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Where the water meets the sky


Simon Espley

Friday, 14 February 2020

The dense, swirling column of Abdim’s and open-billed storks above us pulsed like a sardine bait-ball, before dropping to the shallow lake in a g-force-defying stoop, accompanied by an ear-buffeting swoosh, to join boisterous pelicans working the fertile fishing grounds.
This is the dry season zenith in north-eastern Zambia’s remote Bangweulu Wetlands, just days before the annual monsoon rains arrive to transform the landscape into a vast inland ocean, where the water meets the sky. After a long, hot and dusty day locating a shoebill in dense wetland papyrus beds, I was enjoying a cold beverage on the steps of Shoebill Island Camp, deep in contemplation. The storks were doing their fighter jet thing overhead while fires smouldered on the hazy horizon behind herds of grazing black lechwe, and fishermen plied their trade in the shallows.

📷 Shoebill Island during the floods © Sean Viljoen

You see, this is a different kind of protected area. The owners live here and eke out a living fishing, hunting and gathering natural resources – as they have done since before the safari tourism industry was born. And they do so sustainably, albeit with assistance from an exceptional organisation. More about that later.
My travel companion was close friend and colleague Christian Boix. Christian had dropped off clients in Lusaka after their safari of a lifetime, before joining me. With us in Bangweulu were two siblings, a retired Australian banker and his South African sister. All of us thoroughly enjoyed our brief sojourn to this special place; this was precisely what we were after – responsible tourism in its purest form.

Bird’s-eye view

Bangweulu Wetlands consists of floodplains, seasonally flooded grasslands, woodlands and permanent swamps fed by the Chambesi, Luapula, Lukulu and Lulimala rivers. The area has been designated as one of the world’s most important wetlands by the Ramsar Convention, and a BirdLife International Important Bird and Biodiversity Area.

9,850 km2 (985,000 hectares) – total size 6,000 km2 (600,000 hectares) – Managed by African Parks in partnership with Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and six Community Resource Boards
430 migratory and resident bird species rely on the wetlands 350 shoebills (6 monitored shoebill nests)
50,000 endemic black lechwe 50,000 owners (6 chiefdoms)


📷 A herd of black lechwe feed on the floodplains of Bangweulu Wetlands © Christian Boix


The Story of Bangweulu Wetlands

📷 Bangweulu Wetlands is owned by over 50,000 community members across six chiefdoms © Christian Boix

Bangweulu, meaning ‘where water meets the sky’, is home to about 50,000 people who retain the right to harvest its natural resources sustainably and who depend entirely on those resources for their survival. But things were not always as balanced as they are now. Decades of rampant poverty-driven poaching had driven wildlife and fish stocks to the edge, and the community realised that they needed assistance to protect their food sources. They signed a long-term agreement in 2008 with African Parks and Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and committed to sustainably manage the wetlands for the benefit of wildlife and people. Since then, bushmeat poaching has been contained, and the endemic black lechwe populations have increased from 35,000 to over 50,000 (estimated carrying capacity is 100,000). Large mammal species such as zebra, impala and buffalo, previously almost exterminated by poaching, have been reintroduced and are showing steady population increases. Limited quantities of black lechwe, sitatunga and tsessebe are sustainably harvested each year, earning much-needed revenue (annual target revenue US$300,000) and protein for local communities. Local community members now guard shoebill nests against the illegal live bird trade, because they realise that shoebill are a crucial driver of tourism numbers to this region. Fishermen are adhering to seasonal fishing bans lasting three months to allow stocks to recover, resulting in annual increases in fish stocks, better catch rates and improved economic benefits for communities.

📷 Bangweulu Wetlands, north-eastern Zambia

Bangweulu Wetlands is the largest employer in the region, healthcare is being delivered to community members, and 60 schools are supported.
African Parks’ management priorities for Bangweulu are preventing illegal resource harvesting, overfishing, community education and enterprise development to improve livelihoods and build sustainable revenue streams. Their core deliverables revolve around these issues. Managing an area as remote and vast as Bangweulu Wetlands is not easy, and there are ongoing challenges relating to expectation management and law enforcement. Still, compared to the situation before 2008, Bangweulu Wetlands is a shining example of balancing the needs of the people with the preservation of wildlife.

Bangweulu Wetlands’ continued survival as a sustainable ecosystem is dependent on its owners deriving lasting benefits, whereby they recognise conservation as a viable land-use choice.

📷 Fish are caught in traps made from reeds, which are placed at the mouth of man-made weirs. Top and left) © Christian Boix; Right) © Simon Espley


Focus on black lechwe

Bangweulu is the only place in the world that you will find wild black lechwe Kobus leche smithemani.
This medium-sized antelope grows to about 1 meter in height and weighs 60 to 120 kilograms (males are 20% larger than females). Only the males have horns. The hindquarters are noticeably higher than the forequarters, and the hooves elongated and widely splayed – all adaptions to life on soft ground and in water.
Like red lechwe Kobus leche leche and Kafue lechwe Kobus leche kafuensis, black lechwe are slow runners, but excellent swimmers and are often seen grazing shoulder-deep in water. Their greasy coats act as a sort of water-proofing but also give off a distinctive odour. Black lechwe are classified as vulnerable by IUCN

📷 Black lechwe are endemic to the Bangweulu region © Mana Meadows

Focus on shoebill

The shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) looks like it belongs in the prehistoric age. Found in the marshes of East Africa, the shoebill is classified as vulnerable and is a bucket-list sighting for any avid birder.

📷 The Shoebill is an iconic species that has high tourism status and value © Mana Meadows

Sadly, this iconic species is severely threatened by habitat loss and the illegal bird trade, as the demand for their eggs and chicks places considerable pressure on wild populations. Thankfully, around 350 of these quirky giants find sanctuary in Zambia’s Bangweulu Wetlands, where Yoram Kanokola and other African Parks staff work with dedicated local community members known as ‘Shoebill Guards’ to protect and safeguard nests, ensuring that chicks can safely fledge. Over the last few years, these efforts have helped protect more than 30 fledgelings – ensuring the preservation of the species for generations to come.
For more information about shoebills, read Shoebill – 7 reasons to love this dinosaur of birds.

Shoebill Island Camp

Shoebill Island Camp was opened in 2018 to generate photographic tourism revenue for Bangweulu Wetlands. Four luxury tents and an impressive open-plan common area nestle under a grove of trees on an island that is reached by boat during the flood season and by four-wheel-drive vehicle at other times.

📷 Shoebill Island Camp © Christian Boix

📷 Shoebill Island Camp. Left) © Christian Boix; Right) © Simon Espley

About African Parks

African Parks is a non-profit conservation organisation that takes on the complete responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of protected areas – in partnership with governments and local communities. Africa’s largest NGO (based on counter-poaching presence and area under protection), African Parks manages 17 national parks and protected areas in 11 countries – covering over 13.5 million hectares in Angola, Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. African Parks has been managing Bangweulu Wetlands since 2008, in partnership with Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife and six Community Resource Boards. Principal funders of Bangweulu Wetlands include Stichting Natura Africae, WWF-Netherlands and WWF-Zambia.

📷 Bangweulu Wetlands is best included in a safari that includes other Zambian destinations such as Luangwa Valley and Kafue. Contact us to arrange your safari. © Christian Boix

📷 Bangweulu sunrise © Christian Boix



Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. His travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, real people with interesting stories and elusive birds. He lives in Hoedspruit with his wife Lizz and two Jack Russells, and when not travelling or working, he will be on his mountain bike somewhere out there. His motto is ‘Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change.’.

📷 Simon Espley (right) and colleague Christian Boix.

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