Zambia Travel Guide
Zambia Travel Guide
Kafue River Basin
Kafue National Park
Flora and Fauna

Zambia Travel Guide

Flora and Fauna


Most of Kafue is an undulating mosaic of miombo woodlands and dambos, within which you'll find smaller patches of munga woodland, and bands of riparian forest and thickets along the larger rivers.

In the extreme northwest of the park are the permanently wet Busanga Swamps, surrounded by adjacent floodplains. These are dotted with raised 'tree islands', notable for some mammoth specimens of sycamore figs (Ficus sycomorus), amongst other vegetation. These floodplains are ringed by a 'termitaria zone' of grasslands.

Northern Kafue receives slightly more rain than the south, resulting in richer, taller vegetation. In many areas such woodland is dominated by the large-leafed Munondo tree, Julbernardia paniculata, though you'll also find 'Prince of Wales feathers', Brachystegia boehmii, and the odd mobola plum, Parinari curatellifolia.

Southern Kafue is dominated by areas of Kalahari sand, and also has a slightly lower rainfall than the north. Large stretches of Kalahari woodland are the norm here, typified by silver-leaf terminalia, Terminalia sericea, poison-pod albizia, Albizia versicolor, and Combretum species. Within this there are a few patches of beautiful teak forest – the Ngoma Forest being one of the most spectacular examples – whilst further south, on patches of alluvial clay, are some beautiful groves of cathedral mopane, Colophospermum mopane.

In the far south of the park, the Nanzhila Plains are a fascinating area. Wide expanses of grassland are dotted with islands of vegetation and large termitaria – often with baobabs, Adansonia digitata, or jackalberry trees, Diospyros mespiliformis, growing out of them.


Covering such a large area, with a variety of habitats, Kafue is rich in wildlife and many of its species seem to exhibit strong local variations in their distribution. This is a reflection of the wide variety of habitats in such a large park.


Kafue has a superb range of antelope, but you will have to travel throughout the park if you wish to see them all.

The Busanga Swamps, in the far north of the park, are permanently flooded and home to the secretive sitatunga, which is uniquely adapted to swamp life. These powerful swimmers will bound off with a series of leaps and plunges when disturbed, aided by their enlarged hooves which have evolved for walking around on floating papyrus islands. They will then stand motionless until the danger passes, or even submerge themselves leaving just their nostrils above the water for breathing.

The Busanga Plains, a little further south, is a much larger area that is seasonally inundated. This only starts to dry out around June (it's totally impassable by vehicle until then), when it's possible to visit and see large herds of red lechwe and puku, with smaller groups of zebra and blue wildebeest. Oribi are found throughout the park, but are particularly common here, and you also have a good chance of seeing roan and the beautiful sable antelope.

Across the rest of the northern half of the park, there's a good range of mixed bush environments, and here kudu, bushbuck, eland, reedbuck, common duiker, grysbok and Defassa waterbuck (a subspecies without the distinctive white ring on the rump) are all frequently seen. Even within this there are local differences; the Kafwala area, for example, is notable for good numbers of Lichtenstein's hartebeest and sable. Numerically, puku dominate most of the northern side of the park, though they gradually cede to impala as you move further south.

On the south side of Kafue, the game is more patchy. Generally it thrives in areas around lodges, which provide some sanctuary from poaching, but away from these it can be scarce. The presence of three lodges in the GMA on the eastern side of the river is certainly having an impact: it's giving some security to the game, which is improving as the result. The area around Puku Pans and Kaingu Lodge is particularly rich in impala and bushbuck, and the game is fairly relaxed.

The area from Itezhi-Tezhi south to Ngoma has Kafue's densest elephant population, with some groups also frequenting the Chunga area. In just a day around the Ngoma area and Riverside Drive, in September 2003, we found not only a number of elephant herds, but also large herd of over 100 buffalo, plenty of impala and puku, family groups of Lichtenstein's hartebeest and waterbuck, and numerous bushbuck, warthog and baboons. We saw most of these animals in the small area between Ngoma and Riverside Drive, where the game was relaxed and fairly prolific.

South of Ngoma, the picture was not as good; the game was sparse indeed, and skittish. It was interesting that the only really good sightings that we had of large animals were around the Chelenje Pools Loop (what was navigable of it) and the old, disused site of Nanzhila Restcamp – and so once again the animals were congregating in areas associated with visitors. In that area there are still wildebeest, roan, waterbuck, impala, baboon and vervet monkeys.

Large predators

Lion are widespread all over the park, and are easily spotted on the plains. On the Busanga Plains, large prides stalk through nervous herds of puku and lechwe nightly, using the natural drainage ditches for cover with deadly efficiency. There are currently at least five different prides in this area, and they seem to be thriving. Elsewhere they are also fairly common, though less easily seen.

