The main predators in the Luangwa Valley are typical of sub-Saharan Africa: lion, leopard, spotted hyena and wild dog. During the day, the visitor is most likely to see lion, Panthera leo
, which are the park's most common large predator. Their large prides are relatively easily spotted, and their hunting trips make gripping spectacles.
South Luangwa seems to have made a name for itself amongst the safari community as an excellent park for leopard, Panthera pardus
. This is largely because leopard hunt nocturnally, and South Luangwa is one of Africa's few national parks to allow operators to go on spotlit game drives at night.
Estimates made whilst filming a BBC documentary about leopards in the park suggest an average leopard density of one animal per 2.5km2 – roughly twice the density recorded in South Africa's Kruger National Park. So perhaps the reputation is justified. In my experience, night drives in Luangwa with experienced guides do consistently yield excellent sightings of these cats – at a frequency that is difficult to match elsewhere on the continent.
In contrast to this, cheetah do occur here but are very uncommon. Typically sightings are only recorded every few years. There seem to have been a few cheetah sightings in the early '80s, but I'm not aware of any since 1985.
Wild dog are also uncommon, though their population seems to oscillate over a period of years. A study of wild dogs in Zambia by Kenneth Buk in 1995 (see Further Reading) suggested that the Luangwa holds Zambia's second largest wild dog population, even though this had been badly depleted by an outbreak of anthrax in 1987.
Since the late 1990s, wild dog have gradually been making more appearances. They're now regularly seen south of Mfuwe, near the Nkwali Pontoon, especially from around February to May, and there's good anecdotal evidence that their numbers are building up. In May 2004, a pack of 30 dogs was sighted in the area between Tafika and Chibembe. This was the first time in two years that they had been seen here, so whilst sightings are not common, we've cautious reason to believe that their numbers of wild dog in the Luangwa are slowly recovering.