In terms of spectacular wildlife, East Africa, aided and abetted by Hemingway, Ruark and the Adamsons, has traditionally upstaged the rest of the continent. However, since independence last year and the end of its long, enforced isolation, Zimbabwe has emerged as a challenger.

Zimbabwe, the former Rhodesia, once teemed with game -- the Bushmen tell us so in thousands of rock-paintings of elephant, buffalo, giraffe and rhinoceros. But the ivory hunters and European settlers, who established huge farming enterprises there, eliminated most of the game in the country.

Since the introduction of active conservation policies earlier in the century, Zimbabwe has managed to reverse the uncontrollable slaughters of animals that took place. But mere conservation is not enough now to answer the question now facing Zimbabwe: How does a developing country balance the needs of its booming population with the desire to preserve its wildlife heritage?

"I expect the wildlife estates to be retained intact," says Dr. W. K. Nduku, the recently appointed director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. ". . . The biggest problems [in the debate over preservation versus utilization] aren't lack of awareness, but poverty and low living standards. These people [local tribesmen] got no real benefit from the wildlife areas, and got into the habit of illicit killing and disposal instead."

Nduku, the first black to attain high position in the department, was raised in a tribal area. "I learned to hunt with dogs and bows and arrows . . . We were never allowed to wholesale slaughter -- that's a recent phenomenon and not at all in keeping with traditional custom," he says.

Asked what will happen in 20 years when Zimbabwe's population doubles from its present 7 million to 14 million, Nduku replied, "That is the million-dollar question."

For some, the answer -- sure to rile conservationists -- would be to use the game preserves not only as an attraction for tourist dollars, but also as a means to supply the food needs of the population. Today, 12.2 million acres, or 12.7 percent of Zimbabwe's total land, is devoted solely to wildlife in one form or another and controlled by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. Slightly more than half of this total is included in 11 major national parks of varying sizes, most holding the famous African "Big Five" -- elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion and leopard -- as well as a plethora of antelope and other species.

Most of these national parks and game reserves lie in the hot, low-lying, often parched country rejected by the settler farmers. Much of Zimbabwe's remaining wilderness lies in the Zambezi Valley to the north -- a wide expanse of mopane and baobab country relieved by the Zambezi River and, for 180 miles, by Lake Kariba. The Wankie National Park, the biggest in the country and probably the best-known, lies on Zimbabwe's western border, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, and varies from rolling teak forests to semidesert scrub. The second largest park -- Gona re Zhou, by contrast the least-known -- lies in the remote southeast of Zimbabwe and differs yet again in character, with wide rivers, mopane lowlands and forested plateaus.

The scientist or general visitor who has been used to the plains of East Africa will, at first, find these wildernesses difficult to get used to. Most are covered in dense bush or woodlands. Nowhere in Zimbabwe is it possible to witness such spectacles as the Serengeti wildebeest migrations; there are no Kilimanjaros or Ngorongoro Craters. There is, instead, a subtle beauty -- as in the backdrop of the Matusadona mountains seen from Kariba, with elephant on the lake shore; in buffalo herds moving among skeletal acacias on the Zambezi flood plain; or in the remote, mysterious "feel" of Gona re Zhou with its big -- and sometimes rather irritable -- elephants.

Since the introduction of active wildlife conservation policies earlier in the century, many game populations have increased in the areas set aside for them. This applies particularly to elephant, of which Zimbabwe now has roughly 40,000. Although this may sound insignificant against the continent's total of 1.3 million, the whole story is more complex. In 27 of the 35 African countries with elephant populations, numbers are declining. Zimbabwe's elephant population has been growing at a rate that makes regular culling a necessary, if somewhat controversial, exercise. And Zimbabwe is one of only four countries in which the elephant population density exceeds one per three square miles.

The Wankie National Park provides the most striking example. Most of its 5,600 square miles consist of naturally harsh, dry, inhospitable territory, first designated a game reserve because nobody could thing of anything else to do with it. At that time, in the late 1920s, it held fewer than 1,000 elephants. A count last year put present numbers at around 15,000.

