Protecting the Park's wildlife and landscapes

Elephants & Ecosystems Research

The Gonarezhou National Park is home to a large elephant population with a density of about 2.18 elephants per square kilometre (c. 2022 survey).  Being natural ecological engineers and at such high densities in the Park, their impact on the vegetation in the Park is clearly evident.  Thus, one of our primary long-term research projects aims to critically understand how elephants interact with the ecosystem in the Gonarezhou landscape.  The broad focus of our research is on the following:

Demography & Population Trends: Aerial surveys focusing on elephant populations are conducted every two years to understand the population trends.  In addition, other census techniques have been used to understand better the population dynamics providing insights into the demography of the population as a whole.

Elephant Movement: Over the past years, several elephant cows and bulls have been collared to understand their space use both within the Park and beyond the Park boundary into areas such as the neighbouring communal lands, Mozambique or Kruger National Park in South Africa.  Understanding these movements provides insights into the possibility of developing future corridors.  Understanding elephant movements is also critical in understanding the landscape factors that influence this and how this interacts to drive the vegetation impacts within the park.

Biodiversity & the Landscape: The elephant population’s size has long been discussed in scientific circles and amongst visitors to the park. Primarily driven by the visual perception of the impact on the vegetation in parts of the Park.  However, to adequately understand whether there are “too many elephants in Gonarezhou”, it is important to understand whether these visually conspicuous impacts negatively impact the biodiversity and the ecosystem processes within the Park.  Thus, a key component of our research is to understand these impacts in the context of their effect on the Park’s biodiversity.

Human-Elephant Conflict/Coexistence: Gonarezhou National Park exists within a mosaic of land-use types and is often interconnected with surrounding areas.  As a result, elephants do stray from the Park boundaries into neighbouring areas, sometimes leading to conflict with people around the Park.  Our research focuses on understanding the drivers of this conflict and explores ways of mitigating it for the benefit of both people and elephants.

Large predator project in Gonarezhou National Park

Predator Research

Gonarezhou National Park’s predator project has been running for years to improve the current knowledge of predator ecology, behaviour, genetics, and demographics relative to predators, through the extensive collection of valuable long-term monitoring data of population demographics, ecology and behaviours.

Lion Research: Lions in GNP face several threats and pressures, such as poacher poisoning, punitive killing by communities and hunting pressures from consumptive tourism.  To understand these better challenges, our lion research’s main objective is to understand the lion population dynamics inside the Park, the movement of lions within the Gonarezhou landscape and the threats that lions currently face.  The project aims to inform adaptive management goals so that they can protect and allow the natural recovery of lions within the Gonarezhou landscape.  Several male and female lions are being tracked with satellite collars and closely monitored.

Wild Dogs Project: To improve the long-term success of the carnivore population in and outside Gonarezhou National Park, GCT, in collaboration with the African Wildlife Conservation Fund (AWCF), has an extensive research program which operates with particular attention to wild dogs.  The AWCF has been conducting annual spoor surveys in GNP to understand the population trends of wild dogs in the Park.  AWCF’s focus also involves all-year monitoring of wild dog population dynamics, including monitoring of their den sights inside the Park and within the Sengwe Tshipise Corridor.

Human and Wildlife surveys in Gonarezhou National Park

Human & Wildlife Interface

The interaction between humans and wildlife often negatively impacts human livelihoods, resulting in human-wildlife conflict.  Human-wildlife conflict is a known long-standing threat to biodiversity.  The constant losses experienced by humans as a cost to coexisting with wildlife has cascading effects on the conservation efforts being implemented in the Park.  Due to this, Gonarezhou Conservation Trust, through a partnership, works closely with the Rural District Councils responsible for communities surrounding the Park.

Within GCT, the Community department, in collaboration with the Scientific Services department, implements various strategies to reduce human-wildlife conflict.  These strategies include a detailed understanding of conflict through rigorous monitoring and data collection, implementation of mitigation measures to minimise impacts, early warning on the movement of tracked animals in and outside communities and constant engagement amongst park management, communities, and other primary stakeholders.  These integrated efforts are working to reduce the impacts of HWC and to foster a positive relationship between people and wildlife.  This, in return, is improving the effectiveness of the Park’s conservation efforts.

Aerial survey in Gonarezhou National Park

Ecological Monitoring

The fundamental information required for best-practice decision-making can only be achieved through dedicated research and monitoring programs in sufficient detail and at appropriate spatial and temporal scales to inform planning, design, and budgeting phases. An important role of the Scientific Services program is to carry out the necessary ecological research to support policy formulation and to provide technical support and advice.  This includes conducting ecological research and monitoring activities to ensure the smooth running of the Park.

Aerial Surveys: Comprehensive aerial surveys are part of a continuing study to monitor trends in the numbers of elephants and other wildlife in Gonarezhou. Elephants and other large herbivores, wild and domestic, are censused biannually in Gonarezhou National Park and some adjacent areas to the Park.  A fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter are used to conduct the surveys, flying transects over the area.

Vegetation Monitoring: Over 490 plant species are distributed throughout the Gonarezhou, and they are found within various types of woodland, ranging from alluvial woodlands to mopane woodlands on heavier soils on basalts, intrusive igneous rocks, and parts of the Malvernia Beds.  The goal of vegetation monitoring is to determine the status of and trends in plant species abundance, coverage, diversity, and distribution in Gonarezhou.

Ecological Services: Ecological monitoring work involves monitoring and establishing databases appropriate for freshwater ecosystems, trends of fire and their impact, climate variabilities, wildlife mortality, and other species of particular concern, such as black rhinos and vultures.

Rhino project in Gonarezhou National Park

Rhino Project

As part of the broader mission, the Park also provides a haven for the black rhino, an important species listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List.  Maximising the population growth of the black rhino to aid species recovery remains at the core of our conservation mission.  Gonarezhou has had the unfortunate distinction of having lost its black rhino population twice due to poaching, once in the 1940s and after a successful reintroduction program in the 1970s.  The park again lost its rhinos in the 1990s, with the last known sighting made in 1994.

Gonarezhou spearheaded a historic translocation of the critically endangered black rhino. In May 2021, we led efforts to bring back the black rhino after 27 years to Gonarezhou National Park.  Through the innovative conservation partnership between the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the collective teamwork between private reservesMalilangwe Wildlife Reserve, Bubye Valley Conservancy and Save Valley Conservancy, the project was a success.

Pangolin project in Gonarezhou National Park

Pangolin Project

Gonarezhou is undoubtedly one of the best places in Zimbabwe for a chance encounter with the rare and endangered ground pangolin. A charismatic, prehistoric-looking scaly mammal that uses its long, sticky tongue to catch ants and termites. Pangolins are currently recognized as the most illegally trafficked mammal in the world, and the ground pangolin found in southern Africa is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. There are eight types of pangolins in the world, and four appear in Africa, namely – the giant, terrestrial, white-bellied (or tree) and black-bellied pangolins.

The Tikki Hywood Foundation (THF), a conservation NGO focusing on the protection of lesser known endangered species, partnered with the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust (GCT) on this unique project to reintroduce wild pangolins rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. Several pangolins have been successfully released into GNP since 2015 and continue to bring critical insights into the habits of this rarely encountered mammal.  The monitoring team tracks released pangolins post-release to ensure they are able to adapt to their new surroundings. The monitoring of the released pangolins has provided significant knowledge on pangolin ecology of both wild and rehabilitate pangolins and contributes to our knowledge of improved rehabilitation and release methods.