Zimbabwe is a land of striking contrasts, where ancient and recent, natural and built environments coexist. In the news, we hear and read about Zimbabwe as a country facing significant political challenges, but it is also a country with rich history, vibrant cultures, remarkably varied landscapes, and stunning biodiversity.

We don’t hear in the news that Zimbabwe is home to some of the world’s most majestic natural and cultural wonders, with a long history of conservation and significant recent wildlife success stories.

Reason 1: Spectacular Zimbabwe Landscapes

Zimbabwe lies within the Miombo Eco-region, one of WWF’s 35 highest priority areas. 

Situated within the tropics of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe is dominated by a high inland plateau (or Veld) that drops to the Zambezi River Valley. Though Zimbabwe is landlocked, major bodies of water include Lake Kariba and Victoria Falls, both on the western border with Zambia.

Zimbabwe Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

The Miombo woodland is a dominant vegetation type that covers 1.4 million square miles (3.6 million square kilometers), spreads over ten countries of Southern Africa and is globally recognized for its biological diversity and potential for nature-based tourism.

The woodland is linked to the Zambezi River and its tributaries and provides crucial life support systems for over 65 million people. Several of Southern Africa’s iconic national parks – Hwange, Chobe, South Luangwa, Lower Zambezi and Mana Pools – with their globally significant populations of mega-fauna (e.g., elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard) and flora are found in the Miombo woodland.

Miombo is the Swahili/Bantu word for Brachystegia, a genus of large trees that characterizes this African woodland. The term is now used to cover other associated vegetation types found in Southern Africa. Sixty-five percent of Zimbabwe is covered by Miombo woodlands, though the landscape is surprisingly diverse, from the lush green forests of the Eastern Highlands to the arid savannas of the Lowveld.

Five UNESCO World Heritage sites lie within Zimbabwe’s borders, including the majestic Victoria Falls and the Mana-Sapi-Chewore biosphere, a vast protected area that encompasses Mana Pools National Park and the private Sapi Reserve.

Have you dreamed of seeing the iconic Victoria Falls, ancient Great Zimbabwe ruins, or the abundant wildlife of Hwange National Park? Or perhaps you’d prefer gliding up the Zambezi River onto Lake Kariba, watching hippos congregate alongside sunning crocodiles hauled out at the water’s edge on a Zimbabwe river cruise? All of this and much more is available in Zimbabwe.

Nat Hab Safari Vehicle Zimbabwe game drive elephants

© Court Whelan

Reason 2: Diverse Wildlife on a Zimbabwe Safari

As a result, Zimbabwe is one of the most biodiverse countries in Africa, with more than ten national parks and several private reserves that host over 800 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish in diverse habitats ranging from savannas to forests, mountains to rivers across Zimbabwe. You may encounter the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, and buffalo), as well as endangered species such as wild dogs, cheetahs, and black rhinos.

African wild dogs painted wild dogs

African wild dogs, also known as painted dogs.

Zimbabwe is home to the second-largest elephant population in the world. Only neighboring Botswana has more. It also has one of the largest populations of rhinoceros in Southern Africa and the third-largest individual black rhino population in the world. Over 670 bird species have been spotted there, as well as over 150 species of fish.

Zimbabwean safari expert guide Bulisani (known as Buli) Mathe loves sharing his country with travelers who visit Zimbabwe to explore Southern Africa’s vast expanses of wild terrain, including Lake Kariba, the world’s largest manmade lake. In Nat Hab’s short film, Conservation in Zimbabwe: A Nat Hab Guide Story, he shares a glimpse into safaris in Zimbabwe:

“The wildlife in Zimbabwe keeps me on my toes! The diversity of game and the movement of game, and the dynamics makes it more adventurous as you explore the beauties of the surrounding. The sheer quietness, the bird calls, the sound of the lake, the water, the aura of being in an environment that is calm and worrying less about the sounds of the big cities and sirens and all that…this is an element that excites a part of you that is rarely discovered…It takes you back to what the native people back in the day before all this development used to explore and enjoy is the natural spaces.” 

Reason 3: History Shapes Wildlife Conservation in Zimbabwe

Large local communities and abundant wildlife have lived on this land together for tens of thousands of years. Archaeological evidence of arrowheads and cave paintings in present-day Zimbabwe suggests humans have lived there for over 100,000 years. The first known inhabitants of the region were the San people, followed by Bantu farmers about 2,000 years ago.

In the 10th century, the Shona people dominated the Zimbabwean plateau, making it the center of the Shona states. Evidence of their lives remains today in the Great Zimbabwe UNESCO World Heritage site, a medieval stone city covering 2.79 square miles in the south-eastern hills near Lake Mutirikwi. Construction on the city began in the 9th century and continued until it was abandoned in the 15th century. Archaeologists estimate it could have housed up to 18,000 people at its peak.

The name Zimbabwe was coined from the word “dzimba-dza-mabwe,” meaning “The Land of Stones.” It’s a direct translation of the Karanga dialect of the Shona language, one of the 16 official languages in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is the Shona name for the Great Zimbabwe ruins, first recorded in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, captain of a Portuguese garrison, a nod to the long human history here.

