Ted Davison

First warden of Hwange (Wankie) National Park

Ted Davison

“He was the sort of warden who didn’t need a beard, have a leopard skin hat, or sport a bowie knife on his belt. He was a sturdily built, weather-beaten, sensible-looking chap, five feet two inches tall, about 180lbs in weight, blue-eyed, sandy haired, and with the rather characteristic, round-faced look of the Rhodesian male” by TV Bulpin quoted in the prelude to Wankie – The story of a great Game Reserve by Ted Davison

Edward Hartley Davison was born 3 April 1906 in Hartley, Rhodesia. His mother died when he was 15yrs old and his family (incl. sister Jennie) moved back to the UK where Ed finished his schooling. But as soon as he had finished school and had scraped together the money to return to Africa he sailed to Cape Town and travelled on to Salisbury by train.

He spend a year as an apprentice taxidermist, 2 yrs as a farm assistant in Sinoia (Chinyoi), took a govt job on tsetse fly control in Doma (north-eastern Rhodesia) until he was offered the job of Game Warden of the fledgling Wankie Game Reserve.

He took up his post in Sept 1928 at the age of 22 yrs of age.

Whilst by no means a novice in the bush he had never seen a giraffe before, knew little of elephants and lion, had virtually no maps of the area, no staff, no housing and no means of transport. His first budget for operations was £500 to meet all needs. In his early years, having secured a horse and a couple of mules, and having learnt to ride on the job, he set about exploring and mapping the new reserve and getting familiar with the terrain and its wildlife. The only people living within the new reserve were some nomadic San Bushmen families who moved between the area and Botswana to the south, and two occupied farms.*

The reserve, although bounded by rivers to the north, east and south, had little in the way of permanent water with the north infested with tsetse fly. Game was scarce and seasonal with elephant, eland, kudu, roan, sable (giraffe and impala are not as water dependant) forced to move out of the area once the scattered natural pans had dried through the long dry season. Buffalo and wildebeest were non-existent and zebra were very few. Roads were non-existent and it was these two aspects that were to take up the warden’s time in the early years, along with learning the habits, movements and idiosyncrasies of his new charges – the elephant, giraffe, and other wildlife. In time, boreholes were sunk and windmills installed (with diesel pumps used in the drier months to keep up with demand). The subterranean water in many sites was full of mineral salts, sodium and lime, which made the water doubly attractive to the game animals. Through trial and error ways were devised to expand the size of the natural pans and circular, sunken troughs were designed to deliver fresh water to the clamouring wildlife. Dams were also constructed over time and added to the available surface water for wildlife throughout the Park.

Animal numbers rose steadily and these waterholes became the focus of game viewing activities and soon platforms were being constructed at a number of these waterholes for guests allowing guests to step out of their cars and spend time watching the comings and goings of the wildlife from the comfort of the hide. These have since become part of the Wankie/Hwange experience and a distinguishing feature from other parks on the continent. But even so, in the early years, it was only at night that the game came down to drink and Ted’s guests would sleep out all night on the platforms to get a glimpse of elephant, eland or giraffe. Only once the game became more accustomed to tourist vehicles and the sound of people in the platforms did game viewing from these elevated hides become possible during the daytime.

Roads were slowly built and added to over the years until a good system of roads existed for tourists to visit the various water points, or for Parks staff to patrol the further reaches of the Park not accessible to visitors.

Wankie Game Reserve only became a National Park in 1950, but tourists had been visiting the reserve well before then although only open from June through to the end of November. Game was not easy to find in those early years but visitor numbers were close to 3,000 per year prior to becoming a National Park but increased to over 25,000by 1965, 15 years later. The first rest camps had been started in 1933, starting with pole-and-dagga huts and progressing to prefabricated wooden huts and later to brick under thatch.

But only at this time did tourist development really get underway.

Ted proudly noted the first African tourist to visit the Park was in June 1958 – a man and his wife. He records that they did not enjoy their visit as they had been terrified when, at the end of the day, when they should have been exiting the Park, they were held up by a herd of elephant – not for the first time that day!

By the time the game reserve was declared in 1928 there were no rhino left in the area and it was again up to Ted Davison to capture and re-introduce this species back into Wankie. Initially, only black rhino were relocated as no white rhino remained in the country and when some of these became available from the Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa it was decided that they should be sent to Matopos and Kyle as the threat from lions as they were to be only three-quarter grown animals. Both species had occurred in the region as early records testified. In 1961, with the flooding of the Zambezi Valley with the rise of the newly formed Lake Kariba, a number of rhino had been marooned on islands. After an unsuccessful first attempt to dart a rhino, in an operation which saw Ted receive 6 stitches (using fishing line) after impaling himself on a branch that he had been standing on whilst keeping out of the way of an enraged rhino about to be darted. Almost fifty black rhino were finally relocated from that operation, and from the shores of the lake near the Sengwa River, to the northern sector of the Park.

Hippopotamus were also absent, but this was to be expected as until a number of dams were built, there had been no permanent water of sufficient size to accommodate any. But with the completion of the first dam at Mandavu it was with great surprise that, before long, a hippo appeared. Ted was of the opinion that, with the disruption caused by the filling of Lake Kariba, this individual must have wandered up one of the many tributaries away from the submerged Zambezi River and found its way to the dam. It was later joined by others.

Eland, kudu, impala, waterbuck, giraffe and gemsbok were already present in the reserve on inception with the latter a seemingly seasonal migrant. All gradually increased in numbers with the additional of the waterholes. Sable and Roan too were found in small numbers, which increased rapidly in the early years, but which plateaued from around 1952 mostly, Ted noted, due to the increase in buffalo numbers which began to lead to overgrazing in some areas. Wildebeest too, whilst numbers improved, have never become a major feature animal of Wankie.

During the Second World War funds were extremely short and the reserve was closed due to petrol rationing.

One of the early policies adopted was to reduce the lion population in order to give the other game a chance to increase their numbers. This was done with the use of hunting dogs, traps and shooting.

He married Constance Burnside, known as Connie, in Bulawayo in November 1932 after first meeting her through friends in Johannesburg after delivering a captive giraffe from the reserve to the Pretoria zoo (the first, and only, instruction Ted received for such a capture). Now a married man, Ted soon moved out of his pole-and-dagga shack and into a small cottage - one bedroom, one living room and a small verandah in the shade of an acacia tree in what is today, Main Camp.

They went on to have three sons..

* These farms were later swopped for equitable properties elsewhere and vacated. In the north, a number of farms which bordered the reserve were later acquired on a similar basis: one of which was owned by a very eccentric gentleman by the name of H.G. Robins, an Irishman, who had owned Toms Farms (Big Toms and Little Toms – named after two small tributaries of the Deka river and in turn named after Tom Sadler, a friend of Selous who used to hunt in the area around 1875 – today Robins Camp is a National Parks Rest Camp and Big Toms and Little Toms are marked by two viewing platforms that become synonymous with the reserve) since 1914. Robins was a cantankerous old devil who reputedly wore a knitted gnome-like cap and a pyjama jacket to receive visitors and gave Ted plenty of grief in the early years.


Hwange National Park: The Forest with a Desert Heart [Chapter 5: The Story of the Camps: Main Camp, Sinamatella, and Robins] by Gary Haynes (PDF)

Operation White Rhino - Wankie 1962 by Condy and Davison (PDF)

Go back to: Pioneers & Early conservationists