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A Wildlife Lover's Guide to Zambia

From bat swarms and birding bonanzas to leopard encounters and little-known migrations, William Gray presents a guide to Zambia’s definitive, spine-tingling wildlife experiences

Article first published in Travel Africa magazine

Carmine bee-eater
Carmine bee-eater

Thirty years have past since my first visit to Zambia. Bouncing around the country in the back of a bright yellow overland truck, it fuelled my love of African wildlife. Three decades later, I still have sketchy memories of a fat python stretched out on the floodplains of Lochinvar, freshly gorged on a lechwe fawn; a leopard slinking along a dry river gully in the Luangwa Valley and herds of elephants, easily-spooked, drifting like grey smoke through the mopane forest of Kafue National Park. Back then, Zambia felt raw, untrammelled. And it still does. Every time I set foot in one of its vast wildernesses and smell the pepper-sweet tang of the savannah, or hear hippos chuntering away around a bend in the river, I can’t help feeling that I’ve returned to the wild heart of Africa.

Valley of the leopard

Your gaze is never still during a game drive in South Luangwa National Park. Eyes dart from one ebony tree to the next, flitting through the twists and turns of old river channels and probing every shadowy bushwillow thicket. There are leopards out there – probably in higher densities than anywhere in Africa – but they are masters of camouflage. You wonder how many have watched you pass, lying unseen, draped like spotted sashes in the sun-dappled canopies of Natal mahoganies. It makes the encounter, when it comes, all the more sweeter.

Some of South Luangwa’s leopards are bold enough to hunt by day – stealing through the thick cover of the park’s riverine forest, pausing to fix you with a nonchalant stare that instantly sears your memory. They’re far more interested in the bushbuck, impala, puku and other small- to medium-sized antelope that form the bulk of their diet. South Luangwa’s combination of dense cover and abundant prey is ideal for an ambush specialist. Add darkness and the stage is set for nocturnal drama that will literally have you on the edge of your seat during one of Luangwa’s legendary night drives.

Walking in an African Eden

Leopards might steal the limelight in South Luangwa, but it’s the small wonders gleaned on a walking safari that are often the most unexpected and rewarding. Norman Carr pioneered walking trails here in the mid-1900s and they are now available at several camps and lodges – either as short morning or afternoon strolls, or multi-day jaunts joining the dots between remote bushcamps.

Walking single-file, like hominids from a distant past, a footloose foray into South Luangwa’s 9,050 sq km mosaic of woodland, grassland and wetland will hone your senses to every crackle of leaf and whiff of dung. Your guide will translate the graffiti of animal tracks around a shrinking lagoon, or share nuggets of bushlore rooted in birdsong and medicinal plants. With luck, you might glimpse distant game: a herd of Luangwa’s endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe, spindly legs quivering in the heat haze, or a herd of Cookson’s wildebeest – another of the valley’s specialities. But they’re usually always very wary. They’ve seen you coming. Far better to quietly stake out a riverbank and spy on hippos, all twitchy ears and flatulence, in the water below.

Time your visit right and you could be surrounded by migratory carmine bee-eaters, swirling over their riverbank nesting burrows like pink sparks, or be treated to a quelea fly-past – tens of thousands of the weavers pulsing across the river in a frenzied murmuration. More stately are the fishing parties of herons, yellow-billed storks, marabou storks and great white pelicans that gather in shrinking pools towards the end of South Luangwa’s dry season. Scan nearby trees and you may well see a pair of African fish eagles – their plaintive, gull-like cries carrying high above the valley’s backing track of churring doves and double-base ground hornbills.

Fireflies and blazing paddles

The cry of the fish eagle is also quintessential Zambezi – and ideally experienced while paddling a Canadian canoe through the backwaters of Lower Zambezi National Park. Fringing the northern bank of the Zambezi, this beautiful reserve merges riverside curtains of fig, ebony and sausage tree with an open woodland of winterthorn acacia, rucked up against a 1,200m-high escarpment. It’s one of the best places in Zambia to see elephants, sometimes in herds a hundred-strong as they wade across shallow river channels in search of fresh forage, or seek shade under the winterthorns. Buffalo are also a common sight, grazing on islands while cattle egrets flap around them like loose laundry.

