. One can fault this clause on the grounds that “natural ecological stability” is something of a myth, since ecosystems can become wildly unstable for numerous reasons. But the essence is clear: the Act seeks to maintain all ecosystem components, including vegetation. If vegetation is threatened from whatever cause, including overpopulations of elephants or any other species, the Parks Authority has a clear duty to act.

Note the phrase – “or any other species”. I’ve focused largely on elephant because of the relatively reliable historical data from the early 20th century onwards. But that 2014 census also estimated that, as well as 880 elephants, there were 900 buffalo, 1100 impala and 2100 hippo – yes, that’s right, 2100 – in that same area of Mana’s Zambezi frontage.

Being grazers, these other species obviously don’t compete with the elephants on the albida browselines; but elephants also graze; and 2100 hippo can potentially eat up to 80-odd tonnes – yes, tonnes! – of grass in one night. It’s little wonder that there isn’t a blade of grass left standing by the end of most Mana dry seasons.

Anyway – back to the Act, Secondly: “For the enjoyment, education and inspiration of the public.” So – yes – it’s all about you and me. And here’s where it all falls down, because we all enjoy – and all get inspired, or I wouldn’t be writing this – but where’s the education? Where are the interpretive centres; the explanations of biology, ecosystems and management activities; the historical scenario; where’s anything except a formidable list of do’s and don’ts on the end of the Mana office block?

If such information was easily available to visitors, instead of having to search for it, as noted earlier, I probably wouldn’t need to write this piece. As it is, I can only do so because of long acquaintance with many Mana rangers, wardens and ecologists over the years, and a 40-year personal involvement in the conservation of Mana
And so – very tortuously – to the conundrum: why could I condone human interventions in the form of – for instance – culling, but be very dubious about endorsing the recent animal feeding exercise at Mana?

Largely because I’m lucky enough to have that access to well-informed ecologists and wildlife managers, all of whom are opposed to the feeding exercise, on two grounds. One is that it seeks to perpetuate an inherently unsustainable ecological situation. Another – very cogent – reason is that there is a high risk of introducing exotic and invasive plant species into the alluvial area, with immense associated biological consequences.

There are many indications of the inherent unsustainability of the current scenario; but along the way, I was given one striking insight into a phenomenon that I’d never even considered. Why does Boswell –a Mana icon – get up on his hind legs to browse the F. albidas?

Simply because the equally iconic albida foliage and pods are now out of reach for most elephants. The ”back story” lies in the entourage of other elephants that often follows Boswell (and others) around and eats their leftovers: elephants too small, insufficiently muscular, or simply less intelligent to do the same trick.

Boswell may be a photographer’s icon, but in ecological terms he – and those other elephants that have learnt the same trick – are merely one more indication of the fundamental issue: the extraordinarily severe pressure of an unchecked animal population, basically freed of human predation, on very limited food resources. Drought can reduce these pressures by enabling the fittest to survive while checking population growth and eliminating the weaker specimens. Artificial feeding merely “kicks the can down the road.”

Finally, a crucial issue. By default, Mana Pools currently appears to be “managed” by and for tourism and income maximisation – in other words, by the balance sheet, without any consideration of ecological integrity. Tourists love Mana’s spectacular gatherings of wildlife, but often have little understanding of their ecological causes or implications, and no idea of what they are looking at. In Mana’s case, they’re seeing an ephemeral woodland probably destined to revert to bushland as the Zambezi – through entirely natural causes – continues its northward shift; but with this natural change currently hastened by heavy wildlife pressure creating a seriously degraded ecosystem.

Therefore, a key question. Are we prepared to abandon more complex biological management goals, and to manage National Parks mainly as large-scale zoos for tourists, as appears to be the case in Mana today?*

If so, well, feeding programmes may well become annual events, with all the biological risks involved, and rendered all the more necessary by continued degradation of the Mana environment. More pans will be pumped and boreholes drilled, again with all the ecological risks and consequences involved. And – regardless of the factual arguments to the contrary – everyone will continue to place all the blame on the Kariba dam wall as the scenario worsens. I’ll look forward with interest to the irrigation of the alluvium with sprinklers, which is just one of the wilder suggestions I’ve seen on Facebook.

If not – then we must accept that wildlife management may sometimes involve some hard choices – in this case, between deliberate and well-controlled population reductions – e.g. “culling” (which public opinion usually rejects) – and allowing natural forces such as drought to solve the problem (with all the harrowing scenes that this entails)
Trouble is, it’s far easier to post a kneejerk Facebook comment and get 50 “likes” than to make a serious attempt at understanding!

*The emphasis on tourism, and particularly on high-priced international tourism, is creating another extremely undesirable side-effect: the increasing alienation and exclusion of the Zimbabwean public, who are the ultimate “owners” of Mana Pools. We are seeing more and more “Private Concession – Road Closed” signs; increasingly restricted public access to the Zambezi river within the Park; and the allocation of once-public camp sites to safari operators.It is not widely known that, in 2010, a lot of money was spent on creating a Park Plan which – if implemented – would represent a very sound “blueprint” for the equitable and biologically sound development and management of the Park. It has never been signed, let alone implemented. If it had been, then – again – there’d probably be no need for me to feel compelled to write these notes today.

