1. An emerging perspective in the study of density dependence is the importance of the spatial and temporal heterogeneity of resources. Although this is well understood in temperate ungulates, few studies have been conducted in tropical environments where both food and water are limiting resources. 2. We studied the regulation of one of the world's largest elephant populations in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. The study period started in 1986 when the population was released from culling. Using census data we investigated changes in elephant abundance with respect to rainfall and density across the entire park and across waterholes. 3. The population more than doubled since culling stopped. The population increased continuously during the first 6 years, and then fluctuated widely at about 30,000 individuals. Immigration processes must have been involved in the increase of the population size. 4. Population growth rates were negatively related to previous population density by a convex relationship, and negatively related to the ratio of previous population density on annual rainfall by a linear relationship. However, only this latter model (i.e. assuming a fluctuating carrying capacity related to annual rainfall) produced realistic dynamics. Overall, population decreased during dry years when the elephant density was high. 5. During dry years there were fewer waterholes retaining water during the dry season and consequently elephant numbers at waterholes increased, while their aggregation level across waterholes decreased. On the long-run elephant numbers increased only at the less crowded waterholes. 6. We suggest that the interaction between population size and the available foraging range determined by the number of active waterholes during the dry season controls the park population. 7. Our results emphasize the need to understand how key-resource areas cause resource-based aggregation, which ultimately influences the strength of density dependence. More specifically, this study suggests that climate variability strongly affects local elephant population dynamics through changes in surface-water availability. Finally, as dispersal is likely to be an important driver of the dynamics of this population, our results support views that a metapopulation framework should be endorsed for elephant management in open contexts.