Top 7 wildlife species to watch in Zambia
Introducing the best of Zambia's tall, small, rare and regal wildlife.
Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti
The giraffes of Zambia’s Luangwa Valley belong to a distinct race known as Thornicroft’s that is found nowhere else in Africa. They are distinguished from other types, including the Angolan giraffe of southwest Zambia, by the star- or leaf-shaped blotches that make up the patterned coat. This genetic isolation means that Thornicroft’s giraffe has the potential to develop full species status. Unfortunately, there are now little more than a thousand of them left. They are best seen on the eastern side of the Luangwa Valley, where they can still be found in reasonable numbers, even outside the National Park.
Spotting tip: Look out for telltale steam-iron hoofprints and widely scattered clusters of their acorn-sized droppings, You may even spot strings of saliva, high in acacia trees where the animals have recently been browsing.
Pretty much all of Africa’s major conservation areas are home to leopards but Zambia has an especially good reputation for sightings of this enigmatic cat. This is partly because of the sheer size of the population – pretty much every metre of the Luangwa’s banks falls within the territory of one leopard or another – and partly due to the expertise of local guides in tracking down the animals.
Night drives are especially effective in this respect, with sightings of three or more individuals not uncommon and often in close proximity to the vehicle. By day, scan the large riverine trees where leopards like to rest up. And stay alert to the behaviour of other animals: it is often alarm calls – the bark of baboons, whistle of puku or clucking of guineafowl – that will give the predator away. Top spots to see leopard include the dry river gullies and ebony groves alongside the Luangwa river and the riverbanks of the Lufupa in Kafue, where rocky outcrops also offer good daytime retreats.
Spotting tip: Listen out at night for the cat’s distinctive territorial call: a rhythmic, resonant grunting that somewhat resembles the sound of a heavy saw.
Hippos dominate Zambia’s wild rivers. Not only the waterways themselves, where their territorial honks echo far across the water and provoke a chorus of reaction among neighbouring pods further downstream, but also on land, where their networks of grazing pathways radiate far and wide through the bush. Canoeists on the Zambezi or Kafue rivers will have regular pulse-quickening encounters – the protocol being to hug the bank and allow the hippos the security of the deep water. But perhaps the greatest concentrations occur in the Luangwa Valley’s dry season, where shrinking lagoons and meander loopsfill with hundreds of these heavyweight herbivores, jostling irritably as they strive to escape the blazing dry-season sun.
Such gatherings allow an opportunity to observe at close quarters the massive canines exposed in aggressively territorial ‘yawns’ and the flocks of oxpeckers that pick over the hippos’ battle-scarred hides in search of blood and ticks. At this time of year walkers need to look out for wandering bulls, ousted in battle, lurking in thickets nursing their wounds and grudges.
Spotting tip: When in hippo country look out for the four-toed tracks that wind in distinctive parallel tramlines through the bush, and the dung scattered at waist height on trailside vegetation by the animal’s flicking tail.
With a scientific name that translates as ‘king whalehead’, this 1.3m tall wading bird is one of the species most sought after by birdwatchers in Africa. A shoebill is quickly identified by its long legs and slate grey plumage, but what most catches the eye is its preposterous bill.
This impressive appendage is shaped like a Dutch clog and sports lethal cutting edges and a sharp hook on the tip of the upper mandible. It serves to scoop up and dispatch the lungfish and other aquatic prey, including even baby crocodiles, that the bird ambushes in the shallow waters of the Bangweulu wetlands – its only home in Zambia.
Spotting tip: Shoebills nest on islands deep in the swamps. They are best seen at the end of the rainy season, when the waters recede and it is easier to approach their breeding territory.
This medium-sized, reddish antelope is found in flooded grasslands, where powerful raised hindquarters allow it to leap and bound through the shallows. Large herds may form – males presiding over harems of females, from which they are distinguished by their sweeping lyre-shaped horns. Three distinct races occur in Zambia: the red lechwe is found in the far north and west; the Kafue lechwe, which has black forelimbs and a browner coat, occurs on the Kafue flats; and the black lechwe – in which males sport a chocolate to blackish coat – is endemic to the Bangwuelu region.
Spotting tip:The black lechwe can be a spectacular sight as they splash through the shallows in herds many hundreds strong.
Carmine bee-eaterMerops nubicoides
A flock of carmine bee-eaters taking to the air from their Luangwa riverbank colony is one of Africa’s most colourful bird spectacles. With their long tail streamers, and their plumage a vivid palette of reds and pinks, set off by a blue crown and undertail coverts, there are few more showy birds on the continent. Like all bee-eaters, the carmine is adapted to capture insects in flight, darting out in aerobatic sallies then returning with its prey to the same perch.
Nesting pairs excavate a 1–2m long tunnel in a sandbank, laying their 2–5 eggs in a chamber at the end. The colony is vulnerable to attack by egg-raiding monitor lizards, while fish eagles may even snatch an unwary adult.
Spotting tip: Carmine bee-eaters are inter African migrants, arriving in Zambia around September to start breeding.
Nile crocodileCrocodylus niloticus
Africa’s largest reptile thrives in Zambia’s rivers, especially along protected stretches of the Zambezi, Kafue and Luangwa, and along the shorelines of Lake Kariba. This apex predator may exceed 5m in length and take prey up to the size of buffalo. It breeds in November and December, at the start of the rains, and females will stand guard day and night over their sandbank nest – in which they lay around 50 eggs. Crocodiles are most visible during the late dry season, when water sources shrink and the reptiles spend more time lying out on land. The numbers in South Luangwa at this time are phenomenal.
Spotting tip: A hippo carcass in the water will attract a seething mass of the reptiles, which spin and churn to secure a piece for themselves. You may even observe crocodiles leaving the water to challenge lions for a riverbank kill.