The Great Tuskers of Matusadona (Zimbabwe)


Paul Steyn, A Voice for Elephants

Date Published

Matusadona National Park in northern Zimbabwe is one of the few places in Africa where great numbers of elephants still roam. 

The 404 square-mile wilderness adjacent to Lake Kariba forms part of a remarkable Tusker gene pool that is linked to Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools and Hwange National Park.

Bordering the Lake on the Zimbabwean side, the area takes its name from the local Matuzviadonha Hills – a stunning combination of flat plains and rugged mountain country. “Matuzviadonha’ means “Falling Dung” in Venda, which is said to be a description of the dung balls that litter the mountain-side from the elephants struggling their way up the slopes.

Before the lake was filled in 1963 (the largest man-made lake by volume in the world), the area was a thriving wilderness with very little access. When the water rose, various ecological changes took place and some nutritious grasses thrived on the shoreline, attracting big mammals such as elephant and buffalo and impala, and along with them, the predators came.

The area is also largely inaccessible, with a rugged mountain range on one side and the lake on the other, so in the past Matusadona has been relatively free from poachers. But as human pressure from surrounding areas intensifies, the wildlife of Matusadona is increasingly being targeted.

To combat the poaching surge, local tourism organisations and NGO’s are teaming up to protect its last-remaining elephant icons.

Tim Featherby, the owner and operator one of Lake Kariba’s top safari cruisers, Matusadona, is aware of the threats to wildlife in the park and local fish stocks, and donates a percentage of all charter cruises directly to the Matusadona Anti Poaching Project (MAPP), a key organization working to protect the wildlife in the Park and surrounds.

“The MAPP team has done an incredible job in the protection of both the wildlife and fisheries resources in the area,” said Tim. “This is evidenced by the fact that, in a very short period of time, with a drastic reduction in the illegal gill-netting of fish, there has been a marked improvement in sport angling and a reduction in wildlife poaching.”

The head of Matusadona Anti-Poaching Project, Kevin Higgins, sat down to answer a few questions about the history of the organisation and the work his team is doing to stem the poaching tide.

Please can you give a brief history of MAPP?

In 2010, we secured a lease with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) in the Matusadona National Park and commenced building a luxury tented photographic safari camp in October of 2011 (Changa Safari Camp).

This camp was completed two years later. During the building phase, we came to know of nightly incursions by Zambians into our waters netting fish. We approached the ZPWMA and offered them logistical support to tackle this problem, a proposal that they welcomed. We approached another local safari camp (Spurwing Island) who agreed to support our effort and between us we agreed on a budget.

This involved securing an equipped boat and identifying an operative to man that boat and coordinate patrols with the ZPWMA. The Tashinga Trust Initiative (TTI) came to our aid with the provision of an equipped boat and operations commenced in March 2013. These involved nightly patrols on the lake listening for Zambian boats. This is not as easy as it sounds given the size of the lake and the often treacherous conditions encountered by the men on the water, and it was several weeks before we recorded any meaningful results. However, since then we have arrested dozens of Zambians, all of whom have been tried in our local courts and their boats and nets either impounded and or destroyed. Uor intelligence tells us that anything up to five Zambians boats per night were visiting the Matusadona shoreline and that they were paid bonuses on weekly catches that exceeded one tonne of fish per boat, targets that they apparently regularly achieved.

At the same time, we decided to tackle the netting in some of our local river systems where our local fish go to spawn, particularly the tiger fish. Once again the ZPWMA were anxious to get a grip of this problem and collectively we have achieved tremendous results, including the recovery of in excess of 300 kilometers of illegal netting, following literally hundreds of arrests.

Sadly, it became evident to us that any let up on our part would herald the return of the poachers and we realized that our effort would have to be sustained indefinitely, hopefully on a diminishing basis. We thus resolved to formalize ourselves through an official Trust document (The MAPP TRUST) which would, we hoped, give us some authenticity and capacity to appeal to the public for financial assistance as there was no way that two camps could sustain this financial burden indefinitely.

