Flora and fauna
The park's natural flora is dominated by miombo woodland, in which brachystegia
species figure heavily. The local people use fire as part of their cultivation and hunting/gathering activities, which can spread into areas of the park, so some of this is less tall than it might be – perhaps reaching only 5m rather than its normal 20m. The park operates a programme of limited, controlled burning to reduce the damage caused by hotter fires later in the dry season.
There are also sections of much taller dry evergreen forest, where the tallest trees have an interlocking canopy, and the mateshi
undergrowth is dense and woody. A good area for this is near the Kasanka River around the Katwa guard post.
Elsewhere you will find evergreen swamp forest, with some superb tall specimens of waterberry (Syzygium cordatum
) and mululu, or red mahogany, trees (Khaya nyasica
). One of the guides here told me a story of a biologist asking a local Chewa person the name of this tree, and getting the reply 'Khaya', which means 'I don't know'.
Around the Fibwe guard post is one such area of forest, and the Machan Sitatunga Hide is perched in a huge mululu tree. Similar species also occur in the areas of riparian forest found by Kasanka's small rivers. One notable tree is the wild loquat (Oxyanthus speciosus
), the fruit from which acts as a major draw for bats.
Interspersed in these forested areas are seasonally-flooded grasslands and swamps. The latter include large areas of permanent papyrus beds and phragmites reeds, often with very little open water to be seen. The wild date palm, Phoenix reclinata
, is one of the most common species of tree found here.
Keep a lookout for the large tree-proteas which grow here, and bloom spectacularly around May and June.
Poaching in the 1970s and '80s drastically reduced the numbers of animals in the park. However, this seems to have had few long-term effects on the species now present. Many of these move into and out of the park quite freely and, as they gradually learn that the park is a safe haven, they are staying longer or becoming resident, and appear to be less shy.
Puku are the most common antelope here, and they are found in a particularly high density along the Kasanka River. Other relatively common residents include bushbuck, reedbuck, defassa waterbuck, Sharp's grysbok and the common duiker. Lichtenstein's hartebeest, sable and roan occur in good numbers, while oribi, zebra and buffalo are more scarce. Elephants move through the park, but a recent count suggested that a population of about 75 were probably resident here.
Of particular interest are the shy sitatunga antelope, which can almost always be seen in the very early morning from the Machan Sitatunga Hide, near Fibwe guard post. This offers one of the subcontinent's best opportunities for viewing these beautiful creatures in an undisturbed state – far superior to simply getting a fleeting glance of the back of one as it flees from the speedboat in which you are travelling, as with so many sitatunga sightings in places like the Okavango Delta. On occasion, 70 different animals have been spotted in a morning from here. It's excellent.
The smaller carnivores are well represented in Kasanka, with caracal, jackal, civet, genet and cape clawless otter all regularly recorded. Others, including lion, leopard, serval, spotted hyena, honey badgers, and the African wildcat are more rarely seen.
Mongooses are well represented: the water (or marsh), slender, white-tailed, banded, dwarf and large grey mongoose are all found here.
In the lakes, rivers and swamps, hippo and crocodiles are common. The slender-snouted crocodile, a typical resident of DRC's tropical rainforest rivers, occurs here – though it is less common than the 'normal' Nile crocodile. Given the park's proximity to DRC, other species, which are typical of those equatorial rainforests (but rare for southern Africa), can be spotted in Kasanka. For example, the blue monkey is often sighted, occurring together with the area's more common primates: baboons and vervet monkeys.
Probably the most spectacular sight occurs around the start of the rains (in November and December) when an enormous colony of straw-coloured fruit-bats roosts in the Mushitu Forest. Each night they pour out of their resting-place just after sunset, filling the sky as they fly in search of food. The bats have wingspans of up to 1m, making a grand spectacle that is best observed from the area of the Machan Sitatunga Hide.
One of Kasanka's highlights is the magnificent tree-hide, perched high in a red mahogany tree overlooking the Kapabi Swamp. Most come here to spot sitatunga, but if you climb up on a late November afternoon, around the time the rains are beginning, then you'll also witness one of Africa's strangest wildlife spectacles. Between about 6.15 and 6.45, some five million straw-coloured fruit bats will take to the air above you. These large, fruit-eating bats have wingspans up to about one metre. They start by circling overhead like a vast, slow whirlwind. Gradually, individuals and groups break off and spread out over the forest in search of wild fruits. For an amazing 20–30 minutes the sky is filled, as far as you can see, with squadron upon squadron of bats, heading off into the twilight.
'They come to roost in the evergreen swamp forest, near the Musola River,' Ed said, gazing down through the canopy. 'It's very unusual vegetation for Zambia – only found near rivers. Tremendously fragile and easily destroyed,' he added.
'During the day the bats occupy just a small area. They hang off the Mushitu trees in such numbers that they pull off the branches, leaving just the woody skeletons to hang on to. This lets light on to the forest floor which, together with the inordinate amount of fertiliser that they drop, promotes very rich undergrowth. Imagine, five million bats, weighing about seven hundred grams each … that's 3,500 tons of animals.' Ed had clearly done his arithmetic before. 'The equivalent of a thousand elephants, hanging around in perhaps one hectare of forest, suspended from the trees,' he grinned.
Visiting this colony isn't for the faint-hearted though, even during the day. Large crocodiles wander under the trees, far from the nearest water, scavenging for dead bats – along with vultures, gymnogenes and a host of other predators. All of which provided further reasons why that high tree-hide was such a wonderful place to be.By kind permission of the magazine Travel Africa, this is an edited version of an article by the author that first appeared there.
Kasanka has lush vegetation with a wide range of habitats including three large rivers, five natural lakes, a papyrus swamp (Kapabi) and real moist evergreen swamp forest. In this small area 420 bird species had been identified by mid-2004, and the number continues to rise – so it's an excellent place for quiet, undisturbed birdwatching.
The rivers, lakes and wetland areas have excellent populations of ibis, storks, herons, kingfishers and bee-eaters as well as many waterfowl. Water rails, greater and lesser jacanas, white-backed ducks and pygmy geese are common. The larger birds include wattled cranes, saddle-billed storks and, very occasionally, the rare shoebill. These breed in the Bangweulu Swamps to the north, and are occasionally seen around Lake Ndolwa. Reed cormorants and African darters are common on the more open stretches of water.
Many species common in East or Central Africa occur here, on the edges of their ranges (South African bird books just won't be enough!), like the grey apalis, olive sunbird, red and blue sunbird (Anchieta's
), green lourie, Boehm's flycatcher, Boehm's bee-eater, Sousa's shrike, and both Schalow's and Lady Ross's turacos (also known prosaically as Ross's lourie). Meanwhile, a quiet drift in a canoe down the Luwombwa River should produce sightings of finfoot, giant and half-collared kingfishers, narina trogons and yellow-throated leaflove, to name but a few.
The park was the site for a recent study of hornbill species by a team organised jointly by the universities of Manchester (UK) and Lusaka.
The more common raptors in the area are the bateleur, martial, crowned, Ayre's, African hawk and steppe eagles, plus the snake eagles (black-breasted, western-banded and brown) and the chanting goshawks (pale and dark). Kasanka's fish eagles are often seen and crowned eagles breed here. There are also several pairs of Pel's Fishing Owls.