Flora and fauna
Liuwa Plain's main plant life, on first glance, appears to be vast areas of grasslands, within which species like Vossia cuspidate
and ,Echinocloa stagnina
are amongst the most important for the herds of grazing herbivores. On tree-islands, and around the edges of the plain, you'll find the small false mopane, or copalwood (Guibourtia coleosperma
); the silver cluster-leaf (Terminalia sericea
), which is so typical of the Kalahari; stands of Zambezi teak (Baikiaea plurijuga
); weeping wattle (Peltophorum africanum
) and occasional stands of palms including the odd tall Hyphaene
stand around the pans.
Mammals and reptiles
As is common in vast open areas, many of Liuwa's larger mammals tend to group together into great herds when on the plain – and these are much of the park's attraction. The 1991 wildlife census estimated populations at 30,000 blue wildebeest, 8,000 tsessebe, 1,000 zebra and 10,000 other large mammals which would have included herds of buffalo, red lechwe, eland, Lichtenstein's hartebeest and roan antelope as well as assorted pairs of reedbuck and the delightful, diminutive oribi which are so common here. The scouts say that sitatunga are still found in some of the rivers on the edge of the park.
Recent surveys suggest that game numbers have declined by around a third in the last few years; buffalo, eland, Lichtenstein's hartebeest and roan antelope may even have been wiped out completely. It's likely that with more active protection in the coming years, numbers will build up again. If this is successful, then African Parks will probably look at reintroducing species which used to occur here naturally.
The largest herds currently seen in the park are the blue wildebeest which mass here in their thousands during the rains. Amongst them, you'll find zebra and tsessebe. Though widely regarded as a 'migration', some suggest that it may in fact just be a gathering on the plain of all the game that has previously been in the surrounding bush, rather than an actual migration from, say, Angola. Regardless, if you can catch it at the right time, it's a stunning sight: flat, open plain with animals as far as the eye can see.
That said, I think it's quite wrong to concentrate on the sights in November and, in effect, dismiss the rest of the year. I last visited for a few days in September which yielded plenty of wildebeest on the plain, including one herd of over a thousand; several smaller herds of zebra, tsessebe and red lechwe, one of the latter numbering over 120 individuals; and some of the most spectacular birding that I'd ever seen in southern Africa.
Predators are also well-represented in Liuwa. Lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog and hyena all occur here. Liuwa's prides of lion, which blend superbly into the golden grass, have a reputation for aggression and even for charging vehicles, so be careful. It may simply be that they are unfamiliar with humans – although if this were the case excessive timidity might be a more normal reaction. They also climb trees.
Leopard occur within the national park, though the surrounding forest is a better habitat for them than the plain itself. Hyenas are fairly commonly seen, and are cheeky enough to come to the edge of your firelight's glow. Buk's survey of wild dogs (see Further Reading) suggested that in 1993–4 the size of the packs was larger than average.
With sharp eyes you're also likely to spot smaller curious omnivores like side-striped jackal, troops of banded mongooses, and possibly porcupines. I've had reports of some particularly large snakes living here – though (thankfully) been unable to verify these.
Liuwa boasts a total of about 319 bird species which, even when I visited during a dry month like September, were amazing: spectacular groups of crowned cranes often numbered several hundred birds; wattled cranes, so endangered in many places, thrive here with numerous pairs and smaller groups of up to 30 individuals; while one particular flock of pelicans included several hundred individuals. I saw all of these in just a few days in early September – and so when it rains, the park's birding must be quite unbelievable.
Then, when the pans fill up, open-billed, yellow-billed, marabou and saddle-billed storks arrive, with spoonbills, grey herons, egrets, three-banded and lots of blacksmith's plovers, pygmy and spur-winged geese, and many other water birds. Slaty egrets are seen in groups, a rare occurrence elsewhere.
Bob Stjernstedt, a Zambian birding expert, comments that Liuwa is relatively rarely visited, and so many more birds are sure to be added to this list. Secretary birds and Denham's and white-bellied bustards are common; and the park is famous for huge numbers of the migrant black-winged pratincoles, a finely-marked swift-like bird which is rare further east. Other 'specials' here include the pink-billed and clapper larks, rosy-breasted longclaw, swamp boubou, long-tailed widow, sharp-tailed starling and white-cheeked bee-eater. The plain is also a great area for raptors from the greater kestrel to bateleur and martial eagles, fish eagles and palmnut vultures. Pel's fishing owl is found along the rivers, the Luanginga to the south and the Luambimba to the north.