Leopard are very common throughout the main forested areas of park, though they are seldom seen on the open plains. They are most easily observed on night drives, and continue with their activities completely unperturbed by the presence of a spotlight trained upon them. They seem to be particularly frequently seen in the area around Lufupa – though this is probably due to the success of Lufupa Lodge's guides in locating these elusive cats. This is one of the best places in Africa for seeing leopard in the wild.
Spotted hyena are seen regularly, though not often, throughout the park. They appear to occur in smaller numbers than either lions or leopards. Cheetah are not common anywhere, but they're definitely most frequently seen on the Busanga Plains, where they seem to be thriving. Sightings have definitely increased since the late 1990s, with plenty of first-class reports of very relaxed cats here. It's certainly the best place in Zambia to look for cheetah.

Occasional sightings of wild dog occur all over the park (though fewer around the road on the east side), and Kafue is Zambia's best stronghold for them. The park's huge size suits their wide-ranging nomadic habits and I have had a number of reports of them being seen on the north side of the park in the last few years. Areas around the Busanga Plains seem a particular favourite. They remain uncommon in any locale, but a possibility all over the park.

Other large animals

Elephants occur throughout Kafue, though overall their numbers are still recovering from intensive poaching during the 1970s – and their density varies hugely within the park. Just south of Lake Itezhe-Tezhi, around Chunga and, especially, Ngoma, there are large herds and a thriving population – though they're not always relaxed, so drivers there need to be very wary of getting too close to them. South of Ngoma, the situation is much gloomier; you'll see few during the dry season.

On the north side of the park elephant densities are lower than around Ngoma, but they have improved a lot. When I first visited Lufupa in 1995, a few elephants spotted a kilometre from the lodge were a reason for excitement, causing us to leave dinner and jump into a vehicle. Now family groups are commonly seen in the Lufupa and Lunga areas, and are a lot less skittish than they used to be.

Buffalo are widely distributed throughout the park, but seem not to be common, though herds do frequent the Busanga Plains. Sadly, black rhino appear to be extinct throughout the park, after sustained poaching decades ago.

The Kafue River, and its larger tributaries like the Lunga, are fascinating tropical rivers – full of life – and infested with hippo and crocodile, which occur in numbers to rival the teeming waters of the Luangwa. Vervet monkeys and yellow (not chacma) baboons are common almost everywhere, and you'll usually find porcupines, mongooses, civets and a wide variety of small mammals on night drives. One other curious but interesting fact: there seem to be more pangolins than aardvarks in North Kafue, which is a very unusual situation indeed!


The birding in Kafue is very good. There have been about 495 species recorded here, suggesting that the park has probably the richest birdlife of any of Zambian park. This reflects Kafue's wide range of habitats, because in addition to extensive miombo woodlands (quite a Zambian speciality!), Kafue has plenty of rivers, extensive wetlands and seasonal floodplains in the north.

The wetlands and floodplains have the full range of herons, storks and ibises, plus crowned and wattled cranes, Denham's (or Stanley's) and kori bustards, secretary birds, and geese (spur-winged and Egyptian) by the thousand.

In the long, verdant stretches of riverine vegetation you're likely to spot Lady Ross's turaco, Narina trogons, MacClounie's (black-backed) barbet, olive woodpecker, brown-headed apalis and the yellow-throated leaflove. Pel's fishing owl is also found here, with Bob Stjernstedt noting that there are pairs around Ntemwa, and African finfoot frequent the shady fringes of the slower rivers, swimming under the overhanging trees with part of their body submerged.

Kafue's extensive miombo woodlands have endemics such as pale-billed hornbill, miombo pied barbet, grey tit, miombo rock thrush, Sousa's shrike, chestnut-mantled sparrow-weaver, spotted creeper, and three species of eremomela.

Hunting and poaching

For many years ('80s and early '90s) there were few efforts or government resources devoted to protecting Kafue, and poaching was rife. This ensured the extermination of black rhino, and a sharp reduction in elephant numbers at the hands of organised commercial poachers. Fortunately the park is massive, surrounded by GMAs, and not easily accessible. So although the smaller game was hunted for meat, this was not generally on a large enough scale to threaten the population of the smaller game. Nor did it adversely affect the environment.

Organised commercial poaching is now relatively rare, and the remaining incidence of smaller scale poaching by locals (for food) is being tackled by a number of initiatives. The ZAWA team protecting the park has become much more active in recent years, having received a lot of training and more resources (notably aid from Danish and Norwegian agencies).

Some of these initiatives concentrate on increasing the physical policing of the park, the most obvious being the Kantipo anti-poaching patrols, which have been partially funded by some of the lodges. Others try to tackle the underlying reason for this poaching, and attempt to offer practical alternatives for the local people of the surrounding areas that are more attractive than shooting the game. For example, one such project allows local people in neighbouring areas to come into the park to collect natural honey. Both types of initiatives work with the help and support of some of the more enlightened local safari operators.

^ Top of page