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WILDLIFE

Discover the weird & wonderful creatures of Zambia

by Katie Birtles

Zambia is one of the world’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries. An incredible myriad of species have made their home across the country, from the coveted Big Five to tiny rodents and reptiles. At least 237 mammal species have been found in Zambia and over 700 bird species.

In Zambia, you can spot all the safari classics including elephants, lions, leopards, hippos and crocodiles, but you’ll also have the chance to find some of Africa’s rarest animals.

There are fascinating creatures found only in Zambia, and thanks to the country’s fantastic conservation efforts, you can observe some of the world’s endangered species.

From endemic lechwe, zebra and giraffe to endangered rhinos and wild dogs, a safari in Zambia takes you deeper into the magical animal kingdom.

Thornicroft’s giraffe

three thornicroft's giraffes with a sunset backdrop

The Thornicroft’s giraffe, also known as the Rhodesian giraffe, is a beautiful subspecies of giraffe found only in the Luangwa Valley of Zambia. It can be identified by its slightly shorter height and unique coat patterns.

This animal is ecologically unique as it is geographically isolated from other giraffe, although it has recently been discovered that it's genetically similar to the Masai giraffe found in Kenya and Tanzania.

With an estimated 500 Thornicroft’s giraffes living in the wild and no captive populations, the giraffe is a vulnerable species and spotting these rare creatures is a special experience.

Interesting fact

Similar to human fingerprints, all giraffes have different markings on their coat, used to distinguish between species and individual giraffes.

African wild dog

A close up of an African wild dog

Also known as painted wolves, the African wild dog is an elusive and endangered species found in only six countries in Africa. Zambia has growing populations in South Luangwa and Kafue National Parks and there’s a small captive breeding program in Lusaka.

The best season to spot these incredible animals is the ‘green season’ from November to May, however sightings are still rare.

Over the last hundred years, African wild dog populations have depleted from half a million to an estimated 6,000, largely due to human hunting.

Interesting fact

African wild dogs are neither wolves or dogs, but a separate evolutionary canine species. They’re also one of Africa’s best hunters - with 80% of their hunts ending in a kill, they’re even better than lions, leopards and cheetahs.

Cookson’s wildebeest

cookson's wildebeest grazing in grasslands

Found only in the Luangwa Valley of Zambia, the Cookson’s wildebeest is a subspecies of the blue wildebeest.

They’re more commonly found in North Luangwa National Park, although you can still spot them in South Luangwa National Park. Their population is estimated to be around 5,000 to 10,000.

During the dry season, the wildebeest make long journeys to the major waterholes to drink, and you can see large herds moving together through the mopane woodland in search of water.

Interesting fact

Cookson’s wildebeest are distinguishable from other species by their lighter colour and the clear markings on their neck and sides.

Black rhino

black rhinoceros walking through bushland

Zambia had the third largest black rhino population in Africa in the 1960s, but just two decades later, rampant poaching had wiped out these beautiful creatures. They were officially declared extinct in 1998, but their story didn’t end there.

The North Luangwa Conservation Programme (NLCP) made an outstanding effort to reduce poaching and have successfully reintroduced black rhinos to the North Luangwa National Park.

They introduced 25 black rhinos in four phases between 2003 and 2010 and the population is now considered viable. The efforts included community education programs, ranger training and security operations, to ensure the longevity of the black rhino population.

While you may not spot a black rhino in the North Luangwa National Park, a visit to this region is a great opportunity to learn about such an incredible conservation story. 

The passionate team at Mwaleshi Camp were involved in the anti-poaching and rhino reintroduction efforts and provide guests with a wonderful insight into the conservation story.

Mwaleshi is a true bushcamp, set in the remote wilderness with just four seasonal reed-and-thatch chalets. They focus solely on authentic walking safaris throughout the park.

The camp is located on the edge of the Mwaleshi river, near to the area where the black rhino have been reintroduced, although the team have spotted the shy rhinos just a couple of times in the 2018 season.

Interesting fact

Black rhinos are solitary creatures and known to be very aggressive, however they share a mutualistic relationship with Oxpecker birds. The birds feast on the ticks and flies that irritate the rhino’s skin and they also screech loudly to warn the poor-sighted rhino when danger approaches.

White rhino

white rhinoceros and her baby grazing in grasslands

The white rhino has also been poached to near extinction for its magnificent horn. Once found all over southern Africa in two subspecies, the Southern white rhino population is now threatened yet still viable, while the Northern white rhino is extinct in the wild.

You can see this gentle giant in the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park, near the Victoria Falls in Zambia. Four white rhinos were successfully relocated from South Africa to the park in 2008, and there are now eleven white rhinos roaming freely through the park.

The rhinos are guarded round-the-clock by a passionate team of rangers. You can take a walking safari through the park to learn about their stories and spot these beautiful creatures.

Interesting fact

You can tell the difference between a black or white rhino by reading their lips. The black rhino has a pointed or hooked upper lip, best for plucking foliage from trees and bushes, while the white rhino has square lips which suits their grass grazing habits.

Cheetah

close up of a cheetah face

The graceful cheetah is one of the most difficult big cat species to spot. A shy creature, they roam all over Africa, with populations scattered across south and east Africa.

They’re also a vulnerable species, with less than 7,000 cheetahs remaining in the wild. Only a hundred years ago, the cheetah population in Africa was around 100,000.

