In a national park, water is life, each ecosystem directly dependent on its availability. Through rainy seasons, natural springs, lakes and rivers, its presence is vital. Its ebbs and flows during each season shape our landscapes, sustaining both our plants and animals. Water hydrates, carries nutrients, disperses seed, washes away sediment as well as the residence for many aquatic creatures. Without water, our wild spaces would cease to exist.
Mana, means ‘four’ in Shona, the local language of the area, acknowledging and celebrating the four large watering holes formed inland from the Zambezi River. The river acts as a natural border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, a life source for wildlife and communities on both sides. It is the fourth longest river in Africa, stretching an impressive 2700 km long. Originating in north-west Zambia, the journey from source to mouth is one which flows through 6 countries; Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, eventually flowing into the Indian ocean. The importance of the Zambezi spans the southern end of the continent, a substantial portion of its livelihood dependent on its existence. Its health is paramount for survival.
Each rainy season, the Zambezi overflows and floods onto the open plains, filling up the four pools. These pans have been created naturally over time by the fluctuation of river levels. This distribution of water determines the movement of animals – most of the big game moving away from the river and into the escarpment. They disappear into the depth of the bush and remain there with lush vegetation and access to water.
As time passes, temperatures rise and water evaporates, the animals will once again naturally migrate towards the river’s edge, sourcing sustenance from its shores. Until then, the four pools provide sufficient nourishment for wildlife. It is here they congregate and may be seen, taking advantage of the abundance of H2O. It is these pools that allow for survival, an interval of plentitude before the arrival of the dry period.
When full, the pools are also home to a wide variety of birds, its healthy and lush surrounding ecosystems attracting a diversity of species. With over 380 species recorded throughout the park, various water points are imperative to support such a population. The pans as well as the river attract wading species such as the spur-winged plover, saddle-billed stork, the hamerkop as well as kingfishers, darters and herons living along their banks.
2019 saw the devastating effects of drought throughout Zimbabwe, with national parks being hit particularly hard. The ecology, wildlife and plant life of Mana Pools suffered terribly, with many lives lost, the landscape dry and scorched, the four pools barely existent. With lack of nutrients for plants, the food source for wildlife quickly disappeared, animals in competition for remaining vegetation.
The scene was heartbreaking, the consequences of no rain life threatening to the park as a whole. It was one of the harshest dry periods the region has experienced in decades, with the Zambezi River flowing at its lowest level since 1995. This, of course, meant the four pools within the park were not replenished, leaving the wildlife at a loss. The predator population, however, flourished. With an abundance of weak prey, they were supplied with an endless feast, barely having to hunt, spoilt for choice.
Long awaited clouds eventually broke in 2020. In its awe inspiring resilience, nature immediately responded. An unrelenting rainy season ensued, thirsty earth soaking up each drop, quenching its parched plains. Plants react with surprising speed, small yet significant green signs of life sprouting throughout the park. The park gradually returned to its previous state of abundance.
The strength of nature is highlighted in moments of adversity – its ability to grow out of distress, truly remarkable. It seems to harness the concept of ‘stress-growth’ – using challenge to simply return stronger and more equipped for change. Ecosystems are constantly learning how to survive, reading their surroundings and circumstances. Without water, however, none of this is possible.
Mana Pools is one of the blessed areas with the mighty Zambezi as its main source, depositing pools inland for survival throughout the year. This constant supply of water sustains its biodiverse ecology, its big game as well as its plethora of bird species – a small park, with a big soul kept alive by four important pools of water.