The last indigenous black rhino in the area strayed onto a neighboring ranch in 1952 and was shot by a woman who, according to local lore, mistook it for a kudu, a large antelope, and successfully dropped it with an antique .303 rifle. Fifty black rhinos were reintroduced in the 1960s and have since doubled in number. Now and again they still stray and have to be tranquilized and brought back by park staff, an exercise that usually involves several days of tracking over some appalling country. Similarly, the white rhino was shot out of the area much earlier in the century; these, too, have been reintroduced and now total some 100 animals. (Both black and white rhino, incidentally, are the same dull shade of gray; the white is a grazer of generally peacable disposition, while the black is a browser and notoriously short-tempered.)

The increases in these and other species stem from the conscious application of wildlife management techniques. Simple preservation is no longer enough; the science has grown from the basic recognition that the existing "wildernesses" -- no matter how vast -- are nothing more than fragments of what used to be a much larger whole; and that left to themselves these fragments cannot provide either the same natural opportunities, or indeed checks and balances, as did the former expanses.

Wankie, in contrast to its superficial aridity, has great reserves of underground water, which have enabled wildlife managers to provide more than 100 artifically-pumped watering holes. These manmade holes have brought huge areas of vegetation into productive use, enabling the park to support a vast increase in elephant numbers in comparison with its earlier, more natural state. The problem has changed from one of under-to-over-population, and regular culls not take place -- accompanied by stormy controversies in local wildlife circles, but possibly representing the future salvation of the wildlife resource. Some 20,000 elephants have been killed since culling first began; one biologist, tired of continually defending the exercises, remarked it took 20 years to grow an elephant but 200 to grow a forest. Inevitably the controversy tends to ascend into esoteric realms of biomass, climax vegetation and other scientific obscurities.

Virtually all of Zimbabwe's wilderness have been affected by man to some extent, whether by prior human occupancy or present management. This subsequent management has, however, ensured that they now hold most of the game species common to Southern Africa, with a heavy preponderance of elephant, buffalo and impala, all species that can tolerate environmental changes. Giraffe, zebra, rhino, wildebeest, sable, kudu, waterbuck, lion, leopard and most antelope and lesser species are generally well-represented; while rarer animals -- notably wild dog, cheetah and nyala -- are holding their own and probably increasing. There are some geographical oddities: giraffe and wildebeest, prolific in Wankie, are non-existent in the nearest other big wilderness areas in the Zambei Valley, a couple of hundred miles away to the northeast.

Down in the valley, one of the loveliest parks in the country -- Matusadona -- was paradoxically created by the huge, man-made ecological upset of Lake Kariba, which covers 2,200 square miles of the Middle Zambezi Valley. Matusadona was the receptacle for many of the game animals rescued during Operation Noah and, by happy chance, now provides some of the most spectacular game viewing in the country. During the late 1960s a species of swamp grass suddenly and unexpectedly colonized many of the more gently sloping shorelines, providing a grazing bonanza for elephants, buffalo, impala and other local species. Many of the buffalo groups and elephant families have become completely accustomed to small boats, which can approach within a few yards without either danger to the occupants or disturbance to the game.

Zimbabwe's biggest area of untouched and relatively unmanaged wilderness lies in the Middle Zambezi Valley downstream of Kariba, where some 12,000 elephants were counted last year. It consists mainly of a wide, flat and searingly hot valley floor, cradled between the Zambezi escarpments which, in places, retreat 50 miles from the river. This is harsh, unforgiving territory, covered with mopane scrub and dense "jesse" bush, riddled with tsetse and malarial mosquito but possessing an indefinable, unique beauty. It is also Zimbabwe's last major reservoir of indigenous -- as opposed to reintroduced -- black rhino; happily, the demand for rhino horn for Oriental impotents has not yet hit this wilderness.

