This area is often described, in clichéd terms, as one of Africa's last great wilderness areas – which might be overstating its case a little, but it is certainly a very large and very wild area, which very few people really know and understand.
Under the Ramsar Convention of 1991, it was designated as a Wetland of International Importance, and since then the WWF has been involved in trying to help the local communities in the GMA to manage it sustainably as their own natural resource. Though most visitors' image of a wilderness area is an unpopulated, barren tract of land, this GMA area does have small villages. It remains home to many local people, who still hunt and fish here, as their ancestors have done for centuries. The old way of conserving an area by displacing the people and proclaiming a National Park clearly hasn't worked in much of Zambia: witness the minimal game left in many of the lesser-known parks. This more enlightened approach of leaving the people on the land, and encouraging them to develop through sustainable management of their natural resources, is a more modern way to attempt to preserve as much of the wildlife as possible.
Despite this approach, the area has a growing population of poor, rural people. Many rely, at least partially, on hunting and fishing for their survival. Locals involved with conservation express strong fears for the wildlife's future if no national park is declared here. They comment that it is changing fast, and the wildlife scouts do little to prevent or stop illegal hunting. They doubt that the area's wildlife will live long enough to see a sustainable solution to the problem of co-existence. This would be a shame, as then Zambia will have lost one of its most precious ecosystems, and the local people will have lost a great resource for their future.
The low-lying basin containing Lake Bangweulu and its wetlands receives one of the highest rainfalls in the country – over 1,400mm per annum. On the northwestern edge of the basin is Lake Bangweulu itself, about 50km long and up to 25km wide. This is probably the largest body of water within Zambia's borders, and an excellent spot for watching the local fishermen but, apart from the lake's remarkable white, sandy beaches, is of little interest to most visitors. It is easily reached at Samfya, a small town on the main road from Serenje to Mansa.
The more fascinating areas here are the vast wetlands to the southeast of the lake, which cover an area two to three times the size of the lake, and the seasonally flooded grasslands to the south of those wetlands.
The wetlands and grasslands are areas with few roads and lots of wildlife. It's one of the few regions of Zambia where the local communities are beginning to use the wildlife in their GMAs as a really sustainable source of income. There is little development here, just a small, tented lodge and a simple community-run camp for visitors who arrive on their own. The area still has many residents who continue to fish and eke out a living directly from the environment, but gradually the community development schemes are beginning to tap into tourism as a way to fund sustainable development.