Great Zimbabwe National Monument, "Land of Stones"

Great Zimbabwe National Monument, “Land of Stones”

The history of conservation in Zimbabwe is closely linked to its much more recent colonial history. The first European settlers arrived in the late 19th century, led by Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company. They established Rhodesia as a self-governing British colony, benefitting from its natural resources.

From 1901 to 1980, Zimbabwe was under British rule that shaped wildlife conservation in ways that distinguish it from its neighbors, Botswana and Namibia.* Early conservationists in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, were influenced by the colonial view of the African continent as a pristine wilderness to be preserved and cordoned off from human interference. They advocated for the creation of game reserves and national parks to separate wildlife from human communities and promoted the idea of wildlife as a resource that could generate income through tourism and trophy hunting.

As a result, the conservation system established in Zimbabwe initially excluded local indigenous people from accessing ancestral lands and resources, limiting livelihoods and rights. The 1949 National Parks Act established Wankie Game Reserve, Robins Game Sanctuary, Kazuma Pan, and Chimanimani Mountains as National Parks. Hwange National Park was established in 1928 as a Game Reserve and later became a National Park in 1961. Hwange is the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe, noted for the largest number of elephants in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe was one of the last African countries to gain independence on April 18, 1980. It formally terminated its membership in the British Commonwealth with effect from December 7, 2003. The colonial conservation system was maintained after Rhodesia declared its independence as Zimbabwe.

In the late 1980s, a new approach to conservation emerged in Zimbabwe and across the region, challenging the colonial legacy. This approach was based on the principle of involving local communities in the management and benefits of wildlife resources on their lands. It was inspired by the traditional practices of the indigenous people, who had coexisted with nature for centuries before colonization. It was also influenced by the international trends of participatory development and sustainable use of natural resources.

Neighboring Namibia enshrined environmental protection into its 1990 constitution; Botswana protected 42% of its land. Zimbabwe developed a dual approach shaped on the one hand by colonial sensibilities and the other by community-based conservation now typical of the region. One of the most successful examples of this approach was the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE), launched in 1989. CAMPFIRE empowered rural communities to manage their own wildlife areas. It also enabled local communities to generate income from tourism activities such as safaris and lodges in Zimbabwe. CAMPFIRE improved the livelihoods and welfare of the communities while also enhancing the conservation and population of wildlife species such as elephants, buffaloes and antelopes.

Nat Hab Expedition Leader Zimbabwe safari game drive

Nat Hab Expedition Leader © Court Whelan

Reason 4: Conservation Travel Benefits Local Communities

Zimbabwe’s community-based conservation model is a tourism-focused approach to wildlife management. Conservation travel in Zimbabwe is a way of supporting the efforts to conserve and manage these natural resources by providing income and incentives for the local communities that coexist with them. Those conservation efforts are essential in Zimbabwe. Threats to wildlife include illegal killing and trade, human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and fragmentation, and climate-related drought and fires. Despite the challenges Zimbabwe’s wildlife faces, there is good conservation news coming out of the country. Thanks to the efforts of conservationists, local communities, and conservation travel, elephant, rhino, lion, and wild dog populations are showing remarkable signs of population growth.

Zimbabwe has tried to address these challenges by developing alternative approaches to conservation that seek to empower and involve the local communities in managing their natural resources. Guide Buli Mathe explains that socially responsible conservation safaris have an additional value for local populations, illustrating the beauty and value of the landscapes and wildlife around them. He shares:

“Being a safari guide has actually helped me understand the impact of how much conservation has come through people…traveling and exploring these natural habitats…

The locals actually become interested in exploring the same trips that the Americans come to on Lake Kariba. The locals pick up on the highlights, on what really drives people to come this far and spend money to actually enjoy and view the scenery…that they were not aware is actually right in their backyard.

It has made them aware of the importance of preserving and protecting these wildlife areas.”

Conservation travel in Zimbabwe offers the opportunity to explore the beauty and diversity of the country’s wildlife and landscapes while engaging local communities and entrusting them to safeguard and manage them.

Nat Hab Expedition Leader Zimbabwe safari game drive

Nat Hab Expedition Leader © Court Whelan

Visit Zimbabwe for an Unforgettable African Safari

From the resilient spirit of the local people to the magnificent wall of water at Victoria Falls to the remarkable, complex cultural history of Zimbabwe–an African safari here truly holds something for everyone: Stunning landscapes and biodiversity, abundant wildlife, fascinating history and cultures, and the chance to support wonder local people.

Cruise Lake Kariba in Nat Hab’s boutique riverboat Zimbabwean Dream on Nat Hab’s Southern Africa Odyssey or witness Hwange National Park’s growing population of tens of thousands of elephants on one of our other luxury African safaris. We visit Zimbabwe nearly year-round.

*To visit all three countries: Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, check out the Epic Botswana and Namibia Photo Safari. It crosses the border into Zimbabwe to include Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park, too.