Just as walking safaris add a certain frisson to exploring South Luangwa, canoeing in Lower Zambezi tingles with the prospect of a hippo encounter. It’s polite to tap on the side of your canoe when approaching hippo territory – they’ll usually surface and watch while you paddle in a wide arc around them. Getting on the same eye-level as a semi-submerged hippo, or punting past a family of elephants drinking at the water’s edge are perhaps the iconic moments of a Lower Zambezi canoe trip. It pays, however, to occasionally stow your paddles and go with the flow, almost nudging the riverbank as you drift past a colourful procession of avian beauties, from white-fronted bee-eaters and malachite kingfishers to the sought-after narina trogon and Meyer’s parrot. Linger into dusk and you might even be treated to a mesmerising display of fireflies sparking through the riverside forest.

Where the bats hang out

Fancy birds and fireflies are not the only weird and wonderful things to be found in Zambia’s forests. Each year, for about 90 days from late-October to mid-December, a small patch of swamp forest in Kasanka National Park plays host to the planet’s largest mammal migration. Around 10 million straw-coloured fruit bats choose this spot as a seasonal roost. By day, they festoon every branch in a seething, chattering mass, but when dusk falls the bats take flight, filling the sky with a pepper-storm of beating wings. After a night’s feasting, the horde returns, creating an equally spellbinding pre-dawn spectacle – best appreciated from Fibwe Hide, perched 18m off the ground in a mahogany tree.

Weird wetland wonders

As if bats on a Biblical scale weren’t enough, Kasanka National Park has another wildlife ace up its sleeve. What makes it all the more remarkable is that it can be witnessed from the very same hide used for bat vigils. This time, however, it’s eyes down, scouring the undergrowth for a glimpse of a beautiful, yet secretive antelope. The sitatunga is amphibious – splayed hooves and water-repellent fur allow it to not only run across spongy areas of marsh, but also dive underwater and hide with just its nose above the surface when threatened.

Kasanka lies on the soggy fringes of Bangweulu, ‘where the water meets the sky’. Seasonal floods cause this extraordinary wetland to expand and contract, pulsing like a living creature. At its greatest extent, Bangweulu can cover nearly 10,000 sq km. When the grassy floodplains are a foot-deep in water, huge herds of black lechwe – an aquatic antelope endemic to the wetland and numbering around 50,000 – can be seen leaping through the shallows. For keen birders, a boat trip or walking safari can tick off many of Bangweulu’s 433 species. As well as ducks and geese galore, the wetland is home to Montagu’s and pallid harriers, wattled cranes and Denham’s bustard. Serious twitchers will withstand rising damp for a glimpse of the swamp flycatcher or rosy-breasted longclaw, but it’s a sighting of the rare shoebill that fills most visitor’s bucket list.

Largely silent and solitary, like a steely-blue statue snagged in dense stands of papyrus, the shoebill shares similarities with herons, hammerkops, storks and pelicans – but it belongs to none of these groups. It is a loner, both in habit and taxonomy. Imagine a dodo on stilts. Then add some serious attitude. That enormous clog-shaped bill is no party piece – it’s a lethal weapon more than capable of wrenching lungfish from their burrows or striking out at snakes, turtles, young crocodiles and even lechwe fawns.

A mini Serengeti

The shoebill is Bangweulu’s unexpected menace. Venture to the Busanga Plains in the far north of Kafue National Park, however, and you’ll find more ‘traditional’ African predators. Lion, cheetah and wild dog roam this 750 sq km swathe of seasonally-flooded grassland where termite mounds and ‘tree islands’ of sycamore figs prick an otherwise uncluttered horizon.

Watch the sun rise through early morning mist strung in thick webs over Busanga’s floodplains and you will immediately fall under the spell of pure wilderness – herds of puku, red lechwe, wildebeest and zebra drifting like spirits through the golden haze, while the guttural roars of a lion mingle with the distant whooping of hyenas.