Most of the valley is undeveloped and is devoted to safari hunting; the only existing tourist facilities are on the Zambezi within the Mana Pools National Park. At Mana the Zambezi has created a wide flood plain covered with a rich vegetation of tall grasses, acacia woodlands and giant Natal mahoganies. Away from the flood plain, water and fodder begin to run short soon after the end of the rains. At that point most of the many game animals in the area converge on the Mana Pools flood plain, creating the most impressive wildlife spectacle in Zimbabwe. Herds of Buffalo, some as large as 2,000 head, mingle with impala, waterbuck and kudu among the acacia; hundreds of elephant drink and swim in the Zambezi every evening.

Mana Pools may be doomed. A third major Zambezi hydroelectric scheme is planned for Mupata Gorge, about 55 miles downstream. The resulting 621-square-mile lake will obliterate the Mana flood plain and, according to local biologists, will cause disastrous changes in the ecology of the area. It will, they believe, halve the number of larger species, notably elephant and buffalo, that the area can support, by destroying essential dry-season grazing and browsing without creating viable alternatives. eZimbabwean conservationists have mounted a campaign to prevent construction of the Mupata Gorge dam, a sensitive and difficult task in a developing country with an undisputed power shortfall.

This conflict between mankind and wildlife in a developing country brings us to the central issue: the future survival or loss of the Zimbabwean wildernesses. All these areas survived the bush war more or less unscathed, even though some of the fiercest fighting took place within their borders. The credit for this survival goes to the Department of National Parks, which succeeded in maintaining a presence in every park throughout the civil war. Today, there is peace, albeit shattered now and again by sporadic outbreaks of interfactional fighting. And Zimbabwe has a new government, committed to swift development and upgrading of some abysmally low standards of living, and faced with a "crisis of expectations" from a population expected to double -- from 7 to 14 million -- before the end of the century. Some of the worst cases of rural poverty, some of the severest shortages of protein are on the edges of the wildlife areas. With all these problems, what hope can there possibly be for the survival of the wilderneses?

The answer, of course, lies in its ability to justify itself socially and economically. Esthetics alone are no longer sufficient -- unless they also bring home the financial bacon, as for example, by tourism. In cash terms the wildlife estate is reckoned to have a potential income of $80 million annually at present-day values. Much of this will come from safari hunting, which -- like it or loathe it -- makes a substantial contribution to the Zimbabwean treasury and to the wildlife conservation movement in general. Elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, sable, and most antelope are available in most of the safari areas in sufficient numbers to permit reasonable hunting quotas; and safari hunters are happy to pay up to $600 a day for the privilege. This availability has brought protest at such international restrictions as the American ban on imports of ivory and spotted-cat skins. While few would disagree where cheetah are involved, elephant and leopard are in good supply in Zimbabwe and the ban inhibits what is felt to be a perfectly legitimate trade within the context of a healthy wildlife estate.

However, cash income in the shape of foreign exchange -- no matter how sorely needed -- is only a part of the story and cuts little ice with the impoverished country dweller who, barred from hunting in wildlife areas under threat of severe penalties, sees well-heeled foreigners doing apparently the same thing with government approval. Last year in the months following Independence, the country was hit by an unprecedented wave of wildlife poaching. The causes were not difficult to see. Hundreds of thousands of refugees returned to remote rural areas after the end of the war. They went back to untended fields in the middle of the dry season. No water; no crops; no food. The immediate -- and obvious -- answer was to snare, trap and hunt in wildlife areas. To well-fed Europeans, the results were horrifying. Hippos were crippled by six-inch nails set in wooden planks on their grazing territories. Antelope were chased into wires strung between tree trunks, became entangled and were finished off by hunting dogs. More than a hundred rotting impala were found in one line of wire snares; buffalo were gunned down with AK47s left over from the war; the catalogue was endless. The other cause was political: A number of dissident troublemakers invited locals to trap game under the pretense that the parks had been abolished and that "the animals belong to the people now."