I know its a long article, but these things are never simple and “Africa is not for woosies!!”

I was lucky enough to see Mana when there was water in the pools and no elephants stuck in the mud:


It was dry…



This elephant is not Boswell, but one who has learned the art of standing on his hindlegs.



In this closeup of the tree trunk, one can see where the bark has been stripped off and then covered over multiple times.


Mana Pools


I’d paid for a night at this camping spot, so I took a drive down there to check it out – I didn’t want any surprises!


There wasn’t much going on – everyone seemed to be asleep!


This is taken at the mouth of one of the many streams that flow into the Zambezi River. In that opposite bank is a carmine bee-eater colony. They fly over, delighting with their awesome colours, and athletic manoeuvres. I don’t have a pic, I’m afraid, they moved too fast for me and my zoom wasn’t big enough to capture them as they come out of their nests.



I spent a lazy day here, just driving short distances from the camp site.


…watching as the light slowly faded and the heat dissipated somewhat.


I wanted to get myself all set up before dark.

Mana Pools camping…

Foreshuwa, Africa is not for sissies and I could feel that, as I set up my camp for the night, all alone on the banks of the mighty Zambezi, where wild animals are wild! I don’t use a tent, I usually just sleep on the top of the hilux, with a mozzie net tied to a convenient tree.


From this safe vantage point, I took this photo! I love the sausages, hanging down as the last of the sun shines from around the bend in the river.


Just before it got dark, a herd of buffalo just strolled into MY camping area ….!!!!!

P1340419Found somewhere they liked to sleep…


…and settled in! The cheek of it!


Watching them, in the fading light, I realised that they are just like cattle! They smell like them, sound like them! And I also realised later, why they invaded my camp site. Half way through the night, lions came to visit and the buffalo just moved closer to my car! That pretty much freaked me out! My “high” vantage point wasn’t that high when lions were around and my mozzie-net pretty thin protection!





I took these as the sun threw its fading light on the clouds and the still water of the Zambezi River

Early morning at Nyamepi Camp

This photo was taken before sunrise (so its a bit dark) but I was trying to capture the stillness that characterises early mornings on the Zambezi.



As the sun came up, an orange glow tinted the water..



I chose a spot away from the water’s edge because I like to be close to the ablutions! Midnight treks to the loo when lions often stalk buffalo in the camping area is not for me!


Mana Pools Elephants…


I can say a few things about the Mana Pools elephants – they are not as big as elsewhere and not nearly as cheeky (‘speshly Gona re Zhou!!)



This mummy checked me out, but didn’t do anything other than flap her ears. With my previous experience of elephants (I have a very healthy respect for them!!) I had my exit strategy all worked out, but didn’t need to apply it!


She just walked right across the road and behind this awesome tree.


Mana Pools twilight…

It was hot, when I went to Mana Pools (like 38 deg C, hot!) and the late afternoons are balmy, but a welcome relief from the mid-day heat.


And the light takes on a magical soft glow…


I’d parked near this amazing tree, and just sat and watched the animals as they made their way down to the water. Both images (above) are of impala.


And as the sun dipped lower…



I love the silhouette of the impala in the above photo…


And lower…



I had to drive back to Nyamepi (the communal camp) as I had not paid to stay here. But check out my next post, with photos of the sunset taken there.


Boat trip at Maabwe Bay…

Kariba, a large body of water, can have waves a metre high. Luckily, when I went on the water at Maabwe Bay, they didn’t get THAT big.


As soon as we were out in the middle of the lake, the wind came up and the smooth water, became these choppy waves. The boat man had a plan to tack, so the motor didn’t keep coming out of the water, but had to avoid illegal fishing nets too!


I took the above photo for the tree – of course – this is opposite Maabwe Camp on our way to the hot springs.


I can see all sorts of faces in these rocks!


I have psoriasis and  always search out hot springs for my skin. This one was jolly hot, but further down the valley (in the next photo) it has cooled down enough I could spread the sulphur mud onto my skin. (Probably mixed with a whole load of cow manure too!!!)


And then we got back to Camp Maabwe, and what do you know? The wind died down!!!








Kariba Kapenta

Although I find the kapenta rigs noisy, they make good subjects for foregrounds:


This is sun-set at Maabwe Bay, on the Zambezi, the sun still out of the photo, although the lovely copper colour has already spread across the water

Kapenta, which look like little sardines, are attracted to light. So the Kapenta rigs go out at night and shine a strong light down into the water and then collect the tiny fish with a net. So ALL night, the generator’s diesel engines belt away, to run the lights.


The net and the rig that pull the fish out of the water, is at the back, hanging over the water.

The fish are sun dried, salted and packed for sale far from Kariba. I find I have to soak them overnight and then drain off the salty water before I use them. Rather than bore you with details, I’ll add this link: Kapenta at Wikipedia 


I think the rings on this boat are stuffed – it stuttered its way slooowwwly across the bay!


The workshops and packing sheds are directly behind the jetty in this shot. Taken in the morning, I love the shine off the water and the busy people working.


All these photos are taken at Maabwe Bay on the Zambezi. Click here to find Maabwe on Google Maps