With its rich vegetation, the Luangwa supports large numbers of a wide variety of animals. Each species has its own niche in the food chain, which avoids direct competition with any other species. Each herbivore has its favourite food plants, and even species that utilise the same food plants will feed on different parts of those plants. This efficient use of the available vegetation – refined over the last few millennia – makes the wildlife far more productive than any domestic stock would be if given the same land. It also leads to the high densities of game that the valley supports.
The game includes huge herds of elephant and buffalo, commonly hundreds of animals strong, which are particularly spectacular if encountered whilst you are on foot. Despite Zambia's past poaching problems, South Luangwa's elephants are generally neither scarce nor excessively skittish in the presence of people. Just north of Mfuwe Lodge, you'll find an open plain with few trees, just the skeletal trunks of an old cathedral mopane forest. This has always been attributed to elephant damage from the 1970s, before ivory poaching became a problem, when there were around 56,000 elephants in the park (100,000 in the whole Luangwa Valley) – though very recent research suggests that soil changes and even heart rot disease may have contributed to the trees' demise.
The park's dominant antelope species are impala and puku. Whilst impala are dominant in much of southern Africa, puku are rare south of the Zambezi. They stand a maximum of 0.8m high at the shoulder and weigh in at up to about 75kg. These form small breeding groups which are exceedingly common in their favourite habitat – well-watered riverine areas. Groups are dominated by a territorial male adorned with the characteristic lyre-shaped horns. Impala do occur here but are not the most numerous antelope, as they are in the Zambezi Valley and throughout Zimbabwe.
Luangwa has a number of 'specialities' including the beautiful Thornicroft's giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis thornicroftii
. This rare subspecies differs from the much more common southern giraffe, found throughout southern Africa, in having a different (and more striking) colouration. When compared with the normal southern species of giraffe found in Kafue and south of the Zambezi, Thornicroft's have dark body patches and lighter neck patches; their colour patches don't normally extend below the knees, leaving their lower legs almost white; and their faces are light or white.
Fortunately, around the Mfuwe area there is a widespread traditional belief that people who eat giraffe meat will get spots like those of a giraffe. Hence giraffe are rarely hunted by the local people, and are even very common in the GMA (game management area) to the east of the river, outside the national park.
Cookson's wildebeest, Connochaetes taurinus cooksoni
, are endemic to the valley and a subspecies of the blue wildebeest, found throughout the subcontinent. They are more common in more northerly areas of the valley (like North Luangwa); and Norman Carr's wildlife guide (see Further Reading
) maintains that they also seem to favour the east side of the river, rather than the west. That said, in South Luangwa you've also a fair chance of seeing them in the Nsefu Sector, and on Lion Plain, and particularly around Mwamba Bushcamp area. They differ from the blue wildebeest in having cleaner colours including slightly reddish bands, and being a little smaller and more compact.
Another special of the Luangwa Valley is Crawshay's zebra, Equus burchelli crawshaii
, a subspecies of the more common Burchell's plains zebra, which is found in much of the subcontinent. Crawshay's zebra occur east of the Muchinga Escarpment – in the Luangwa Valley and on Nyika Plateau – and lack the brown shadow-stripe that Burchell's zebra usually have between their black stripes.
In contrast to these examples, the common waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus
) is found in the valley. Its rarer subspecies, the defassa waterbuck (K. e. crawshayi
), is found over most of the rest of Zambia. This has a white circular patch on its rump, rather than the common waterbuck's characteristic white 'toilet seat' ring.
Other antelope in the park include bushbuck, eland and kudu. The delicate oribi occur occasionally in the grassland areas (especially Chifungwe Plain), while grysbok are often encountered on night drives. Reedbuck and Lichtenstein's hartebeest also occur, but not usually near the river, whilst sable are occasionally seen in the hills near the escarpment. Like sable, roan antelope seem to be most frequently seen in the hills – often on the roads south of Chichele, although in the late dry season there are frequent sightings in the Chikoko area, on the fringes of Chifungwe Plain, and in the 'corridor' area between the North and South Parks.
A special mention must go to the hippopotami (and crocodiles) found in the rivers, and especially in the Luangwa: their numbers are remarkable. Look over the main bridge crossing the Luangwa at Mfuwe – sometimes there are hundreds of hippo there. Towards the end of the dry season, when the rivers are at their lowest, is the best time to observe such dense congregations of hippo. Then these semi-aquatic mammals are forced into smaller and smaller pools, and you'll appreciate their sheer numbers.
These congregations reach their peak in October and November when, for example, you'll find a concentration of 1,000 hippo in just 2km of river, in the Changwa Channel, north of Chibembe. This is probably easiest (and certainly most spectacular) to see by flying over it in a microlight from Tafika.