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Lake ‘Bangweulu’ translates as ‘The Place Where the Water Meets the Sky’, the horizon and lake seamlessly blends into one.
The Bangweulu Swamps and Wetlands
North eastern Zambia in the upper Congo River Basin. The area incorporates great biodiversity in need of conservation – the Bengweulu Swamps and grassy floodplain, Lake Bangweulu, adjoining small lakes, extensive Miombo woodland and termitaria woodlands. The whole of the area is pretty much untouched by tourism but would make an interesting and beautiful stopover for a self-drive traveller or backpacker.
Mainly used as a source for fishing: yellow belly, catfish, tigerfish, bream are amongst the 57,000 metric tons of fish caught annually, as a result fish stocks are on the decline. The Bangweulu fisheries are Zambia’s largest and the fishermen operate a barter system to exchange their catch for daily essentials.
The lake’s largest town is the former 1900?s fishing village, Samfya, a good port of call for basic supplies. Venture out of town and be rewarded by magnificent bird life and vast herds of black lechwe (Kobus leche smithemani) also rare species of birds include Denham’s bustard and the ground hornbill found on the grassland searching for large insects.
The shallow waters at the edge of the vast open floodplains are home to large numbers of indigenous and migrant birds attracted to the swamps to feed over the winter months. Birders will be interested to note species include saddle billed storks, spoonbills, white storks, wattled cranes, white and pink backed pelicans, vast flocks of ibises and waders in search of snails, shrimps and small fish. The marsh whydah, marsh tchagra, white cheeked bee-eater are also indigenous to the Bangweula.
The Bangweulu swamps are home to one of the most elusive of African birds, the shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), also known as the shoe billed stork or whalehead. The shoebill stork is regularly sighted on the fringe of the floodplains and the permanent swamps after the rains. The Bangweulu swamps are one of the shoebill’s few breeding grounds. The vulnerable shoebill nests on the ground, has just two offspring per year and is classified as an endangered species.
Other avian visitors include crowned cranes, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, plentiful pratincoles, ruff, geese, ducks, jacanas, pelicans, flamingos black and slaty egret, Zambiagoliath heron, swamp fly catcher, rosy breasted longclaw and white cheeked bee-eater, Fuelleborn’s longclaw and Denham’s bustard. The birdlife is phenomenal between November and March when the heavy rains when there’s an abundance of insects to attract the birds. Travel the swamp by boat for the best experience.
It’s not just about the birds… the Bangweulu floodplains are home to the near endemic black lechwe (Kobus lechwe smithemani), which thrive in this watery environment. Gathering in vast herds with as many as 10 000 lechwe at the edge of the floodwaters during their annual recession. By mid to late April (depending on the summer rains) the floodplain will be dry enough for the area to be accessed by 4×4?s – the best time to observe black lechwe (African Parks’ current estimate - 75,000 animals).
The denser vegetation attracts the very shy (Tragelaphus spekei) sitatunga; their hooves are adapted to walk on the mats of floating vegetation but they are excellent swimmers too and if disturbed, can disappear below water with only their noses visible! The Oribi (Ourebia ourebi or oorbietjie in Afrikaan) are graceful small antelopes with slender legs. They’re extremely shy creatures but you may spot family groups feeding in the long grasses in the late afternoon.
A few important facts about the Bangweulu Wetlands Zambia…
A characteristic of the area are the termite mounds which attract the tsessebe, look out for the vast (several hundred strong) herds. The tsessebe is the fastest antelope and they love this environment!
The woodlands are also home to the reedbuck, vervet monkeys, roan, wild dog, duiker, the nocturnal bushpigs and mongoose. The sound of the jackal and hyena resonates after dark. Leopards also live in the area but sightings are rare.
When the floodwater recedes elephant and buffalo arrive to feed on the grasses and hippo and crocodile lurk in the reeds of papyrus and live in the water channels which dissect the area.
The Bangweulu wetlands are inhabited in the Northern Province by descendants who emigrated from the Congo Basin known as the Wild Men or Ba-Twa who lived at the confluence of the Luapula and Chambesi on the islands. These descendants have become absorbed into tribes speaking the Bemba language and now live in permanent villages. An estimated 90 000 individuals reside in the area today.
Bangweulu Swamps and Wetlands are fed by 17 rivers from a 190 000 kms2 catchment area, a vast area of wetland in the North Zambian Plateau. The flooding occurs from November to March during the wet season, at this time the water level measures between 1-2 metres which makes the periphery of the floodline vary by as much as 45 kilometres as the waters retreat and advance. This periphery provides a good source of food and the seasonal fluctuation of the waters determines the swamp life.
African Parks …
The Bangweulu Wetlands Zambia is under the management of African Parks, the six Chiefdoms (where the park lies within their territories) and the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA).
The Bangweulu Wetlands are unique for African Parks in as much as it’s a game management area and not a designated national park. The partnership ensures that communities benefit from using the land for conservation. A Community Development Fund ensures that monies are allocated where needed: the addition of a maternity wing at a local clinic, housing for teachers, market building, bee keeping facilities, water pumps and incinerator and grinding mills are examples of how the local communities are benefiting. The Wild Miombo honey brand is now being marketed – 2013 saw a production of 4,200 kg of honey. There are plans afoot for further expansion with an additional 140 hives and beekeeping training for farmers.
Children are being educated on the environment, conservation and its importance: shoebill posters have been distributed amongst schools and shoebill guards patrol to protect nests as part of the “Respect and Protect” project.
The main objective is the restoration and protections of wildlife and the Bangweulu Wetlands ecosystem at the same time it’s improving the peoples’ socio-economic well-being by maintaining a park which can contribute to Zambia’s tourism. The day-to-day management is the responsibility of African Parks but the overall authority lies with the Bangweulu Wetlands Management Board.
Best time to visit the Bangweulu Wetlands Zambia…
The wildlife of the floodplains offers a great safari destination if you’re prepared to do the legwork and stick to the tracks to ensure minimal soil damage. In the wet season the camps are inaccessible but the floodplain is dry by June/July and the lechwe move towards the permanent swamp. At this time of year it’s possible to walk the swamps on the ‘floating mats’ of vegetation growing on the open water. Birding is extensive with a drop in the number of species when the summer migrants depart. August is very much the middle of winter in the swamps and, although the daytime temperatures are pleasant it can be extremely cold at nights with temperature dropping to freezing.