In August 2013, we discovered our first poached elephant carcass whilst on a walking safari in the Park, (not to say that poaching of elephant had not been taking place already, and this was soon followed by many more.)

MAPP was the only semi organised anti-poaching unit on the Southern shoreline and the obvious choice to mobilize a reaction to this new threat. We were now dealing with armed and dangerous people and a simple letter of understanding with the ZPWMA was insufficient authority to mobilize against these guys.

An official MOU was drawn up with the ZPWMA and this was finalised in January 2014. In the meantime, another operative was identified, a vehicle was made available to us, once again per kind favour of TTI, and patrols commenced on the valley floor. Since then, we have managed to source two more vehicles, two brand new and equipped boats and considerable field operation tools to support our efforts both on the land and the water. We have refurbished two ZPWMA field stations so that they can deploy permanent call signs in those areas and continue to provide them with the tools that they require to tackle poaching.

The budget has obviously increased substantially and the two resorts of Changa Safari Camp and Spurwing Island contribute 50% of the budget whilst the remainder is raised from the public through various fundraising initiatives coordinated by the MAPP trustees. The Zambezi Society has also contributed significantly to our efforts.

Tell us about the elephants of Matusadona?

The Matusadona elephants are known for their long ivory and there are several renowned bulls like the Chura Bull, whose genes prevail in the Park. He featured in a Clint Eastwood movie in the early 90’s They are also the iconic feature of the Kariba shoreline where they drink and feed on the very nutritious ‘torpedo’ grass that occurs along the lake fringe. Our elephant have made the lake (built in 1958) their home and there is little more special than seeing elephant swimming and frolicking in the lake, at times completely submerging themselves, seemingly oblivious to or unimpressed by our presence when viewed from a boat.

What is the approximate population of elephants in Matusadona, and is it declining?

A census within the Park itself is scheduled for August 2015. The Park falls within the Sebungwe district (a large district spanning many kilometres of shoreline and its hinterland) and the most recent National census conducted in 2014 suggests that the elephant population in that district has suffered the greatest decline in Zimbabwe.. I would like to think that the population in the Park is currently static, thanks of course to the efforts of MAPP, this would most certainly not be the case if we had not acted in 2013. If we can maintain our efforts, we may well serve as the sanctuary for the elephant from the surrounding areas where anti-poaching efforts are not as well organised.

What is the situation with lions in Matusadona?

The Matusadona Park used to be home to one of the largest concentrations of lion in the world.

This was during the era of large buffalo populations that prevailed prior to the filling of the lake in and around 2000. That population plummeted in later years, but appears to be slowly recovering and there is a reasonably healthy population in the Park, concentrated on the flat lands in the northern third of the Park.

The park can be divided into two distinct regions, the flatlands bordering the lake occupy one third of the Park and the rest is the mountains of the Zambezi escarpment, known as the Matusadona Mountains. The latter is closest to the surrounding communal areas and has consequently suffered the greatest under poaching. Most of the wildlife has migrated to the flatlands and naturally the lions have followed. That means that there is little lion conflict with the communities.

What is the role of MAPP in fighting poaching in Matusadona and Kariba?                            
The role of MAPP, as defined in our Trust Deed document is ‘To assist the Zimbabwean Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and its successors or assigns in preserving the fish population and wildlife, including the elephant populations in the greater Lake Kariba area for the benefit of the citizens of the Republic of Zimbabwe in perpetuity’.

What is the single most important change that needs to be made to protect wildlife in Matusadona?

Wow, tough question. Personally, I think that our poor economic state has had a huge influence on poaching in this country. Economic recovery is to my mind the single most important change that we need, create employment and wealth, and there will be less people out there prepared to put their lives on the line for the ill-gotten gains that are poaching.

Furthermore, a change in our economic state will see a return of the international tourist trade and a proliferation of tourism facilities in and around the park – this would be a huge benefit.