Flora and Fauna
Most of the park, made up of higher ground on the sides and top of the escarpment, is thick bush – where game viewing is difficult. This is broad-leafed miombo woodland, dominated by brachystegia, julbernardia, combretum and terminalia species. Fortunately, there's little permanent water here, so during the dry season the game concentrates on the flat alluvial plain by the river.
Acacia species and mopane dominate the vegetation on the richer soils of the valley floor, complemented by typical riverine trees like leadwood (Combretum imberbe
), ebony (Diospyros mespiliformis
), and various figs (ficus species). Here the riverine landscape and vegetation are very distinctive: similar to the Luangwa Valley, but quite different from other parks in the subcontinent.
Perhaps it is the richness of the soils which allows the trees to grow so tall and strong, forming woodlands with carpets of grasses, and only limited thickets of shrubs to obscure the viewing of game. The acacia species include some superb specimens of the winterthorn, Faidherbia albida
(which used to be known as Acacia albida
), and the flat-topped umbrella thorn, Acacia tortilis. Both of these produce seed-pods which the game love, the former looking like apple-rings, the latter being tightly spiralled seedpods which are very nutritious (19% protein, 26% carbohydrate, 5% minerals). It all results in a beautiful, lush landscape that can support a lot of game, and is excellent for the ease of viewing which it allows.
The Lower Zambezi has all the big game that you'd expect, with the exceptions of rhino (due to poaching), giraffe and cheetah. Buffalo and elephant are very common, and can often be seen grazing on the islands in the middle of the river, or swimming between Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is normally safe to get quite close by drifting quietly past these giants as they graze.
The antelope in the valley are dominated by large herds of impala, but good populations of kudu, eland, waterbuck, bushbuck, zebra, wildebeest and the odd duiker or grysbok also occur. Giraffe are notable for their absence – in fact, there's no record of them ever having lived here.
Lion, leopard and spotted hyena are the major predators. There have long been plans to reintroduce cheetah but these have not yet come to fruition. On my first visit, back in 1995, lion were very visible, with one marvellous pride having in excess of 30 animals – and the game-viewing has improved a lot since then. Many of the larger trees have branches that seem made-to-measure for leopards, which are sometimes seen on night drives, but rarely during the day.
In the river, crocodile and hippo are always present, but look also for the large water monitor lizard, or leguvaan, and the entertaining Cape clawless otter, which both occur frequently though the latter are seldom seen. Wild dogs in the Lower Zambezi
Once widely distributed throughout the Lower Zambezi Valley, and indeed Zambia as a whole, the African wild dog, Lycaon pictus, is now threatened on every side from loss of habitat, disease and human persecution. In the last 30 years, the population of this highly social species in the valley has fallen dramatically, to the point where its very existence is threatened. Now classified as 'endangered' by the international Union for the Conservation of Nature, it is found in viable populations in just six countries.
For a population of wild dog to be viable, it needs a huge area, around a million hectares, in which to live out its nomadic lifestyle. Restriction of this area curtails the animal's natural tendency to roam many hundreds of kilometres in search of a mate. Even within the national park, the dogs are under threat from predation by lion, and harassment by spotted hyena that can seriously reduce their chances of successfully raising their cubs. Outside the park boundaries, in spite of legal protection, the dangers multiply, from poaching and road-traffic accidents to diseases transferred from domestic dogs.
It was against this background that African Wild Dog Conservation (AWDC) was set up to identify the threats to the wild dogs in the park and surrounding areas, and to recommend appropriate management techniques. As part of her PhD thesis, Australian Kellie Leigh has spent the last five years in the valley, based between Sausage Tree, Old Mondoro and Mwambashi River Lodge, studying in depth the local wild-dog population and monitoring their movements around the park.
In 2003, the dogs had a somewhat traumatic season, losing the first litter of pups and subsequently the Alpha female to disease. Although another female took on the Alpha role and in July gave birth to about eight pups, the pack had problems with hyenas at their den sites, and most of them were lost once they became mobile. By the end of the year, only three of the pups had survived, compared with the survival of ten out of eleven pups in the previous year.
Overall, though, the news is good, with the population increasing since monitoring began, helped along by a few snare removals. Chiawa Camp alone had about 27 wild dog sightings during 2003, higher than the previous year which in itself was a good one. Although Kellie will be in Australia for most of 2004 to complete her thesis, it is hoped that AWDC and Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ) will be able to collaborate to continue base-line monitoring of the wild-dog population for the benefit of the species.
For further information, or to make a donation to the group's work, contact AWDC, C/- 12 Moodie St, Cammeray, NSW 2062, Australia; email: AWDC@bigpond.com; or see www.save-the-african-wild-dog.com/african-wild-dog-conserv.asp and www.afrikeye.net/Conservation/AWDC/
Around 350 species of birds have been recorded in the valley. By the river you will find many varieties of water-loving birds like pied, giant, woodland, malachite and brown-hooded kingfishers, to name the more common of the species. Similarly, darters, cormorants, egrets and storks are common, and fish eagles are always to be found perching on high branches that overlook the river. Less common residents include ospreys, spoonbills and African skimmers, and it's rich in waders, both resident and migrant.
The original inhabitants of the valley, the Senga people, were moved out of the area during the colonial era. Although it was declared a national park in 1983, poaching has long been an issue here – partly because the surrounding peoples had always hunted for food in the valley, so they were not happy to stop. Then in the mid-1980s commercial poaching for ivory and rhino horn completely wiped out the park's black rhino population, and threatened to do the same to the elephants.
Fortunately, the CITES ban on the world ivory trade did much to stop this; the elephant population in the park is now good, and the Lower Zambezi's game is generally in good shape. However, poaching occurs occasionally and there are game scouts, stationed at Chilanga and in the park, who monitor it very closely.
Conservation Lower Zambezi
Many of the camps are involved with helping Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), which is an initiative to support the work of the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) in the valley, funded by donations from camps in the valley and concerned individuals. They help to back up and train the ZAWA scouts, mount aerial patrols, back research projects, as well as running conservation education programmes in the communities. Visitors should understand that supporting these camps helps to stop the poaching – both by providing a livelihood for the rangers, and by keeping a presence of people in the park that makes it more difficult for poachers to operate.