Large herds of buffalo pour onto the plains when receding floods reveal fresh fodder. The open grasslands are also the perfect stage for kori bustards – the world’s heaviest flying bird – to strut their stuff. Hippo thrive in year-round pools and swamps, while the wooded fringes along the southern edge of the plains offer varied habitat for no less than 16 species of antelope, including roan, sable, kudu and eland.

Zambia’s Great Migration

Busanga is not the only place in Zambia offering a ‘Serengeti style’ gathering of large mammals. Way out west, Liuwa Plain National Park hosts its very own migration – some 45,000 blue wildebeest arriving from Angola at the onset of the rains in late October or early November. They join a smaller throng of zebra, red lechwe and tsessebe.

Wildlife numbers haven’t always been so prolific in Liuwa – the wildebeest population, for example, has more than doubled in the last 15 years, while wild dogs have only returned to the national park in the last decade. Poaching and illegal hunting in the wake of the Angolan civil war decimated the lion population, leaving a single lioness known as Lady Liuwa. After several unsuccessful attempts to introduce male lions to breed with her, Lady Liuwa died in August this year. The future of Liuwa’s lions now lies with Sepo, or Hope, a lioness introduced from Kafue National Park. Join a mobile safari to this remote, little-visited and wonderfully wild grassland and you might be lucky enough to glimpse one of her cubs – perhaps the most poignant and memorable encounter any lover of Zambian wildlife could dream of.

Zambia’s Emerald Season

Between December and April, the wet season in Zambia brings heavy downpours; unsealed roads become impassable and many lodges and camps close. However, there’s also a positive spin-off: with the rain comes lush new growth, a time of verdancy that stimulates herbivores to give birth and birds to start breeding. National Parks are far less busy with tourists, while lodges that are open generally charge far less than at other times of the year. The so-called green or emerald season is not only ideal for birdwatchers, it’s also a boon for photographers who revel in the clear, rain-flushed atmosphere. Lodges that are accessible during this time, such as Mfuwe Lodge in South Luangwa, offer special interest safaris such as boat trips.

Month by month: The wildlife highlights of Zambia

January-April: Travel by boat along the Luangwa River during the Emerald Season when herons and weavers are all-of-a-flutter around their nesting colonies; many mammals give birth and flowering trees bloom.

March-April: One of the best times to visit the Bangweulu Wetlands to see the flooded plains liberally sprinkled with black lechwe.

April: As floods recede on the Busanga Plains in the northern part of Kafue National Park, large herds of grazing animals arrive in search of fresh grazing.

May: Wild dog puppies start to venture into the open from their breeding dens.

May-June: When the rains abate, migratory birds depart and the land starts to dry, allowing access to lodges that were forced to close during the wet season.

May-June: Ideal time for spotting shoebills in the Bangweulu Wetlands.

May-November: The dry season is generally the best time for spotting leopards in South Luangwa – there’s less vegetation to obscure views.

June: Although it varies depending on local conditions, this is generally the time when walking safaris can start.

July: Eastern white pelicans and wattled cranes congregate in large numbers on the Busanga Plains.

July-November: Huge herds of red lechwe, puku and other game gather on the Busanga Plains, eagerly watched by lion, cheetah and other carnivores. Access can sometimes be difficult until the end of Aug.

August-September: Migrant carmine bee-eaters arrive to nest in South Luangwa National Park, forming large, noisy colonies in the riverbanks. Blue-cheeked bee-eaters tend to arrive in the Lower Zambezi a few weeks later.

August-October: Fishing parties of herons, storks, pelicans and other waterbirds gather in pools in South Luangwa, becoming increasingly concentrated as the dry season progresses.

September-October: As temperatures continue to build during the dry season and the land feels increasingly desiccated, game tends to concentrate around rivers and pools. Buffalo and elephant can often be seen in large herds.

October-November: A good time to witness mass flocks of red-billed queleas swarming over dry grasses or pulsing over rivers.

November: Thunderstorms herald the wet season and provide dramatic photo opportunities – and uncomfortable humidity.

November-December: The annual migration of blue wildebeest arrives in Liuwa Plain National Park.

November-December: Millions of straw-coloured fruit bats congregate in a patch of swamp forest in Kasanka National Park

December-January: Mango trees fruit, attracting everything from elephants and baboons to parrots and pigeons.

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