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The Forest with a Desert Heart

The Nature and History of Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe 

  1. Background
  2. Natural History
  3. People and Places
  4. Past, Present, and Future


Hwange Trust Logo 

Hwange National Park has meant many different things to different people. Some visitors think it is one of Africa's finest protected areas.  IT is almost 15,000 square kilometers (about 5,800 square miles) in size, much larger than Yellowstone National Park in the United States. For six months of the year no rain falls and the sun shines so clearly, so perfectly in a sub-tropical and yet somehow comforting intensity, that evaporation far exceeds the rest of the year's rainfall. The rains that fall later in the year swiftly penetrate the thick rolling sandbeds that surface three-fifths of the Park, while in the rocky and hilly north the streams may flow a few days to weeks at a time.

Rainfall isohyets for northwestern Zimbabwe

Chief Hwange in 1890s

The Park was named after a local chief, or more precisely after his chiefly title. The artist-explorer Thomas Baines had met a chief with this title on the Zambezi river in 1862. Hwange's people today are known as the Nambiya.

Nearly complete pot, Bumbusi National Monument

Their pottery, iron implements, and house remains can still be found in the Park named after their chief. They had migrated to this country a century or so before Baines encountered them, during a period called the Late Iron Age by some archeologists. They had come from a region to the southeast ruled over by a dynasty called Rozvi. The local foragers and farmers they encountered in their new homeland were probably socially assimilated into the Nambiya tribe. Over the course of time, they built a number of dry-wall stone structures that marked important ceremonial or living sites (shown on the map below). The 19th century Nambiya were too loosely organized to offer much resistance to the more militaristic Ndebele people whose territory centered around Bulawayo, and by the second half of the 19th century they moved north across the Zambezi river, where Baines encountered them.

geological map of northwestern Zimbabwe

Wankie's Kraal 1890s

Wankie's kraal, some years after abandonment (source: Zimbabwe National Archives)

The Colonial Era 

Rhodesia magazine masthead

After Cecil Rhodes established a British colony (later named Rhodesia and then Southern Rhodesia), the Nambiya people trickled back into their more peaceful homeland. But the colonial land office aggressively recruited white settlers to farm and ranch in the district, and together with the rapid industrial development of the local coalfields, the Nambiya could not return to their former way of life. Many were forcibly moved to tribal reserves. The vast landscape of savanna, woodlands, and grasslands was left nearly empty of the human presence, except for a few white settlers in the northern reaches who quickly learned how unpredictable was the region's rainfall.

The early 20th century was rough on Rhodesia's native peoples and settlers. To slow the destruction of wild animals in the country, the Rhodesian government established a Game Reserve in the district, then called 'Wankie.' Its first warden in 1928 was Ted Davison, who spent several decades chasing poachers, establishing pumped water sources to keep the wild animals within the reserve's boundaries, and learning about the landscape and animals.

Nowadays we know quite a bit about the Park's wild animals and plants, and its geology, but still very little is known about its prehistory.

geology map of Hwange National Park

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