Their population has depleted so alarmingly due to loss of habitat and prey (human developments have destroyed many open grasslands), illegal poaching and trading, and a high mortality rate - only 5% of cubs survive to adulthood.

The Kafue National Park in Zambia is one of the best places to spot the cheetah, particularly in the northern Busanga Plains. Musekese Camp is an incredible bushcamp located in this truly remote corner of the Kafue.

The passionate owners, Phil and Tyrone, ventured on foot around the vast national park to discover a completely untouched area they now call ‘Eden’. Here, they set up an authentic bushcamp, with just four reed-and-thatch chalets and a strong focus on sustainability and conservation.

They also provide support and guiding for wildlife and documentary filmmakers and have worked with high profile crews including the BBC Earth teams.

The camp’s expert guides can take you on game drives and walking safaris to spot cheetah, popular big game, and a number of other rare and unusual species including pangolin, honey badger, mongoose, bushpig, side-striped jackal and the endangered wild dog.

Interesting fact

The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, reaching speeds of around 113 km per hour in just three seconds. They’re also the only big cat that cannot roar, although they do purr loudly.

Lechwe

herd of lechwe leaping through floodplains

Zambia has two endemic species of the lechwe antelope - the Kafue lechwe and the Black lechwe. Both are vulnerable species due to poaching and are difficult to spot as they’re only found in specific parts of Zambia.

Kafue lechwe

Distinguishable by their larger stature and bigger horns, the Kafue lechwe is only found in the Kafue Flats, with the largest herds found in Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon National Parks. They have a light brown coat with white undersides, with dark markings on their legs and shoulders.

Black lechwe

Found only in the Bangweulu plains of northern Zambia, the Black lechwe has been reintroduced to the Nashinga Swamps near Chinsali and Kasanka and Lusaka National Parks in an effort to reverse the threat of extinction. They are black and tan in colour and have white undersides.

Interesting fact

The lechwe is a water-loving antelope. While they’re slower on land, they’re great swimmers and can move quickly in shallow waters.

Antelope

roan antelope standing in grasslands

Zambia is home to a number of vulnerable or endangered antelope species. The country’s fantastic conservation efforts have allowed antelope populations to remain stable in Zambia and it’s a great place to spot the rarer species.

The roan antelope are common in the Luangwa Valley, although rare in other parks around Zambia. They are distinguishable by their large stature, light brown coat and ringed horns.

The puku antelope, while scarce around Africa, are found in abundance in the Luangwa and Zambezi Valley. You’ll find these furry orange creatures in thirty-strong herds along the floodplains near the Zambezi river.

Tougher to spot, the oribi antelope is found mainly in the Kafue and Lochinvar National Parks and the Bagweulu Swamps, and sometimes in the Luangwa Valley. They have black patches below their large oval ears and are renowned for jumping into the air with stiff, straight legs when alarmed.

The Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest is also difficult to find, as they roam only through northern Zambia in small numbers. They are light fawn in colour and like to hide in the miombo woodlands, although they are sometimes drawn to the floodplains for grass at the end of the dry season.

lichtenstein hartebeest walking through grasslands

Interesting fact

Herd antelopes have glands in their hooves that leave a scent, recording their movements in the earth. If an antelope gets separated, they can find their way back to the herd using this scent.

Crawshay’s zebra

herd of crawshay's zebras grazing in the golden grasslands

Native to eastern Zambia, Crawshay’s zebra is found in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. They can also be found in some neighbouring areas of Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi, however the Luangwa Valley remains the best place to see this rare animal.

As a subspecies of the plains zebra, they are different to other species due to their narrower, denser black stripes that go all the way under the belly and down to their hooves. They also don’t have any light-brown shadow stripes and have different teeth.

Interesting fact

Baby zebras are born with brown stripes which gradually turn black as they grow. There are a number of theories about why zebras evolved with such a unique stripy coat, but it’s most likely for camouflage purposes. It is believed the stripes can distort the zebras distance from a predator, or create an optical illusion to confuse their stalkers.

Birdlife

shoebill stork in the swamplands of zambia

Zambia is home to many endemic and endangered birds. The Shoebill stork, one of the rarest birds in Africa, is found only in northern Zambia and just a few other places around the continent.

With an estimated population of less than 5,000 in the wild, they are a critically endangered species. Distinguishable by their enormous goofy beaks, the Bangweulu swamps are one of the best places to witness a rare sighting of these creatures.

Other endangered bird species that can be spotted in Zambia include the Egyptian, Cape and Lappet-faced vulture species, Ground hornbill, Bateleur eagle, Wattled crane, Grey Crowned-crane and the prized African skimmer.

Zambia also has three endemic bird species including the Black-cheeked lovebird, White-chested tinkerbird and Chaplin’s barbet. A birding safari in Zambia around the wet ‘green’ season gives bird watchers the best chance of spotting these incredible and rare species.

grey crowned crane in liuwa national park zambia

Interesting fact

The Shoebill stork is renowned for their comically oversized beaks (they can reach up to 24 cm in length and 20 cm in width), however they’re not so funny when used as a fishing weapon. Their beaks are razor ship and can decapitate large fish and even baby crocodiles.

If you’d like to go on safari in Zambia to spot these unique animals, get in touch with our Luxury Travel Specialists to chat about your ideas, or fill out our enquiry form with details on your dream safari holiday.

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