Bangweulu is a globally significant wetland ecosystem adjacent to Lake Bangweulu in northeastern Zambia. The wetlands support 50,000 local residents and a wide variety of wildlife—from the endemic black lechwe to hundreds of globally significant bird species. Bangweulu means ‘where water meets the sky,’ which perfectly describes the stunning site. Uniquely, Bangweulu is community-owned: locals need the wetlands to survive and are permitted to sustainably harvest its natural resources. In the past, unsustainable human pressure compromised biodiversity, however, since taking on joint management responsibilities in 2008, African Parks has helped restore the area’s exceptional wildlife, which includes 28 mammal and over 400 types of bird species.
The Bangweulu Wetlands spread across 6,000 km2 of a 9,850 km2 region. The ecosystem consists of floodplains, seasonally flooded grasslands, miombo woodlands, and permanent swamps fed by the Chambeshi, Luapula, Lukulu, and Lulimala rivers. Swamp areas are dominated by extensive stands of Cyperus papyrus, floating grasses, and Phragmites reeds, which create a vast and lush wetland landscape.
Since African Parks took over joint management of the park in 2008, populations of many species, including the iconic sitatunga, black lechwe, and shoebill, have recovered. Translocations have repopulated areas that experienced depletions of wildlife: serval, puku, impala, zebra, buffalo and waterbuck have all been released into the wetlands in recent years.
Predators: Bangweulu is home to spotted hyaena, side-striped jackal, and serval.
Herbivores: Mammal censuses have revealed healthy populations of black lechwe, as well as sitatunga, southern reedbuck, tsessebe, and oribi. Hippopotamus are also found in the area. Decades of poaching and unsustainable land use reduced large mammal populations, however Bangweulu contains remnant populations of elephant, roan, and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. Populations of puku, waterbuck, zebra, impala and buffalo have been established in the Nkondo area.
Notably, Bangweulu is home to a significant population of endemic black lechwe, which is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The population has increased from 35,000 in 2010 to about 50,000 today.
Bangweulu is home to more than 400 bird species, including cormorants, ducks, egrets, geese, herons, ibises, pygmy goose, and waders. Its most famous resident is the elusive shoebill stork, a vulnerable species threatened by habitat loss, competition with fisheries, wildlife trade, and other disturbances. But the globally significant wetlands also contain over 10 percent of the planet’s wattled cranes. When it comes to smaller avian species, the highly specialised papyrus yellow warbler is considered vulnerable, and collared pratincoles, blue-throated bee-eaters, and several species of flufftails also find refuge in the wetlands. Bangweulu’s unique avifauna has led to several international designations: Bangweulu is a “Wetlands of International Importance” under the RAMSAR Convention and an “Important Bird Area” (BirdLife International).
Conserving shoebill storks: Bangweulu is famous for its shoebill population, and several programmes have been implemented to conserve the enigmatic species. A Shoebill Guard Programme employs local fisherman to ensure the safety of shoebill nests while researchers utilise camera traps to monitor the progress of eggs, chicks, and fledglings. Community cooperation and enhanced awareness have resulted in a marked improvement in the number of nests producing fledglings over the years.
Before African Parks took over Bangweulu’s management, heavy poaching decimated the park’s large mammals. Some species were completely wiped out: lion, cheetah, and black rhino all suffered this fate. Others clung on through small remnant populations. Recent translocations bolstered these populations: in 2017, 250 animals that included impala and zebra were released into the wetlands, and in 2019, we translocated 95 buffalo from another Zambian park to increase genetic diversity in Bangweulu. In the future, once conditions become sufficiently favourable, we hope to restore the full suite of large mammal species to Bangweulu.
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