Flora and fauna
With access to the wetlands, the birdlife can be amazing and the animals impressive. However, choose the time of year for your visit very carefully: the type of fauna to be seen, and the activities required to see it, will vary hugely with the season.
The speciality here is the black lechwe, an attractive dark race of the lechwe that is virtually endemic to the Bangweulu area. The only other places where it has been recorded are the swamps beside Lake Mweru, where its status is now exceedingly questionable, and the Nashinga Swamps near Chinsali, where it has been re-introduced. It is much darker than the red lechwe found throughout southern Africa, or the race known as the Kafue lechwe which occur in the Lochinvar area. I think it's by far the most attractive of the three.
The current population in this area is estimated at 115,000 animals, and herds measured in their thousands are common on the dry floodplains around the wetlands. As well as these huge herds of black lechwe you'll find other animals including sitatunga, tsessebe, reedbuck, common duiker and oribi. Zebra are doing very well; about nine were released here at first, translocated from a game farm near Lusaka, and they have now bred up to a healthy herd of 20 which are often very visible on the plains. In August 2004 another nine came in, this time from Kasanka, as part of ongoing moves to build up the game. Elephant and buffalo are frequently seen; predators are uncommon but hyena, leopard and jackal are sometimes observed. Often seen at dusk or dawn, or on a night drive, side-striped jackal are very common. White-tailed mongooses, civets and genets are also frequent nocturnal sightings.
The big attraction here is the chance to see the unusual and rare shoebill (sometimes known as the whale-headed stork). This massive grey bird, whose looks are often compared to a dodo, is now reckoned to be more closely related to the pelican family than the stork. The shoebill's main stronghold is in the swamps of the Sudd, in southern Sudan, although they are also found in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park and several other parks in central Africa. The population of shoebills in Bangweulu is reckoned to be as high as 500, making this a vital refuge for this very threatened species. They do not migrate, and so are particularly sensitive to disturbance. They breed in the papyrus here, in May-June, and nowhere else in southern Africa – so visitors should be careful not to disturb them when they are sitting on their nests.
Aside from the elusive shoebill, the birdlife after the rains is amazing. The commoner birds here include the little, cattle, black and great white egrets; black-headed, purple, squacco and grey herons; sacred, glossy and hadeda ibis; knob-billed, yellow-billed, fulvous and white-faced whistling ducks; open-billed storks, pygmy geese, pratincoles and grey-headed gulls. The plovers are well-represented, with blacksmith, wattled, three-banded, crowned, caspian and long-toed varieties – and recently there's also been an influx of spurwing plovers.
Migrants that stop here while the floodwaters are high include flamingos; whilst pelicans and spoonbills are normally resident. Meanwhile Bangweulu is a very important reserve for wattled cranes, which occur in large flocks and are readily seen. (There are greater numbers here than almost anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Kafue Flats.) The wetlands' shallow waters are ideal for smaller waders, like sandpipers, godwits and avocets. Other smaller birds worthy of particular note include the swamp flycatcher, lesser jacana, white-cheeked bee-eater (aka blue-breasted in East African literature) and Fülleborn's and rosy-breasted longclaws (which is the local name for the birds known as pink-throated further south). The whole area is a remarkable place for birding, well worth the effort required to get here.
There are plenty of raptors around; fish eagles, marsh harriers and bateleur eagles are particularly common. On the flat grass plains around the wetlands, Denham's bustards are frequently seen striding around.
The Shoebill's TaleWith thanks to Stephanie Debere.
The huge, rare and prehistoric-looking shoebill is found only in a few inaccessible spots between southern Sudan and northern Zambia – making it Africa's most sought-after species for birdwatchers.
Shoebills stand up to 1.4m tall, with a strong likeness to the dodo. They have always been named for their ungainly beaks, which resemble a wooden shoe, and older literature refers to them as whale-headed storks, whilst Arab traders knew them as 'abu markub', which means father of the shoe. Their scientific name, Balaeniceps rex, means 'king whalehead'.
Shoebills can look rather sinister when viewed head-on, with their massive beaks and a frowning glare, but in profile they appear charmingly dolphin-like with a mouth that apparently smiles, and huge eye-lashes. Despite this beguiling look, their mandibles are razor sharp; their upper bill ends in a curved hook that's used to pierce and hold their slippery prey. Their plumage is bluish slate-grey, with a slightly darker head which sports a small tuft of feathers that can be raised to form a crest. Their legs are long and dark, and their toes lack any webbing.
Shoebills inhabit a precise ecological niche: they specialise in feeding on large fish that live in poorly oxygenated waters of swamps and wetlands – particularly lungfish. They are usually seen standing motionless beside slow, deep-water channels, particularly in areas where fish concentrate – like the narrow channels where spreading waters spill out on to seasonally flooded areas. They remain still for hours, waiting for fish to surface for air, when they ambush with a swift and powerful strike. They will prey on species other than lungfish, and are also said to take amphibians, water-snakes, monitor lizards, terrapins, rats, young waterfowl and, some sources report, even young crocodiles.
Although they prefer to hunt in fairly open areas, where it's easy for them to take off if disturbed, they nest in large, flat nests found in denser vegetation – often papyrus. Between one and three eggs are laid, though only one chick usually survives. It takes about four and a half months for this silvery-grey chick to fledge and become independent, then a further three or four years until it first breeds.
Taxonomists have long debated if the shoebill is a member of the stork, the heron or the pelican family – as various characteristics suggest one or the other. However, DNA studies now conclude that shoebills are closely related to pelicans, but in a family of their own.
Given their restricted and remote habit, shoebills are incredibly difficult to study and consequently relatively little is known about them. Estimates of the total world population seem to be around the 10,000–15,000 mark. We know that their main stronghold is in the Sudd, in southern Sudan, and that they are also found in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, the Moyowosi-Kigosi Swamp in western Tanzania, Manovo-Gounda-Saint Floris National Park in the Central African Republic, and, allegedly, in Akagera National Park in Rwanda (though nobody on the ground in Rwanda seems to know about them!).
We also know that they are, sadly, occasionally sold for meat by local people and for profit by foreign collectors – as shoebills are one of the most expensive birds in the trade. So if you are fortunate enough to see them, try to keep your distance and minimise any disturbance.