As one of Africa’s greatest wetland systems, Bangweulu is home to a significant population of endemic black lechwe and an important breeding area for shoebill. It is also a unique model for African Parks in that it is not a national park, but rather a Game Management Area, where the land belongs to the local communities who live within it and have rights to fish and harvest resources from it. It is an environment where wildlife and communities are inextricably dependent on one another for survival and a good example of how biodiversity can deliver socio-economic benefits to rural communities.
Bangweulu is a local word meaning “where the water meets the sky” and represents the vast stretches of seasonally flooded grasslands and huge virgin miombo woodlands. The swamp areas are dominated by extensive stands of papyrus and Phragmites reeds which create a vast and lush wetland landscape.
Since African Parks took over management of the park in 2008, there has been a strong recovery in some of the wetlands’ most iconic species, including sitatunga, black lechwe and shoebill.
The area is home to spotted hyaena, side-striped jackal, as well as serval.
Mammal censuses have revealed healthy populations of black lechwe, sitatunga, southern reedbuck, tsessebe and oribi. Hippopotamus are also found in the area. Large mammal populations have otherwise been much reduced but there are remnant populations of buffalo, elephant, roan and hartebeest. Populations of puku, waterbuck, zebra and impala have been established in the Nkondo area.
A population of 433 bird species
With staggering avian diversity, Bangweulu is a globally important habitat for waterbirds, evidenced by its classification as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International, while part of it has been proclaimed a RAMSAR site.
Its most famous resident is the elusive shoebill, but it also holds over 10 percent of the world’s population of wattled crane.
Of the smaller 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.
A pilot fishing ban during the spawning season in one of the community areas has been very successful and has yielded dividends in the form of increasing fish stocks. In addition, the black lechwe population is not only stable but growing, and data indicates that the sitatunga population is healthy and growing too. Several species including serval, puku, impala, zebra and waterbuck were released into Bangweulu to repopulate a section which had previously been depleted of wildlife.
Threatened and Extinct Species
Heavy poaching pressure before African Parks took over the management of Bangweulu had a significant impact on the populations of many large mammal species and only small remnant populations were still in place. Unfortunately, several species such as lion, cheetah and black rhino were wiped out completely. In the future, if conditions become sufficiently favourable, African Parks will look to restore the full suite of large mammal species that previously occurred in the area.
Conserving the shoebill
Bangweulu is famous for its shoebill population, and a number of programmes have been implemented to conserve this enigmatic species. A Shoebill Guard Programme employs local fisherman to ensure the safety of shoebill nests, while a research programme makes use of camera traps to monitor the progress of eggs, chicks and fledgelings. Improved community cooperation and awareness has resulted in a marked improvement in the number of nests producing fledgelings over the years.
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