The Department of National Parks, hamstrung by shortages of men and money, and using equipment that would have been scrapped long ago anywhere else in the world, found itself hard pressed to cope. Eventually, aided by police and army forces, they managed to bring the outbreak under control; but the episode highlights the biggest problem -- and also the possible salvation -- facing the Zimbabwean wildlife estate.

At present many local populations resent the existence of the parks and wilderness areas, seeing them as privileged preserves and a waste of good land. The fact that most of it is unsuited to agriculture does not impress unsophisticated rural people accustomed to scratching a living from identical lands adjacent to the wildlife areas. To make matters worse, in some areas people have been moved to make way for national parks. Previous governments were immune from facing the consequences at the ballot box; not so with the current administration.

The only real future lies with balancing the needs of man and the potential of the wildernesses. People living near the wildlife areas will have to be provided with some genuine, continuous and lasting benefit from these areas. Otherwise, the pressures, as populations build, will become so great as to be irresistible and the wild places -- and the game they hold -- will be lost either through a conscious political decision to bow to local feeling and land hunger, or de facto because of the impossibility of policing the areas by what seems likely to be -- at least in the foreseeable future -- an underfinanced and understaffed wildlife department. The poaching outbreak of 1980 was a warning, a foretaste of what could happen if the interests of man and wilderness continue to conflict.

Some moves in this direction have already been made. An exercise termed Operation Windfall took place last year, during which the meat and other game products from a cull of 500 elephants were made available to local tribes. But culls are irregular and take place usually once a year at most; the temporary benefit they provide is soon forgotten. There is one, potentially heretical, answer: too many animals are being killed by poachers, therefore kill more animals. But kill them on a planned basis, from populations built to a level at which they can cope with it, and kill them to provide local inhabitants with food at reasonable cost. Provide genuine, regular benefits, and poaching becomes a much less attractive -- or necessary -- proposition. Maybe the concept of wildernesses as "super-ranches" goes against the grain; maybe it offends traditional concepts of wildlife conservation and purist ecological principles; but we are looking ahead, at rapidly changing, potentially disastrous circumstances: and so maybe it is better to compromise on principles rather than risk the loss of a healthy and beautiful wildlife estate.

Meat is not the only possible benefit. Today, ivory is still sold centrally by auction. Tomorrow it may be taken into local villages and turned into curios, thus establishing craft industries and providing an entree to the cash economy. There are many other possible benefits. One thing, however, seems certain: the old -- and, granted, attractive -- attitude towards wildlife areas as being worthy of preservation solely on esthetic grounds will not guarantee their survival in what seem to be the probable future circumstances. One day it may do so again, when agricultural techniques are improved, education is universal, and standards of living of rural tribespeople are vastly improved.

The trick is to preserve the wildlife until that happy -- maybe utopian -- time. Zimbabwe begins life, as it were, with a clean slate: with a healthy and beautiful African wildlife scenario and the opportunity to retain it. Whether it does so will depend not -- as so many local Europeans choose to believe -- on the inherent "wildlife-conservation-mindedness" of African governments or otherwise, but on their ability to face and accommodate pressures of a magnitude that no previous administration ever had to contend with. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Kudu drink at one of the man-made watering holes in Wankie National Park. The holes, filled with water pumped from large underground reserves, have brought huge areas of vegetation into growth, allowing the park to support a large increase in wildlife. But even this is a mixed blessing; the park now has an overpopulation of elephants.; Picture 3, A lion family in Wankie National Park. An active wildlife management program, first adopted early in this century, has resulted in a population of lion and other game animals in large enough numbers to permit reasonable hunting quotas.; Picture 4, A white rhinoceros and its baby in Matopos National Park. The white rhino once was eliminated in the area by hunters. Fifty of the animals were captured and relocated to the area by game management officials. Since then, the white rhino population has doubled in number.; Picture 5, Giraffe are prolific in Wankie National Park, but are nonexistent in other game wilderness areas in the Zambezi Valley a couple of hundred miles away. The animal estate is valued at $80 million annually, mainly from safari hunting.